Remembering Historic Achievements: Chinese Railroad Workers in America

Archaeologists are learning about the lives of thousands of Chinese workers who endured racism and other hardships while helping to build North America’s great railroads in the nineteenth century.

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Chinese crews lay track for the Central Pacific Railroad along the Humbolt Plains in Nevada in this historical photo. Credit: alfred hart / library of congress, LC-1s00618v
Chinese crews lay track for the Central Pacific Railroad along the Humbolt Plains in Nevada in this historical photo. Credit: alfred hart / library of congress, LC-1s00618v

Spring 2017: By Julian Smith.

On May 10, 1869, a crowd cheered as former California governor Leland Stanford hammered home a ceremonial golden spike at Promontory Point, Utah, marking the completion of the First Transcontinental Railroad. Linking the Central Pacific Railroad and Union Pacific Railroad lines was one of the most important civil engineering projects in American history, turning a six-month journey into a six-day trip. But there is something missing from the most famous photo of the event: amid the engineers shaking hands and workers standing on locomotives with bottles of champagne, there is not a single Chinese face.

Chinese laborers made up the vast majority of the workforce on the major rail lines that were laid across the U.S. and Canada in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Tens of thousands of men, mostly recent immigrants, helped lay thousands of miles of track. It was dangerous, backbreaking work, involving cutting roadbeds across cliff faces and blasting tunnels through solid rock in the far reaches of a foreign country with strong xenophobic tendencies.

“The railroad story is a foundational element in Chinese-American history,” said Gordon Chang of Stanford University. “As a fourth-generation Chinese-American, I’ve been interested in it from my earliest days.” Yet today little is known about the Chinese workers’ experience, how they adapted to their new environment and lived day to day while laboring to create something that would change North America forever. They left virtually no written records behind, at least that historians can find. Archaeologists have only looked at a few of the hundreds of sites rail workers left along the lines, and until very recently there was no concerted effort to organize what is known on the topic.

Stanford made his fortune investing in the railroad before he founded the university that bears his name, so it’s fitting that Stanford University was where Chang and literary scholar Shelly Fisher Fishkin launched the Chinese Railroad Workers in North America Project in 2012. The interdisciplinary effort aims to collect and study the existing historical and archaeological research, with the goal of helping to plan future efforts and making the work more accessible to scholars and the public both here and in China.

Excerpt.

Read More in our SPRING 2017 Issue of American Archaeology, Vol. 20 No. 4. Browse Content of this Issue: SPRING 2017. Browse Article Excerpts from our last issue, WINTER 16-17 .

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