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Chinese workers and the first Transcontinental Railroad

By | April 17, 2019

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Workers who built the first Transcontinental Railroad, by hand, in the late 1860s labored through grueling heat, biting winter cold, snow, attacks from Native American tribes, and long, long work days.


Learn how they did it with this excerpt from one of Trains’ newest DVD’s, Journey To Promontory, available from the Kalmbach Hobby Store.


Peter A. Hansen, Railroad History editor:
Central Pacific began employing large numbers of Chinese and it didn’t happen immediately. Charles Crocker hit upon this idea of trying out a Chinese gang. There had been Chinese in California since the gold rush. Some of them had stayed. So Crocker worked with a Chinese contractor, got himself a crew of Chinese. He was widely scoffed at. His response was, “Well, they built the Great Wall, didn’t they?”

Patricia LaBounty, Union Pacific Museum curator: The Chinese crews for Central Pacific were hired on a little bit different labor scheme than the Irish crews for both railroads. So the Chinese crews for Central Pacific were hired on a per diem basis that did not include their room and board. So they were responsible for their own food, their own sleeping arrangements, et cetera. Now, the Irish crews were provided food and board by the railroad, which could mean a tent or a hammock and some beef beans and water. The Chinese crews, on the other hand, were importing their own foodstuffs, their own cooks, and creating their own camps alongside the track.

Margaret Yee, descendant of Central Pacific Railroad worker: And they have a special diet. They work six days a week then on Sunday they have a train from California. One day they can go to shop, they can buy any kind of food they can buy.

Connie Young Yu, Chinese Historical Society of America historian: The Chinese had a very, very good diet and we have, in fact we eat some of those foods now. A key to their good health or staying healthy was the fact they drank boiled water in the form of tea.

Stan Rhine, University of New Mexico: At the time of the construction of these railroads, there wasn’t the kind of emphasis or awareness on health that there is today and so people would drink water out of ditches and out of wells and so forth with no testing and I guess if the water was liquid enough that it didn’t crunch as it went down it was good to drink.

Margaret Yee: Oh, the biggest challenge working on the railroad for my opinion, it is the environment and the work condition because most of the railroad workers are from Southern China, the Guangdong Province, that’s where my ancestors are from, where they never have snow. They didn’t experience snow at all. So you can imagine it’s so difficult for them to get adjust to, so while they’re working in the Sierra Nevada and there’s a harsh winter.

Phil Sexton, California State Parks interpreter: While they were up at the top of the Sierra building this gargantuan effort, the Chinese did attempt to strike. They wanted to be paid 35 dollars a month, the same as the white workers, and they threatened to strike and they actually put down their tools for a little bit. Charlie Crocker, who was the construction foreman, would have none of this and he quickly came up there, he habitually carried an ax handle with him as a visual reinforcement of how tough he was and he made it real clear that as long as they didn’t work that no food would be coming, no trains would run, there was no way that they could return to Sacramento. He quickly broke that strike.

Gene O. Chan, Chan family historian: Remember when they did 10 mile of track in one day, they were working with the Irish. The Irish was putting the planking down, the Chinese were spiking it. They were able, they made that 10 mile a day. So they did work with some Irish.

3 thoughts on “Chinese workers and the first Transcontinental Railroad

  1. very interesting, did not know that many Chinese were already here, thought they came for the RR work. I have been to Chinatown every time I visited San Francisco, as I love the food, very healthy with veggies and hot tea, I don’t like coffee. They were hard workers and had knowledge of explosives which helped. They had some rugged country to go through, I have been over that route with SP section of City of St. Louis a few times, and have marveled at how they did it. My great-grandpa laid track for Frisco in MO after he came from Ireland, but I know many of them liked to drink too much and fight, the Chinese did not. My uncle was alcoholic so I know what the “Irish curse” is.

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