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FROM-- SET FIVE, CIVIL WAR STUDIES

The Transcontinental Railroad-- Article #2--Chinese Immigration and Labor for the Railway

History in America Click Here to Return to the Transcontinental Railway Building Page

                                  Chinese workers in the snow constructing the first transcontinental railroad.

Article #2-- Transcontinental Railroad-- Chinese Labor Vital

Check also the Page for Chinese Immigration/ Culture, and Chinese History

 

 

 

 

 

 

Chinese Workers were hired to do the very heavy work at much lower pay and with fewer limitations on health, safety and hours.

1

After the gold rush wound down in the 1860s, the majority of the work force found jobs in the railroad industry.

2

Chinese labor was integral to the construction of the First Transcontinental Railroad, which linked the railway network of the Eastern United States with California on the Pacific coast.  Click Here to read about Chinese Immigration for Railway Labor

3

Construction began in 1863 at the terminal points of Omaha, Nebraska and Sacramento, California, and the two sections were merged and ceremonially completed on May 10, 1869, at the famous "golden spike" event at Promontory Summit, Utah.

4

It created a nationwide mechanized transportation network that revolutionized the population and economy of the American West. This network caused the wagon trains of previous decades to become obsolete, exchanging it for a modern transportation system.

5

The building of the railway required enormous labor in the crossing of plains and high mountains by the Union Pacific Railroad and Central Pacific Railroad, the two privately chartered federally backed enterprises that built the line westward and eastward respectively.

6

Since there was a lack of white European construction workers, in 1865 a large number of Chinese workers were recruited from the silver mines, as well as later contract workers from China.

7

The idea for the use of Chinese labor came from the manager of the Central Pacific Railroad, Charles Crocker, who at first had trouble persuading his business partners of the fact that the mostly weedy, slender looking Chinese workers, some contemptuously called "Crocker's pets", were suitable for the heavy physical work.

8

For the Central Pacific Railroad, hiring Chinese as opposed to whites kept labor costs down by a third, since the company would not pay their board or lodging. This type of steep wage inequality was commonplace at the time.

9

Eventually Crocker overcame shortages of manpower and money by hiring Chinese immigrants to do much of the back-breaking and dangerous labor. He drove the workers to the point of exhaustion, in the process setting records for laying track and finishing the project seven years ahead of the government's deadline.

10

The Central Pacific track was constructed primarily by Chinese immigrants. Even though at first they were thought to be too weak or fragile to do this type of work, after the first day in which Chinese were on the line, the decision was made to hire as many as could be found in California (where most were gold miners or in service industries such as laundries and kitchens). Many more were imported from China.

11

Most of the men received between one and three dollars per day, but the workers from China received much less. Eventually, they went on strike and gained small increases in salary.

12

The route laid not only had to go across rivers and canyons, which had to be bridged, but also through two mountain ranges—the Sierra Nevada and the Rocky Mountains—where tunnels had to be created. The explosions had caused many of the Chinese laborers to lose their lives.

13

Due to the wide expanse of the work, the construction had to be carried out at times in the extreme heat and also in other times in the bitter winter cold. So harsh were the conditions that sometimes even entire camps were buried under avalanches.

14

The Central Pacific made great progress along the Sacramento Valley. However construction was slowed, first by the foothills of the Sierra Nevada, then by the mountains themselves and most importantly by winter snowstorms. Consequently, the Central Pacific expanded its efforts to hire immigrant laborers (many of whom were Chinese). The immigrants seemed to be more willing to tolerate the horrible conditions, and progress continued.

15

The increasing necessity for tunneling then began to slow progress of the line yet again. To combat this, Central Pacific began to use the newly invented and very unstable nitro-glycerin explosives—which accelerated both the rate of construction and the mortality of the Chinese laborers. Appalled by the losses, the Central Pacific began to use less volatile explosives, and developed a method of placing the explosives in which the Chinese blasters worked from large suspended baskets that were rapidly pulled to safety after the fuses were lit.

16

The well organized Chinese teams still turned out to be highly industrious and exceedingly efficient; at the peak of the construction work, shortly before completion of the railroad, more than 11,000 Chinese were involved with the project.

17

Although the white European workers had higher wages and better working conditions, their share of the workforce was never more than 10 percent.

18

As the Chinese railroad workers lived and worked tirelessly, they also managed the finances associated with their employment, and Central Pacific officials responsible for employing the Chinese, even those at first opposed to the hiring policy, came to appreciate the cleanliness and reliability of this group of laborers.

19

After 1869, the Southern Pacific Railroad and Northwestern Pacific Railroad led the expansion of the railway network further into the American West, and many of the Chinese who had built the transcontinental railroad remained active in building the railways.

20

After several projects were completed, many of the Chinese workers relocated and looked for employment elsewhere, such as in farming, manufacturing firms, garment industries, and paper mills. However, widespread anti-Chinese discrimination and violence from whites, including riots and murders, drove many into self-employment.


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