CNN

Remembering the migrant workers who built the transcontinental railroad

May 12, 2019, 9:51 AM
railroad workers immigrant migrants...
Chinese railroad workers were paid less than other works and had to cover the cost of their own housing, clothes and food. Photo: National Park Service

(CNN) — Before highways, planes, trains and automobiles made crossing the United States a breeze, the completion of the transcontinental railroad in May 1869 was a defining moment in the country’s history — and immigrant labor made it possible.

Thousands of workers from a variety of ethnic and cultural backgrounds labored in grueling terrain and conditions to connect the Atlantic and Pacific. Most of them were Chinese workers who were paid less for their labor than their European counterparts.

For years, railroad workers were largely overlooked in memorial events marking the railroad’s completion. This year, however, their contributions and descendents are more visible than ever in 150th anniversary celebrations.

Friday marked the sesquicentennial of the Golden Spike Ceremony on May 10, 1869, in what was then Utah Territory where the Central Pacific and Union Pacific Railroads were joined.

“The Transcontinental Railroad was a tremendous feat of engineering, innovation and manpower that was key to unleashing the economic prosperity of the United States for generations,” US Secretary of Transportation Elaine Chao, whose parents are of Chinese descent, said Friday in a reenactment of the ceremony at Golden Spike National Historic Park in Promontory, Utah.

In addition to Chinese workers and Latter-Day Saints who worked for Central Pacific, Irish immigrants fleeing famine and newly freed slaves laid track across the Great Plains for the Union Pacific Railroad.

The anniversary was an occasion to commemorate “the contribution and sacrifices of the railroad workers,” including the estimated 12,000-15,000 Chinese laborers “who risked everything to make the Transcontinental Railroad a reality,” Chao said.

Before the transatlantic railroad, train travel was available from points east to as far as St. Louis, Missouri. Anything west of the Mississippi River required travel by wagon, a trip that could take anywhere from three to six months.

After the railroad was built, it took about seven days and as little as $65 to ride from New York to San Francisco.

When California’s gold fields lured men away from railroad work, Central Pacific started hiring Chinese workers. “These workers of Chinese ancestry blasted and chiseled their way through the rugged Sierra Nevada mountains, using manual hammer drills, pick axes and explosives. They dug 15 tunnels through pure hard granite,” Chao said.

“Snow fell so deeply that they had to build roofs over 37 miles of track so supply trains could make it through. The conditions were merciless, dangerous and harsh.”

Yet, even after the Chinese workers reached wage parity, they still had to pay for their own housing, clothes and food, unlike other workers.

Chinese workers are said to have laid the last rails to complete the line at the Golden Spike Ceremony before dignitaries tapped four precious metal spikes into a polished tie made from California Laurelwood.

The tie bore a silver plaque that included the officers and directors of Central Pacific along with the names of the tie maker and the donor.

The spikes were symbols of the “elites” who presided over the ceremony,” Stanford University history professor Gordon Chang said.

They directed attention “to the business people, political people who were prominent at the time,” Chang told the Salt Lake Tribune. “And they forget about the people who actually did the work on the Central Pacific — the Chinese.”

This year, however, the Chinese Railroad Workers Descendants Association and other cultural groups championed visibility of railroad workers in events and official celebrations throughout the week.

Chinese workers were included for the first time in the annual reenactment of the driving of the Golden Spike. A lion dance was performed at the start of the Golden Spike Ceremony.

“The railroad laborers and innovators of 150 years ago helped unite our country,” Chao said.

The-CNN-Wire
™ & © 2019 Cable News Network, Inc., a Time Warner Company. All rights reserved.

Today’s Top Stories

CNN

Joseph Petito, father of Gabby Petito, speaks during a news conference on Tuesday, September 28, 20...
Jennifer Henderson, CNN

Florida judge allows lawsuit filed by Gabby Petito’s parents against Brian Laundrie’s parents to proceed

A lawsuit filed by Gabby Petito's parents will move forward, a Florida judge ruled Thursday. The lawsuit is against the parents of Brian Laundrie.
1 day ago
Immigration activists rally outside the US Supreme Court in Washington, DC on April 26. Photo credi...
Tierney Sneed and Priscilla Alvarez, CNN

Supreme Court says Biden can end Trump-era ‘Remain in Mexico’ immigration policy

The Supreme Court on Thursday gave President Joe Biden the green light to end the controversial "Remain in Mexico" immigration policy.
1 day ago
Justice Stephen Breyer and President Joe Biden....
Ariane de Vogue, CNN Supreme Court Reporter

Breyer makes it official: He’s leaving the Supreme Court on Thursday at noon

In a letter to President Joe Biden, Breyer said it had been his "great honor" to participate as a judge in the "effort to maintain our Constitution and the Rule of Law."
2 days ago
Image of the new summer treat: Ketchup-flavored popsicles (Photo courtesy of French's)...
Zoe Sottile, CNN

The newest, weirdest summer treat is a ketchup-flavored popsicle

A Canadian ketchup brand has launched an unusual twist on a popular summer treat: Ketchup-flavored popsicles.
4 days ago
...
Tim Lister, Julia Kesaieva, Salma Abdelaziz, Pierre Bairin and Jeevan Ravindran, CNN

Russian missiles hit Kyiv as G7 summit begins in Europe

G7 summit begins in Germany, as Russia hits Kyiv with a series of missile attacks.
5 days ago
American Airlines planes sit at gates at Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport (DCA) in Arlingt...
Chuck Johnston, CNN

More than 700 flights canceled Sunday

Across the United States on Sunday, more than 700 flights were canceled, according to the website FlightAware.
5 days ago

Sponsored Articles

Tax Harassment...
Jordan Wilcox

The best strategies for dealing with IRS tax harassment | You have options!

Learn how to deal with IRS tax harassment. This guide will teach you how to stop IRS phone calls and letters, and how to handle an IRS audit.
spend a day at Bear Lake...
Bear Lake Convention and Visitors Bureau

You’ll love spending the day at Bear Lake | How to spend a day at Bear Lake

Bear Lake is a place that needs to be experienced. Spend a day at Bear Lake.
Curb Appeal...
Price's Guaranteed Doors

How to have the best of both worlds for your house | Home security and curb appeal

Protect your home and improve its curb appeal with the latest security solutions like beautiful garage doors and increased security systems.
Prescription opioids can be disposed of during National Prescription Take Back Day...
Know Your Script

Prescription opioid misuse | How to protect your family from the opioid epidemic

Studies have shown that prescription opioid misuse has increased since COVID-19. So what do you need to know about these opioids?
national heart month...
Intermountain Healthcare

National Heart Month: 5 Lifestyle Changes to Make Today to Keep You Heart Healthy

Heart disease is the leading cause of death for both men and women. One person dies every 36 seconds in the United States from cardiovascular disease
Joseph Smith Memorial Building...
Temple Square

The Joseph Smith Memorial Building is an icon of Salt Lake City | Why hosting an event at this beautiful location will make you a hero this year

Here's why hosting an event at the iconic Joseph Smith Memorial Building in downtown Salt Lake City will make you a hero this year.
Remembering the migrant workers who built the transcontinental railroad