Utah breaks ground for monument honoring Chinese railroad workers

Nov 7, 2023, 8:00 PM

Members of the Chinese Railroad Workers Descendants Association and other local leaders pose with s...

Members of the Chinese Railroad Workers Descendants Association and other local leaders pose with shovels as they hold a ceremonial groundbreaking for Utah’s first monument honoring Chinese railroad workers, at the Capitol in Salt Lake City on Tuesday, Nov. 7, 2023. (Scott G Winterton, Deseret News)

(Scott G Winterton, Deseret News)

SALT LAKE CITY — The Chinese Railroad Workers Descendants Association held a ceremonial groundbreaking on Tuesday for Utah’s first monument honoring Chinese railroad workers.

The monument will be at the state capitol’s southeast lawn in Salt Lake City. The association is dedicating it to the over 12,000 Chinese workers who completed the westward portion of the first Transcontinental Railroad.

“They had to work in the hardest conditions, many of our ancestors didn’t make it home,” Chairwoman Margaret Yee said. “Today, we are able to honor them in a way that we have never been able to do here in Utah.”

State officials hope the monument will remind visitors of the crucial role Asian immigrants played in our nation’s history. They endured a difficult path from Nevada to the Great Salt Lake Desert.

The monument will have a plaque that pays tribute to Native Americans, former slaves, and Latter Day Saints, as well as Chinese people who contributed to the work. 

Wilson Lee, who is on the board of directors for the association, is a Chinese descendant of workers on the transcontinental railroad.

“Two members of my family actually were on the transcontinental railroad,” Lee said. “One hundred sixty-one years later, our ancestors are looking down on us on this historical day.”

What will the monument look like?

According to the association, the monument includes materials that symbolize the construction of the Transcontinental Railroad.

The design incorporates the number six. That’s because the railroad was completed in six years, and it’s a good luck number for Chinese people, according to the website.

So, six building materials are used in the design “with six layers of material compressed together.” 

A rendering of the monument.

A rendering of the monument. (Chinese Railroad Workers Descendants Association website)

The corten steel represents the rail line, and the tools workers used. Behind the first layer of corten steel are granite and sandstone slabs. According to the website, they “represent the Sierra Nevada Mountain where the construction of the railroad took place.”

The last main piece of the monument is a stainless steel sheet shaped like Utah. 

Kristine Weller contributed to this story.

Related: Utah Attorney General announces second challenge to national monuments

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Utah breaks ground for monument honoring Chinese railroad workers