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The Transcontinental Railroad was a creation that captivated the nation; a herculean dream born of the need for faster, less costly transport of goods and people across our vast country. Thousands of workers toiled on the Transcontinental. Chief among them were Chinese immigrants, without whose contribution the dream would not have been realized.
As construction of the Transcontinental began in 1863, the Central Pacific hoped to employ over 5,000 men. A year later, only 600 were on its payroll. Somewhat reluctantly, the railroad turned to the large Chinese immigrant community in northern California. The Chinese answered the call. By 1866, they comprised virtually 90% of Central Pacific employees.
The first Chinese were hired to do the dangerous work of blasting and laying ties over the treacherous terrain of the high Sierras. Their knowledge of explosives was crucial in completing difficult segments of the road. Chinese workers often were given the most dangerous and strenuous jobs, and they had the highest death rate among workers on the Transcontinental.
The Chinese faced racism from society and the railroad. They were forced to live in exclusive settlements known as Chinatowns, and their wages from the Central Pacific were about half of what their white counterparts made. These discriminatory practices worked to discourage assimilation and to preserve Chinese culture. Few Chinese workers spoke English. They imported their own food into the camps and received a constant supply of hot tea from specially chosen cooks. Their exclusive diet, coupled with their rigorous hygiene routine, continually kept them in better health than non-Chines workers. Chinese workers also maintained a sense of community through immigrant organizations called Tongs which existed throughout the Central Pacific work camps.
On May 10, 1869, completion of the Transcontinental Railroad was celebrated with the Golden Spike ceremony in Promontory Point, Utah. The grand vision to span the continent had been realized, reducing travel time coast-to-coast from months to weeks. The contribution of the Chinese laborer had proven to be invaluable. Their dedication and willingness to accept undesirable jobs had earned the respect of Central Pacific management and place in American history.
“When it is remember that this immense stretch of road [from Truckee to Promontory] has been built in a trifle over a year (the material for construction and rolling stock having to be transported by sea a distance of 14,000 miles and then forwarded through desert wastes for other hundreds), the achievement can but strike one with wonder, and none but those who have actually traversed it and for themselves witness the reality, can fully realize it."
The Daily Bee; Sacramento, California; Thursday, May 13, 1869
Zheng He and
The Transcontinental Railroad
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