The Central Pacific Railroad is the former name of the railroad network constructed between California and Utah that built eastwards from the West Coast in the 1860’s, to complete the western part of the “First Transcontinental Railroad” in North America. It is now part of the Union Pacific Railroad.
Whilst it was being built, The Central Pacific Railroad (CPRR) struggled to find labour as most “white” workers preferred to work in the mines than the railroad – which was notoriously known for being tough backbreaking work and the mines paid more.
California Governor, Leland Stanford reported to Congress in 1865, “A large majority of the white laboring class on the Pacific Coast find most profitable and congenial employment in mining and agricultural pursuits, than in railroad work. The greater portions of the labourers employed by us are Chinese, who constitute a large element of the population of California. Without them it would be impossible to complete the western portion of this great national enterprise, within the time required by the Acts of Congress.”
Soon the Chinese labour pool from California was exhausted, and the Central Pacific made arrangements with contractors to bring over large numbers of workers directly from China. By July 1865, the workforce from China was nearly 4,000. In February 1867, approximately 8,000 workers from China and those of Chinese descent already settled in America were on the construction team tunneling and 3,000 were laying track, representing ninety percent of the workforce. Historians estimate that at any one time as many as 10,000 to 15,000 workers from China and of Chinese descent were working on constructing the railroad.
For the most part workers from China came from the Guangdong province Guangdong (Canton) province, and predominantly from the regions that suffered most from extreme poverty and civil unrest. Desperate for work, they flocked to the New World of America, departing on ships leaving from the nearby port of Hong Kong.
In the United States the Chinese workers were treated like second class citizens: in the first instance paid less than the white workers though eventually their wage rose to $35 per day, roughly the same as for workers of European descent. However, they worked longer hours and had to pay their headmen or contractors for their own lodging and food and even for their tools; on the other hand, the Central Pacific and Union Pacific provided ‘white’ workers accommodation, food, and tools at no additional cost.
In 1865 the workforce from China were deployed to begin working on 15 tunnels at altitude in the Sierra Nevada’s. The project were masterminded and supervised by the engineer Lewis Clement. The longest tunnel was the summit tunnel which was 1659ft long through solid granite. The tunnel was dug from both ends and from the middle as a shaft was created in the mountain. It was tough, backbreaking work and there were many casualties. Twenty four hours a day, workers were lowered down to precarious condition below into the shaft via a pulley system of ropes. Many accounts, noted from the early twentieth century, told of Chinese workers hanging over sheer precipices in straw baskets to chip away holes for explosives. Once they lit the fuse, they signaled to be hastily drawn up to avoid the blast, a very risky operation, and many would lose their lives if the basket was not drawn up fast enough.
A disproportional number of Chinese workers were engaged in this kind of work, potentially down to laborers from Guangdong more likely to have experience working at great heights for building roads and structures along the River Yangtze, as well as climbing tall trees to gather delicacies for cooking. It is therefore fair to conclude, though not assume, they may have been more comfortable hanging by ropes and baskets during construction.
Work continued through two of the worst winters on record between 1865 – 1867, with avalanches wiping out entire camps of workers, snow blocking tunnels and unrelenting treacherous conditions. Forty four snow storms were reported to hit one winter, with over 18 feet of snow at the summit. These conditions forced the Central Pacific to build 37 miles of snow sheds to cover the tracks nicknamed, “the longest barn in the world.”
The Central Pacific did not keep records of workers deaths on the railroad though historians estimate between 500 to 1000 Chinese were killed as a result of snow slides, landslides, explosions, falls and other accidents. The Chinese practice was to bury the deceased in temporary graves, eventually sending the remains to China to be buried in the workers’ home village. One newspaper article entitled “Bones in Transit” dated June 30, 1870 in the Sacramento Reporter reported ‘about 20,000 pounds of bones’ dug up from shallow graves were taken by train for return to China, calculating that this amounted to 1,200 people.
Progress was slow and dangerous. Although there are no records of exactly how many people died, workers were regularly killed in accidents, explosions, avalanches and from the cold.
Explosives were routinely employed, at times nitroglycerine though it was extremely unstable and therefore dangerous. It would explode if knocked was frequently the cause of fatal accidents. In 1867 transportation of the liquid became illegal following accidents causing the explosion of a panama steamer and destruction a block in down town San Francisco that caused a blast so destructive that Body parts were found hundreds of meters from the blast site. The biggest revolution for Central Pacific came upon discovery that nitroglycerine could be mixed on site and meant up to 500kegs of explosives could be utilised per day, blasting through the granite rocks.
The Culture of Resistance
Food was so important that Chinese cooks were paid more than unskilled workers. The workers insisted on eating Chinese foods: rice, dried vegetables, dried oysters, dried abalone fish, and some pork and poultry, much of which was sourced from California such as the fresh vegetables. They also drank tea and hot water, occasionally wine and opium. In contrast, the Irish or ‘white’ workers were fed mainly meat and potatoes along with whiskey. The Chinese diet and particularly the use of boiled water reduced the outbreak of dysentery and other diseases.
By the summer, in June 1867 several thousand of the workers from China had mobilized to go on strike to for an increase in pay from $35 to $40 per month alongside a reduced working day to 8 hours. On June 30, the Daily Alta California reports of the strike beginning the previous Tuesday (June 25). The Chinese strikers’ demands are reported in the San Francisco Dispatch, July 1, 1867, and the Boston Daily Evening Voice, August 5, 1867. The strikes lasted about a week, during which management, headed by Crocker and Strobridge, cut off food trains to starve the workers out which in the end meant the strike was unsuccessful. On July 3, the Daily Alta California relays Charles Crocker’s report that with the exception of 1 or 2 gangs, all workers have resumed working with no change in pay.
When the railroad was finally completed, some workers went back to China; whilst others went to work in agriculture, mining, building levees along the rivers or migrated to Chinatowns in Sacramento, San Francisco, and the small towns in the Sierras to find employment within domestic service or in manufacturing. A small percentage continued to work for the Central Pacific upgrading the hasty construction, such as filling in land to remove a trestle and there were also jobs to be found working on the railroad from Sacramento down San Joaquin Valley to Los Angeles as well as building the Southern Pacific and Northern Pacific Railroads, and other railroads throughout the West and even in the East of the country.
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