Courage, Determination Forged
Foundation for Chinese-American Labor
(This article was first published in the May/June 2004 issue of The American Postal Worker magazine.)
Like many others seeking a better life in America, the Chinese workers who helped build the Transcontinental Railroad in the 1860s suffered workplace exploitation and discrimination. And many decades would pass before they would begin to find justice, equality, and a piece of the American dream.
When the Civil War ended in 1865, the United States redoubled its efforts to build an almost 1,800-mile railroad from Omaha to San Francisco, an unprecedented feat of engineering and human will that became the greatest construction project the world had ever known.
In the era before chain saws and steam shovels, the construction involved backbreaking labor for both man and mule: Cutting trees to clear the way and milling the lumber to create ties, trestles and other structures; breaking rocks and hauling dirt to build grades, as well as laying ties and track.
To speed construction, Congress created a competition between two companies. Every foot of track laid meant more money and land to one and less to the other.
The Union Pacific Railroad was to race east-to-west across the Great Plains and through passes in the Rocky Mountains. The Central Pacific Railroad was to race west-to-east via a much more difficult route through California’s Sierra Nevada Mountains, bridging deep gorges, battling heavy snows, and tunneling through the steep granite ridges. Because California lacked a sufficient industrial base, the west-to-east route posed additional logistical problems. Locomotives and rails had to be shipped around South America or dropped off in Panama and carted across the isthmus. The other alternative was a slow haul across the southern plains and deserts. In addition, the Central Pacific faced a chronic shortage of workers willing to do the job.
The Laborer’s Life
By the late 1850s, about 60,000 Chinese workers were already in California, many of whom had been lured from their homeland by American labor agents promising high wages for work in California’s mines. Like others who sought their fortune in the American West during the Gold Rush, their initial hopes didn’t pan out.
The Chinese workers, however, were routinely subjected to threats, thievery and violence with little or no legal protection. They were forced to kick back a hefty portion of their wages to labor agents, and to pay a $20 per month “foreign miner’s tax,” which left them with little reward for their labor.
Chinese workers were also denied citizenship, prohibited from testifying in court, and subjected to state-sponsored discrimination that deprived them of many rights and opportunities. Promising to protect the state from “the dregs of Asia” in 1862, California Gov. Leland Stanford discouraged immigration and the use of Chinese labor.
Stanford, by then president of the fledgling Central Pacific Railroad, would later change his tune.
Bigoted railroad construction bosses were initially reluctant to hire them, but the Chinese laborers soon showed their mettle, proving to be quite capable and brave workers who were given the most laborious and dangerous tasks.
However effective the Chinese crews were, it wasn’t enough for the company bosses. Their workdays were stretched, and they were forced to constantly produce more for their pay. At peak construction, more than 80 percent of the western railroad’s 15,000 workers were Chinese; virtually all of them were disrespected, threatened and abused.
In late May 1867, many Chinese workers had had enough. As the railroad struggled to complete the Summit Tunnel through the mountains’ crest, 6,000 went on strike, demanding the same higher pay and shorter hours afforded to white workers. They also demanded an end to what the Sacramento Union newspaper described as “the right of the overseers of the company to either whip them or restrain them from leaving the road when they desire to seek other employment.”
The Central Pacific Response
The CP responded by trying to flood the market with cheap labor and by trying to pit various ethnic groups against each other. “The truth is the Chinamen are getting smart,” wrote Edwin Crocker to a fellow CP executive.“The only safe way to beat them is to inundate this state and Nevada with Freedman, Chinese, Japanese, all kinds of labor, so that men come to work for us instead of us hunting them.”
Crocker was especially keen on the Freedman, the recently freed slaves. “A Negro labor force,” he noted, “would tend to keep the Chinese quiet as the Chinese have kept the Irishmen quiet.”
But faced with a loss of land and money to its westbound competitor, the company recognized its inability to quickly recruit more workers and instead got tough. It sent in Crocker’s brother Charles, a notorious construction boss whose philosophy was, “Rule them with an iron hand.” Backed by a well-armed posse of strikebreakers, he sealed off the workers’ camp, cutting off their wages, food and other provisions.
The Chinese workers tried to negotiate, but the company stood firm. After nearly a month, the workers were divided, forced to choose between going back to work or suffering hunger and violence. When the company promised to protect those willing to return to their jobs, the strike was broken.
Though the strikers did not prevail, the workers gained respect, proving that collectively, they were a force to be reckoned with.
Two years after the strike, on May 10, 1869, the two railroads met in northern Utah, at Promontory Point. An eight-man Chinese crew, given the honor of laying the last section of rail, watched Leland Stanford drive the final spike.
Hundreds of Chinese workers had died in construction blasts, cave-ins, and avalanches. Some of the survivors returned to mining or went on to build other railroad lines in the American west and in Canada. Others returned to California to face a fight for dignity, respect, and equality – even within the labor movement – that lasted many more decades.
The Chinese workers were not the only group to be exploited while building the Transcontinental Railroad. Irish and African-American workers, along with Mormons and others were exploited and cheated of their wages. For Native Americans, the railroad meant the theft of their land and the end of a way of life.
But the railroad helped to bind together a great country that, incrementally and still incompletely, has become perhaps the most egalitarian and democratic nation the world has ever known. These struggles continue.