The state assembly of California has declared May 10th, the anniversary of the completion of the world’s first transcontinental rail line, to now be “California Chinese Railroad Workers Memorial Day”. This proclamation is in recognition of the estimated 15,000 Chinese workers who helped build that route. On May 10th, 1869, at Promontory Summit, Utah Territory, the westward Union Pacific Railroad met the eastward Central Pacific Railroad, based in California, uniting the two coasts of the United States by rail. Over 80% of the Central Pacific’s laborers were Chinese.
The Central Pacific Railroad first began construction from the Pacific coast in 1863. The Union Pacific could not start westward from Omaha, Nebraska, until mid-1865, as the US Civil War had previously tied up resources in the eastern and southern sections of the nation. In that year of 1865, the Central Pacific began to recruit Chinese workers, primarily from South China (Guangdong province).
Facing prejudice and the dangerous working conditions of the Sierra Nevada Mountains, the Chinese workers were integral to the success of the Central Pacific. That company was effectively in a race with the Union Pacific to lay the most rail track prior to their meeting, as each mile unlocked government subsidies and land grants. In one work day, the Chinese workers of the Central Pacific set a world record by laying 10 miles of track. However, an estimated 1,200 Chinese laborers lost their lives working in the Sierra Nevadas alone, dying from accidents, explosions, and avalanches.
The story of the Chinese rail workers has become more prominent in historical writing, with a current project at Stanford University dedicated to preserving and telling their history. Their stories were also featured in the last season of the AMC series Hell on Wheels (2011-2016), with the lead character Cullen Bohannon (Anson Mount) switching from the Union Pacific to the Central Pacific. Thru his participation with that company, viewers were able to learn more about the contributions of the Chinese workers. In this AMC-produced clip from 2015, some of that history is discussed:
The author of the California resolution, Assembly member Evan Low, stated that, “The thousands of Chinese immigrants who risked their lives to build the Transcontinental Railroad faced prejudice, unsafe working conditions and low wages. Their sacrifice and courage must never be forgotten.” In 2014, the Chinese rail workers were inducted into the Labor Hall of Honor by the US Department of Labor, in recognition of their struggle for better working conditions.
(Copyright – Chad Beharriell)