Construction of the transcontinental railroad began on January 8, 1863 in Sacramento, when workers at the Central Pacific Railroad first opened the line. Eleven months later, their Midwestern counterparts, Union Pacific Railroad workers, began to innovate in Omaha.
Running to meet in the middle, they completed the project in 1869. With raw labor, engineering know-how, and little heavy equipment, they conquered some of the most intimidating terrain in the country. The work included leveling steep mountain walls, building bridges across vast canyons, and blasting tunnels through solid granite.
It was widely seen as an American triumph – the railroad significantly expanded the American economy by opening up opportunities in the American West. But there was also a dark side to the historic national project. The railroad was completed by the sweat and muscles of tapped labor, it wiped out populations of buffalo, which had been essential to indigenous communities, and it stretched over land that had been illegally seized from tribal nations.
READ MORE: 10 Ways The Transcontinental Railroad Changed America
Chinese workers dominated the workforce
As the transcontinental railroad enjoyed wide support – from President Abraham Lincoln, Congress, business leaders and investors – finding enough workers among America’s white working class to take on the grueling and dangerous work turned out to be difficult. Many Irish immigrants and other white workers who moved west instead chose to go into farming or mining.
In January 1865, Central Pacific published an advertisement seeking 5,000 railway workers. Several hundred white workers responded, according to historians Gordon H. Chang and Shelley Fisher Fishkin in their book The Chinese and the Railroad: Building the Transcontinental Railroad, but the work required many more hands. Railway companies have therefore started to recruit from abroad, with a particular focus on China.
The first Chinese railway workers (a team of 21 men) arrived in the United States in 1864; Ultimately, it is estimated that around 20,000 Chinese workers participated in the project, constituting the majority of the workforce. Most were from Guangdong province in southern China, fleeing the opium wars in their country. They were joined in the effort by African Americans, Irish, and a smaller number of Native Americans and Mormons (now called members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints).
The treatment and working conditions of each group varied considerably. According to researchers at Stanford University’s Chinese Railroad Workers in North America Project, Chinese workers earned between half and two-thirds of what Euro-American workers earned and had to pay for their food. In the summer of 1867, thousands of Chinese workers staged the largest work stoppage in America until that date to demand both equal pay and better working conditions. The railway bosses ultimately broke the strike by refusing food rations and threatening violence, and the workers’ demands were rejected. But their repression showed that the Chinese were not docile workers reluctant to fight for their rights. “They learned that the Chinese cannot be taken for granted,” Hilton Obenzinger of Stanford University told NBC News.
While Chinese workers dominated the railroad workforce in the West, most railways in the East and South relied on black Americans to do the back-breaking construction work. Before emancipation, companies owned, hired or hired slave laborers, both male and female, according to Ted Kornweibel, author of Railways in the African-American experience. After emancipation and the Civil War, newly liberated black Americans, looking for an alternative to sharecropping or dead-end domestic service, sought employment on the western railroad crews. Like Chinese workers, they face large wage disparities and are often subjected to the worst working conditions.
Once the railroads became operational, they served many functions: as firefighters shoveling coal into train engines, as brakemen and switchers, baggage and freight handlers, and as as porters and servers. Despite the modest salary, work on the railroads was considered stable and respectable work for newly released black American men, a fact noted in the blues song “Berta”. “When you get married, marry a railroad worker,” the lyrics say. “Every Sunday, a dollar in hand.
READ MORE: Building the Transcontinental Railroad: How 20,000 Chinese Immigrants Got There
Dangerous working conditions
One of the reasons it was so difficult to recruit rail workers was that the work was inherently dangerous and isolating. The landscape was rugged, the living conditions primitive and the weather often extreme. Harsh winters in the mountains brought the regular threat of avalanches, while brutal summer temperatures in the desert terrain could reach up to 120 degrees Fahrenheit, causing workers to collapse from dehydration and heatstroke.
One of the most dangerous areas on the route was Sierra Nevada’s Cape Horn, a notoriously steep peak that required the railway platform to wind around the mountain. Teams composed mostly of Chinese workers would be tasked with removing rocks, trees and brush from the almost perpendicular slope of the mountain. And some are said to have descended from the top of the cliff using rope or in woven reed baskets to chip away at the rock face to free up space for the explosives – which they lit before reporting that they had to be quickly reassembled. Any imprecision or delay in pulling them out resulted in death.
Although the railways have not kept records of worker deaths, as many as 1,000 are believed to have died as a result of accidental explosions and snow or rock slides, Stanford researchers say.
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Railroad devastated bison herds and Native American way of life
To facilitate the passage of the railroad through the central and western regions of the country, the government granted millions of acres of land to the railroad companies that were actually owned by tribal nations. The way was laid on 15 separate tribal homelands, according to the Utah State History Division. Not only did the construction displace Indians from their land, but it decimated a crucial resource: the buffalo, traditionally hunted by Plains tribes such as the Lakota, Arapaho and Cheyenne for food, shelter and fire. trade.
According to the National Parks Service, the bison population grew from tens of millions at the start of the 19th century to near extinction after being hunted by soldiers, railway workers and travelers as the railroad progressed. . The loss of a resource so integrated into their way of life ultimately worsened Indigenous peoples’ dependence on the US government.
Some displaced tribes resisted occupation of their land by attacking railway camps and disrupting construction. The US government therefore deployed the military to protect the vast public-private investment. To avoid skirmishes, the railroad companies frequently called on General William Tecumseh Sherman, a notorious Civil War chief charged with protecting the railroads, to send troops. Some of the military’s actions turned into large-scale attacks on native villages, such as the Sand Creek Massacre in 1864, which killed over 200 tribal members, mostly women and children.
Not all tribes have been affected in the same way. Some bands in the Central Plains Pawnee Nation, for example, have cooperated with the US government, working as scouts and helping to defend railroad yards from their historic tribal enemies.
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Chinese workers’ contributions have been ignored
Efforts to portray the transcontinental railroad as a grand project created by and for white Americans began moments after the railroad’s completion in 1869, when a token Golden Spike was driven into the ground at Promontory Summit, Utah, where the rails built by the Central Pacific and Union Pacific met. Although the majority of the railway workers came from China, they were excluded from official documentation of the ceremony marking the completion of the project. The official photo shows two engineers shaking hands, surrounded by workers with bottles of champagne. None of the workers in the photo were Chinese.
“History – at least photographically – says the Chinese weren’t there,” the late photographer Corky Lee told NPR in 2014. This erasure would continue into the centennial of the transcontinental railroad in 1969. Despite the efforts deployed by the descendants of Chinese railway workers to demand recognition for the work of their ancestors, then Transport Secretary John A. Volpe did not credit the immigrant workers in his speech, saying instead: ” Who else but the Americans could dig through miles of solid granite? Who else but the Americans could have laid 10 miles of track in 12 hours? “
Since then, the US government and historians have worked to include the stories of the Chinese while recounting the creation of the railroad. In 2019, in honor of the 150th anniversary of the Golden Spike ceremony, Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao paid tribute to Chinese workers who, in her words, “risked everything to make the transcontinental railroad a reality” .