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Transcontinental Railroad Construction and Chinese Laborers in the U.S. Congressional Serial Set

Suping Lu

Professor and Library Liaison, University of Nebraska-Lincoln

Readex's ambitious digitalization of the U.S. Congressional Serial Set has provided unprecedented and convenient access to a mountain of valuable source materials. The abundant and wide variety of information contained in the Congressional Serial Set serves many different disciplines, including Asian Studies and Asian American Studies. The contribution that Chinese laborers made to building the transcontinental railroad is one of the many interesting topics documented in the Set.

In 1845, a proposal for building a transcontinental railroad was presented to the Congress. The significance of having a transcontinental railroad connecting the Atlantic and Pacific was first presented from a military perspective: "It would enable us in the short space of eight days (and perhaps less) to concentrate all the forces of our vast country at any point, from Maine to Oregon, in the interior or on the coast."[1] The railroad would also favorably affect American life in terms of both passenger and commodity transportation. "Such easy and rapid communication, with such facilities for exchanging the different products of the different parts, would bring all our immensely wide-spread population together as one vast city, the moral and social effects of which must harmonize all together as one family, with but one interest — the general good of all."[2]

The benefit of such a railroad was by no means limited to domestic life. International trade would be greatly encouraged. The distance from New York to the closest Chinese seaport Amoy (present-day Xiamen) could be shortened to 9,200 miles, and covering the distance "with a railroad to the Pacific, thence to China by steam, can be performed in 30 days, now being a sailing distance of nearly 17,000 miles, requiring from 100 to 150 days for its performance. Then the drills and sheetings of Connecticut, Rhode Island, and Massachusetts, can be transported to China in thirty days, and the teas and rich silks of China in exchange come back to New Orleans, to Charleston, to Washington, to Baltimore, to Philadelphia, to New York, and to Boston, in thirty days more."[3]

The following years witnessed numerous surveys and explorations along potential railroad routes and repeated debates in the Congress before the Pacific Railroad Bill, introduced by Iowa Congressman Samuel Curtis, passed the House of Representatives on May 6, 1862, and the Senate on June 20, 1862. On July 1, 1862, President Abraham Lincoln signed the bill into law, authorizing the construction of the transcontinental railroad. Meanwhile, over the years, as the transcontinental railroad was under consideration, the railroad network of the eastern United States reached as far as eastern Iowa, and then further expanded to Omaha, Nebraska.

The transcontinental railroad consisted of two sections. The eastern part was built by the Union Pacific Railroad from Omaha westward, while the construction of the western portion by the Central Pacific Railroad began in Sacramento, California, toward the east until the two sections met. The Union Pacific Railroad tracks were mostly laid by Irish immigrants. However, a "large majority of the white laboring class on the Pacific coast find more profitable and congenial employment in mining and agricultural pursuits than in railroad work. The greater portion of the laborers employed … are Chinese, who constitute a large element in 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."[4]

On January 8, 1863, California Governor Leland Stanford broke ground in Sacramento for the Central Pacific Railroad construction. Chinese laborers were first employed early in 1864. Even though Chinese laborers participated in building the California Central Railroad around 1858, they were considered by some as being too weak and fragile for railway construction. However, no sooner were they placed on the construction line than they proved adept at their tasks. A decision was soon made by the Central Pacific Railroad to hire as many Chinese workers as possible, and they even went to China to bring in more laborers. Chinese workers were involved in such duties as drilling, blasting and removing huge rocks, building bridges, digging tunnels, and laying tracks. The number of Chinese laborers employed by the Central Pacific Railroad sky-rocketed to 11,000, about 80% of all the workers hired by the Central Pacific Railroad, and that percentage had been maintained until the two sections of the transcontinental railroad joined at Promontory, Utah, on May 10, 1869.

Governor Stanford, who also served as one of the directors of the Central Pacific Railroad, described Chinese laborers in his report to the President of the United States on October 10, 1865:

As a class they are quiet, peaceable, patient, industrious and economical. Ready and apt to learn all the different kinds of work required in railroad building, they soon become as efficient as white laborers. More prudent and economical, they are contented with less wages. We find them organized into societies for mutual aid and assistance. These societies, that count their numbers by thousands, are conducted by shrewd, intelligent business men, who promptly advise their subordinates where employment can be found on the most favorable terms.[5]

An estimate of about 2,000 Chinese laborers lost their lives due to accidents, illness, and other reasons. Most of the dead were buried in shallow graves along the railroad construction line. Charles E. B. Crocker, another director of the Central Pacific Railroad, indicated in a speech in Sacramento on the day of the golden spike, "I wish to call to your minds that the early completion of this railroad we have built has been in large measure due to that poor, despised class laborers called the Chinese — to the fidelity and industry they have shown."[6]

About 130 years later, California Congressman John T. Doolittle made a remark to the House of the Representatives, honoring these Chinese railroad builders:

Without the efforts of the Chinese workers in the building of America's railroads, our development and progress as a nation would have been delayed by years. Their toil in severe weather, cruel working conditions and for meager wages cannot be underestimated. My sentiments and thanks go out to the entire Chinese-American community for its ancestors' contribution to the building of this great Nation.[7]


Works Cited and Consulted

[1] "Memorial of Asa Whitney, of the City of New York, praying a grant of land, to enable him to construct a railroad from Lake Michigan to the Pacific Ocean. January 28, 1845." Referred to the Committee on Roads and Canals, Serial Set Vol. No. 451, Session Vol. No. 3, 28th Congress, 2nd Session, Senate Document 69, p. 1.
[2] Ibid.
[3] Ibid., p. 2.
[4] Message of the President of the United States, and accompanying documents, to the two Houses of Congress, at the commencement of the first session of the Thirty-ninth Congress, 1865, Serial Set Vol. No. 1248, Session Vol. No. 2, 39th Congress, 1st Session, H.Exec.Doc. 1 pt. 2, p. 990.
[5] Ibid.
[6] Quoted in Alexander Saxton's article, "The Army of Canton in the High Sierra," Pacific Historical Review, 35 (May 1966): 151.
[7] John T. Doolittle, "Chinese-American Contribution to Transcontinental Railroad (Extensions of Remarks)," Congressional Record, Vol. 145, Part 6, 106th Congress, 1st Session, April 29, 1999, p. 8003.

Born and raised in China, Suping Lu graduated from Nanjing Teachers University before coming to the United States for further education at the Ohio University and the University of South Carolina. He joined the University of Nebraska-Lincoln faculty in 1994. He is the author of They Were in Nanjing: The Nanjing Massacre Witnessed by American and British Nationals (2004), and the editor of Minnie Vautrin’s Nanjing: Diaries and Correspondence, 1937-38 (2008) and A Mission under Duress: The Nanjing Massacre and Post-Massacre Social Conditions Documented by American Diplomats (2010). He is currently working on his upcoming book, A Dark Page in History: The Nanjing Massacre and Post-Massacre Social Conditions Recorded in British Diplomatic Dispatches, Admiralty Documents, and U.S. Naval Intelligence Reports.

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