Most Americans learn in school that there were Chinese workers on the transcontinental railroad project, but that’s usually where it stops. Chang, professor of humanities and of history at Stanford, the director of the Center for East Asian Studies and co-director of the Chinese Railroad Workers in North America project, has gone to primary sources to shine a light on the lives of the some 20,000 workers who came from China to work on the tracks.
When the Transcontinental Railroad project was put together, a competition arose between the Union Pacific railroad working from the east and the Central Pacific railroad working from the west. They started in 1864 and finished in 1869. Union Pacific had it fairly easy; they covered a lot of fairly flat states. Central Pacific, on the other hand, started at Sacramento and went right up into the Sierra Nevada Mountains. There were no machines to do any of the work; it was all done with shovels and picks, moving rocks and soil in buckets. Differences in elevations had to be smoothed into easy slopes, sharp curves had to be made wider. Once the rail beds were done, ties and steel rails had to be laid. They went right on up through the Donner Pass, working night and day, summer and winter. It was dangerous and horribly hard work. They were paid submarket wages and were treated badly by the whites, especially by the settlers they worked around- settlers afraid the Chinese would want to stay there once the railroad was down.
Not all the Chinese in the project were railroad workers; some were vendors, while some made livings farming and providing familiar foods to the RR workers. While there were very few Chinese women involved in the project, what there were tended to be enslaved as sex workers.
Sadly, no first-hand account has ever been found. Chang has had to resort to ship manifests, immigration lists, business records of the Chinese community, old newspapers, family stories, and oral histories. He’s put together a solid history that, while dry, is good and fairly easy to read. There were sections that I found slow and boring, but most held my interest well. Four stars.