APAHM 2014: The Building of the Transcontinental Railroad

It's hard to imagine a journey that now only takes six hours could ever take five or six days, much less five or six months. But prior to the accessible air travel we have today, and prior to the building of the United States transcontinental railroad in the 1860s, getting from one coast of the U.S. to the other was an arduous process. Traveling by stagecoach was costly, time-consuming, required crossing deserts and mountains, and could be quite dangerous. Being able to travel by train would change all of that, and we have engineering to thank for it.

The idea of a railroad to unite the sparsely populated West with the prosperous East had been floated by politicians decades earlier because of the high demand. In 1863, work began on the transcontinental railroad, which would stretch from Council Bluffs, Iowa—the westernmost point of the existing railroads of the East—to Sacramento, Calif. This railroad would span over one thousand miles and cross the Sierra Nevada Mountains and multiple rivers, making it one of the greatest engineering projects in American history.

It was a project completed almost entirely by manual labor. The Union Pacific railroad company—which built the track from Iowa westward—hired mostly Irish laborers, while the Central Pacific—building from California eastward—ultimately hired tens of thousands of emigrant Chinese laborers. It was these workers who laid the railroad track through the Sierra Nevada Mountains, which required working in close quarters with explosives to painstakingly blast their way through the rock, inch by inch.

These tens of thousands of Chinese workers—at one point constituting over 80% of Central Pacific's workforce—have been mostly forgotten, despite their contribution to an enormous feat of civil engineering, the discrimination they suffered, and the terrible hardships they endured. Some American railroad executives were, in fact, at first reluctant to hire Chinese laborers: they viewed the Chinese as unreliable and too small in stature to do manual labor. Even after the Chinese workers proved the railroad companies wrong, they continued to suffer discrimination: while the Irish workers were paid $35 per month and provided housing, the Chinese were only paid at first $27 and then $30 per month but not provided housing. All of this in spite of the freezing temperatures, avalanches, and the dangers of their work that cost perhaps thousands of their lives. The Chinese workers likely put up with these injustices because many of them had come from Guangdong Province in China, which at the time was stricken with poverty and political upheaval. To them, laying tracks for the transcontinental railroad might have seemed a better place to be than back home.

On May 10, 1869, the two railroad tracks met at Promontory Summit, Utah, and the transcontinental railroad was completed. While most Americans have abandoned rail travel for the much faster air travel, let us not forget this feat of modern engineering, nor the tens of thousands of Chinese laborers who risked their lives to complete it. The completion of the transcontinental railroad is one of two events that occurred in May that were the inspiration behind designating this month as Asian-Pacific American Heritage Month.

To learn more about Asian Americans and the completion of the transcontinental railroad, take a look at this resource from PBS and this essay and list of resources from Harvard University. 

Read our other APAHM 2014 blog posts: Asian American Astronauts and Dismantling the Model Minority Stereotype

Image credit: Amon Carter Museum via Smithsonian Institution


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