The Transcontinental Railroad: Chinese Immigrant Railroad Workers

WORLD HISTORY | February 13, 2019

Montana: Chinese laborers during building of Northern Pacific Railroad. 1,500 Chinese helped to complete the job. Source: (gettyimages.com)

During the Civil War, Congress authorized the construction of a transcontinental railroad. The railroad would connect the east to the west, spanning 1,800 miles and going through the Rocky and Sierra Nevada Mountain Ranges.

Photo of Chinese immigrants working on the Transcontinental Railroad. Source: (libraries.ucsd.edu)

Finding the Workforce

Building the railroad required more laborers than even existed in America at the time. In the mid-1800s, the turmoil in China led many to emigrate to California. Most were married men who planned to return to China. The Central Pacific Railroad labor force, over the course of two years, grew to 13,500 employees with 12,000 of them being Chinese immigrants.

Chinese immigrants removing rocks and trees to lay railroad ties. Source: (asamnews.com)

Dangerous Work

The work was backbreaking. Everything had to be done by hand with hammers, crowbars, and pickaxes. Debris was carried out in carts. They had to dig out tree roots. When they reached the mountains, the work became increasingly dangerous. To make the rail bed on the mountain ridges, Chinese immigrants were lowered in baskets to insert dynamite. During this time, 3,000 immigrants lived and worked in the tunnels underneath forty-foot snowdrifts. There were many accidents and even avalanches which left approximately 1,200 of the Chinese immigrants dead.

Painting depicting the completion of the Transcontinental Railroad. Source: (pinterest.com)

Finishing the Job

Even though the Chinese did most of the work, they received very little recognition for it. Leland Stanford, who was one of the visionaries for the Transcontinental Railroad, did not even mention them in his speech. They did allow some of the Chinese workers to, ceremoniously, lay the last rail to connect the east and west. The railroad was completed in 1869.

Illustration depicting the terrible treatment and discrimination of the Chinese immigrants. Source: (youtube.com)


While the Chinese immigrants were working for the railroad, they were paid around thirty dollars a month for twelve hour days, six days a week, providing their own food and shelter. White workers received thirty-five dollars a month and were provided with food and tents. Even though the Chinese were instrumental in the completion of the railroad, the prejudice towards them became even worse. California enacted the Chinese Exclusion Act, which suspended immigration for ten years, then renewed in 1902. California also put in place several laws which included extra taxes and segregation of the Chinese population.

Chinese Railroad Worker Monument in California. Source: (youtube.com)

Long Over-Due Recognition

Chinese immigrants of the 1800s are now receiving the recognition they deserve for the many contributions they have made to the progress of America.

Tags: Chinese Immigrant Railroad Workers, 1800s, chinese immigrants, Transcontinental Railroad

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