Chinese Rail Workers Strike

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Chinese Rail Workers Strike

United States 1867


Thousands of Chinese immigrant railroad laborers working in California's Sierra Nevada mountain range went on strike against the Central Pacific Railroad in June 1967. They demanded higher wages and a shorter workday and protested the right of overseers to whip them or prohibit them from quitting and seeking alternative employment. While the "Big Four" railroad magnates originally shied away from Chinese labor, "coolies" laboring in severe weather, under cruel working conditions, with pay inferior to that of whites, became the bulk of the western railroad labor force. Amidst a climate of anti-Chinese sentiment, the workers lacked the support of other workers, and the strike failed in one week after the railroad cut off their food supply.


  • 1851: China's T'ai P'ing ("Great Peace") Rebellion begins under the leadership of schoolmaster Hong Xiuquan, who believes himself the younger brother of Jesus Christ. He mobilizes the peasantry against the Manchu emperors in a civil war that will take 20 to 30 million lives over the next 14 years.
  • 1857: The Sepoy Mutiny, an unsuccessful revolt by Indian troops against the British East India Company, begins. As a result of the rebellion, which lasts into 1858, England places India under direct crown rule.
  • 1863: The world's first subway opens, in London.
  • 1867: Dual monarchy is established in Austria-Hungary.
  • 1867: Maximilian surrenders to Mexican forces under Benito Juarez and is executed. Thus ends Napoleon III's dreams for a new French empire in the New World.
  • 1867: The Dominion of Canada is established.
  • 1867: United States purchases Alaska from Russia for $7.2 million.
  • 1867: Meiji Restoration in Japan ends 675 years of rule by the shoguns.
  • 1867: Karl Marx publishes the first volume of Das Kapital.
  • 1871: U.S. troops in the West begin fighting the Apache nation.
  • 1874: As farm wages in Britain plummet, agricultural workers go on strike.
  • 1877: Great Britain's Queen Victoria is proclaimed the empress of India.
  • 1882: The Chinese Exclusion Act, a treaty between the United States and China, provides for restrictions on immigration of Chinese workers.
  • 1884: Chicago's Home Life Insurance Building, designed by William LeBaron Jenney, becomes the world's first sky-scraper.

Event and Its Context

Labor Shortage

In the 1860s, as the Central Pacific (CP) and Union Pacific railroads struggled toward completion of the first transcontinental railroad, management realized the need for a stable workforce. In June 1865 the CP had reached Clipper Gap, at the edge of the Sierra Nevada; cutting through the rock and making the detours necessary for level tracks would be a costly and laborious endeavor. While the railroad offered workers between $1 and $2 daily, European and American workers preferred mining. Men habitually signed on with the CP for free transportation, with nine out of ten abandoning the railroad camps for mining towns after a week's work. Faced with a labor shortage, the railroad reluctantly heeded suggestions by Central Pacific general superintendent Charles Crocker to hire Chinese immigrants. (The idea came from his brother, Judge E. B. Crocker.)

The Chinese in California

Despite evidence of a miniscule Chinese presence in the United States from early colonial times, a Chinese community did not develop until the mid-nineteenth century. Hardships in China and the gold rush in California led Chinese immigrants to strike claims there. In 1849 there were 325 Chinese residents in California; by 1860 there were 34,933. Unable to pay their own passage to America, many Chinese arrived as indentured servants. By 1870 roughly half the Chinese in the United States were working in mining, making up more than a quarter of all miners. The xenophobia meeting the large-scale arrival of Chinese miners led the California state legislature to approve the Foreign Miners' Tax law. The Chinese were also required to obtain a license to work in the mines. In 1862 "An Act to Protect Free White Labor Against Competition with Chinese Coolie Labor, and to Discourage the Immigration of the Chinese into the State of California" established a monthly "police tax" for all adults "of the Mongolian race." As mining opportunities declined, more Chinese turned to the railroads to earn a living.

Chinese Workers on Trial

The Crockers' idea to hire so-called coolies to work on the railroad was at first shunned. The "Big Four" entrepreneurs behind construction (Collis P. Huntington, Mark Hopkins, Leland Stanford, and Charles Crocker) debated whether the physically smaller Chinese would deliver the productivity that management required. Averaging a mere 5 feet in height and weighing only 120 pounds, the Chinese were not considered fit for the job. J. H. Strobridge, the Central Pacific's construction superintendent, refused to "boss Chinese. I will not be responsible for work done on the road by Chinese labor." Stanford nonetheless backed Crocker; since 5,000 laborers were needed "for constant and permanent work," the Chinese were given a chance to prove their worth. A trial group of 50 men in basket hats, blue blouses, and floppy, blue cotton pants showed up to fill dump carts. Despite jeering by their Irish counterparts, the men's careful, methodical approach proved successful, and more Chinese were brought on to do all sorts of excavation and construction work. In one observer's words, they were the perfect workers: fast learners and deft performers, "never becoming drunk, or disorderly, or going on a 'strike.'" Railroad agents scoured California towns for Chinese laborers, and by the fall of 1865 some 3,000 were on the payroll.

Inferior Conditions

Whereas Irish workers received room, board, and $2 a day, "Crocker's pets" worked from sunrise to sunset under hazardous conditions for roughly $1 a day and no room or board (this later rose to $35 a month in the face of competitive mining rates). The only special concession was a varied diet of "exotic" Chinese foodstuffs, which the railroad acquired to sell to workers. The Chinese were organized into gangs averaging 20 men, headed by Irish "riding bosses". The "evil-looking, eye-patched" Strobridge drove the men mercilessly. While the Irish got the most prestigious jobs, the Chinese mostly did the back-breaking work. Their toughest obstacle came at a rocky promontory called Cape Horn. There, suspended on ropes from near-vertical cliffs more than a thousand feet over the American River, the Chinese workers chipped through granite, drilled holes to place explosives, and then raced up the lines to avoid the blast. The work became even more dangerous with the advent of nitroglycerin in 1866. Countless workers disappeared in rock slides and avalanches. In winter, workers were ordered to tunnel through the snowy Donner Summit; they lived in shacks under the snow, and snowslides carried away the camps and many men died, their bodies not found until the spring thaw. Such hazards allegedly inspired the phrase "not a Chinaman's chance."

The Chinese Strike

On 25 June 1867 the Chinese workers initiated a strike. Some 2,000 workers (twice that, by some accounts) simultaneously threw down their picks and shovels and "dissolved into a sullen mob, shuffling back to their encampments." The men demanded treatment equal to white workers, including a raise to $40 dollars per month. They asked that the workday above ground be reduced to 10 hours and that work in the tunnels be put at eight. "Eight hours a day good for white men, all the same good for Chinamen," said one. They called for an end to the right of company overseers "to either whip them or restrain them from leaving the road when they desire to seek other employment." When Strobridge's attempts to bully them back to work failed, he telegraphed Charles Crocker.

The news reportedly came as a surprise to Crocker, who assumed worker relations were excellent. He at first believed the strike was "instigated by Chinese gamblers and opium traders." He then blamed agents of the rival Union Pacific for the strike and its demands in order "to keep us in the mountains while they were building the road over the plains." The walkout came amidst the hardest work on the entire stretch of the railroad, a rocky area between Strong's Canyon and Cisco. "This strike of the chinamen is the hardest blow we have had here," wrote E. B. Crocker. "If we get over this without yielding, it will be all right hereafter." He also recognized that if the Chinese were successful in their demands, they would then be in control and their demands would be increased.

Charles Crocker, the only one of the "Big Four" to have direct contact with the job, confronted some of the "leading Chinamen." He asserted that he would not pay them more than $35 per day. The men reportedly smiled, bowed, and said they would tell their compatriots to return to work. The workers, however, remained in their camps.

Among the few accounts of the actual dynamics of the strike are a series of letters from Judge E. B. Crocker to Huntington during these days of conflict. Departing from the idea that the "Big Four" were the sole masterminds behind the transcontinental railroad, David Haward Bain argues in his book Empire Express that Judge Crocker was also a pivotal force, a uniting factor in times of crisis.

Breaking the Strike

According to E. B. Crocker, the Chinese were "getting smart." Evoking the law of supply and demand, Crocker advocated flooding the western labor market with recently liberated African American workers from the South. The only "safe way" to counter the Chinese demands was to "inundate this state and Nevada with Freedmen, Chinese, Japanese, all kinds of labor, so that men come to us for work instead of us hunting them up." Just as the poorly paid Chinese laborers kept the Irish workers reminded of their own dispensability, Crocker hoped that "a Negro labor force would tend to keep the Chinese quiet. That," he said, was "the only remedy for strikers."

This proposed strikebreaking strategy was feasible. Earlier that year a man by the name of Yates had approached Stanford with the idea of enlisting government assistance to bring thousands of black freedmen to California. Stanford had reportedly told Yates that there would be railroad work for them. Perfectly timed with the Chinese conflict was a newspaper report that Yates was in Washington, D.C., pitching his idea of organizing 5,000 black workers; he was even identified there as an agent of the Central Pacific. E. B. Crocker and Hopkins urged Huntington, who managed the railroad's affairs in the East, to contact Yates and aid his endeavor.

On 27 June workers along the line from Cisco to Truckee Meadows were on strike. Facing Crocker's threats, the Chinese increased their demands to $45 per month. While the plan to bring in black workers failed, Charles Crocker's refusal to meet Chinese demands took a "cruel but effective" course: the railroad stopped supplying the Chinese with food and other provisions. The railroad agents ignored and isolated the men for a week, so as not to "exhibit anxiety." Charles Crocker then gathered the hungry men to tell them he "would not be dictated to" and that he made the rules. Any workers who wanted to work would, from their wages, pay fines for not working; if they refused, the railroad would withhold June wages. The men tried to negotiate, but Crocker refused to grant even a monthly raise of 25 cents. When most Chinese caved in, a few allegedly threatened to whip those who returned to work and set fire to their camps. Crocker, who was accompanied by Strobridge, the sheriff, and "an armed mob of deputized whites," said anyone trying to harm the laborers would be shot. According to E. B. Crocker, the Chinese were "glad to go to work again."

With no support from other workers, the Chinese strike ended without event, and the men went back to "working hard and steady." Thousands more Chinese were brought on to finish the railroad. In 1868 Central Pacific crews finally broke out of the Sierra Nevada. That same year the United States and China signed the Burlingame Treaty, which assured cheap Asian labor for the American market. Over the next decade an average of 12,000 Chinese immigrated to the United States annually.

Key Players

Crocker, Charles (1822-1888): Crocker was an American financier who acted as general superintendent of the Central Pacific Railroad from 1863 to 1869. He is credited with ensuring that the western stretch of the transcontinental railroad was completed seven years before the U.S. government deadline. In 1871 he became president of the Southern Pacific Railroad of California, which merged with the Central Pacific in 1884.

Crocker, Edwin Bryant (1818-1875): E. B. Crocker was the brother of Charles Crocker and the official attorney of the Central Pacific Railroad. A justice of the California Supreme Court, he was credited with using his legal expertise, political connections, diplomacy, and engineering education to maintain unity among the railroad's "Big Four" associates.

Strobridge, James Harvey (1827-1921): Strobridge, a Vermont native, began working for East Coast railroads at age 16 but went to California during the gold rush. He joined the Central Pacific railroad in 1864 and soon headed the entire construction program, directly overseeing workers. Crocker rehired him in 1877 to oversee the second transcontinental line from Los Angeles to New Orleans.

Stanford, Amasa Leland (1824-1893): Stanford was an American industrialist and politician who, after serving as California governor, financed and promoted the Central Pacific Railroad. He served as its president from 1863 to 1893, during construction of the western link of the transcontinental railroad.

See also: Chinese Exclusion Act.



Ambrose, Stephen E. Nothing Like It in the World: The Men Who Built the Transcontinental Railroad, 1865-1869.New York: Simon and Schuster, 2000.

Bain, David Haward. Empire Express: Building the First Transcontinental Railroad. New York: Penguin Putnam, 1999.

Chinn, Thomas W., ed. A History of the Chinese in California: A Syllabus. San Francisco: Chinese Historical Society of America, 1969.

Elish, Dan. Transcontinental Railroad: Triumph of a Dream.Brookfield, CT: Millbrook Press, 1993.

Gale Encyclopedia of U.S. Economic History. Farmington Hills, MI: The Gale Group, 1999.

Rusling, James F. The Great West and Pacific Coast. New York: Sheldon & Company, 1877.

Steiner, Stan. Fusang, the Chinese Who Built America. New York: Harper & Row, 1979.


An Act to Protect Free White Labor against Competition with Chinese Coolie Labor, and to Discourage the Immigration of the Chinese Into the State of California.26 April 1862 [cited 5 October 2002]. <>

Chinese Immigrants and the Building of the Transcontinental Railroad. The Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History. 2001 [cited 5 October 2002]. <>

Emor, Dawn, and David Bushong. "The Transcontinental Railroad: Different Faces behind 'The Work of the Age'" [cited 5 October 2002]. <>

"History of Chinese Americans in the United States."Chinese American Data Center [cited 5 October 2002]. <>

New Perspectives on the West. Episode Five (1868-1874),"The Grandest Enterprise under God: The Artillery of Heaven." 2001 [cited 5 October 2002]. <>

"Rensselaer Alumni Hall of Fame: Edwin Bryant Crocker."Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, 1996-2002 [cited 5 October 2002]. <>

Additional Resources

Central Pacific Railroad Photographic History Museum:Transcontinental Railroad & Photography Books in Print [cited 5 October 2002]. <>

—Brett Allan King

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