Chinese Transcontinental Railroad Workers

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Chinese Transcontinental Railroad Workers

In the mid-nineteenth century, large numbers of Chinese men immigrated to the United States in search of better futures for themselves and the families they left behind. From 1864 to 1869, somewhere between ten thousand and twenty thousand of these immigrants were responsible for a major part of the western construction of the transcontinental railroad, which spanned the country from the Atlantic coast to the Pacific coast. These workers gained the respect of many who worked with them, but strong anti-Asian sentiments in the United States, due mainly to uninformed opinions, kept most of the Chinese on the outskirts of American society. Few records remained of the individual men who accomplished this overwhelming task through courage and discipline, and there were no known first-person accounts, such as memoirs or letters, left by the railroad workers.

"The greater portion of the laborers employed by us are Chinese…. 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."

Leland Stanford.

Troubles in China: Why they came

China is one of the world's oldest cultures. For thousands of years, under a series of long-term ruling families, the Chinese developed a highly advanced culture in which the arts, philosophy, science, commerce, and the military flourished. After initial contacts with other nations were made in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, China tried to isolate itself from foreigners, viewing Europeans in particular as barbarians and inferiors. In the early nineteenth century, the English became aggressive in their pursuit of trade with China, and this eventually led to two devastating wars. The Chinese lost the wars and were forced to open their ports to Europeans.

War was only one of the problems the Chinese people faced in the early- to mid-nineteenth century. China's population had soared from about 150 million people in 1700 to 400 million in 1850. Over the same period of time China had experienced major floods and droughts (shortages of rain), and its farms were unable to feed the rapidly growing population. Life for the huge peasant class (people who worked the soil for a living as renters, small landowners, or laborers) in China had always been difficult, but at this time it became particularly grim and many people had no food to feed their families. Rebel groups arose around the country, and in the Taiping Rebellion (1851–64), a violent conflict between the peasants and the Chinese rulers, an estimated twenty million to thirty million people were killed.

For many Chinese the situation in their homeland was unbearable. Some families in the Kuangtung Province, where the capital city and port of Canton was located, began to prepare their sons to travel to other lands to find work. Though the Chinese government banned all emigration, it was not difficult for a young man to get from Canton to the island of Hong Kong, where his long voyage would begin. These young men promised to make their fortune and return with desperately needed money for their families. Until 1850 very few of them went to the United States, but when news reached China of the 1848 discovery of gold in California, thousands of Chinese men set out on the seven-thousand-mile voyage to the state, which they called Gum Sam, or "Gold Mountain."

The sojourners

Almost all of the immigrants from China arriving in California between 1850 and 1900 planned to return to their native country. They were called sojourners (people who stayed as temporary residents) because they had no intention of remaining in the United States, though many did. Almost all Chinese immigrants were male because most Chinese did not believe women should act independently of their families. In Chinese society, when a woman married she went to live with her husband and his parents. If the husband left to go to the United States, she was expected to remain under the control of her mother-in-law.

The Trip to the United States

Most of the young Chinese males traveling to the United States around 1850 were from poor peasant families who did not have enough money to pay for the trip. Tickets on a ship from Hong Kong to San Francisco, California, usually cost more than a Chinese family's income for a full year. To pay to send a son overseas, Chinese families sold precious property or livestock and usually had to borrow money as well. The young men knew that if they did not make their fortunes and return to repay the loans, their families would face terrible consequences. Trying to pay back the loans on their own, many would be forced to sell their meager homes and belongings, and some would starve. Soon Chinese companies were established for the sole purpose of lending money for passage to emigrants, which was to be paid back later with interest (a percentage of the sum borrowed). These companies became very powerful, and some forced the new arrivals in the United States into gang labor to pay their debt. In later decades recruiters from American businesses, particularly the railroads, came to China in search of laborers and offered to pay the young men's passage in exchange for their agreement to work for a set amount of time.

The eight-week journey from China to California was dangerous, and conditions aboard the ships were unhealthy and cramped. Unable to pay for more comfortable quarters, the young Chinese immigrants were crammed into overcrowded spaces below the ship's deck, often wedged in between machinery that emitted dirty smoke. There were not enough toilet facilities for all the passengers and there was no place to clean up. People became sick and the smell was often unbearable. Epidemics of infectious diseases often spread in the close quarters.

The young Chinese men who came to California were likely to practice one of the primary Chinese religions: ancestor worship, Confucianism, Taoism, and Buddhism. Confucianism was based on the idea that one's role in life was set at birth and must be carried out. It stressed respect for elders and people of higher rank. Taoism and Buddhism were ways of thinking and living to help one find inner peace and a spiritual path. Chinese spiritual beliefs were strong and profoundly influenced the young men who arrived in the United States. Most were extremely loyal to their ancestors, villages, and families and were highly disciplined. They were less likely to complain about their workload and more likely to perform difficult and dangerous jobs quietly. They usually did not drink alcohol. These traits made Chinese immigrants desirable to employers, but they also made them seem threatening to other workers who feared the Chinese might take their jobs.

The Chinese immigrants had a difficult time fitting into American society. They practiced unfamiliar religions, spoke an unknown language, and looked, dressed, and acted different than the rest of the population. In China at the time, all males were required to wear their hair in a long braid called a queue, in honor of Chinese tradition. For Chinese sojourners the queue was important because without it they could not go home. Because they were treated with suspicion and hostility in the new country, they tended to stick together, living in small Chinese communities and keeping to their own customs.

Arriving in California

As soon as word of the California gold rush reached China, thousands of young men set off for the United States. By 1850 there were an estimated 4,000 Chinese people in the country, and ten years later there were nearly 35,000. In 1890 the census recorded more than 100,000 Chinese in America. Ninety-five percent of this population was male.

The earliest immigrants arrived in San Francisco and quickly headed for the goldfields. At first they were welcomed. Because most did not have much money with which to purchase a claim (the right to mine for gold in a small area), they frequently worked as cooks or servants in the gold camps. Some Chinese miners pooled their funds and bought claims that other miners had abandoned, and they were often able to find gold where others had not. Not long after the early immigrants arrived, however, public sentiment turned against the Chinese. Miners who were not finding gold resented the success of some of the Chinese. There was almost no law and order in the camps, and some of the miners began to attack the Chinese. In 1850 the California government passed a foreign miners' tax, demanding $20 a month from Chinese and Mexican miners. By the 1860s the gold rush was over. Like so many gold seekers in California, most of the Chinese miners had not made large amounts of money. About half of the early Chinese sojourners returned to China. Some who longed to go home could not bear the disgrace of returning without the fortune they had been sent to America to find, so they stayed in the United States and sought work elsewhere.

An opportunity to work: the transcontinental railroad

In 1862 Congress passed the Pacific Railroad Act, in which the government committed federal funds toward the creation of a transcontinental railroad. Two companies, the Central Pacific and the Union Pacific, were selected to build the railroad. Construction on the Central Pacific lines was to begin in Sacramento, California, and work its way east, while the Union Pacific construction would begin in Omaha, Nebraska, and work its way west. At some point the two companies and the tracks they were laying would meet. Because there was government money for the company that laid the most tracks, the two railroads viewed the huge project as a race.

The Central Pacific Railroad began construction in 1863, but two years later only about fifty miles of tracks had been laid. The construction was under the direction of Central Pacific partner Charles Crocker (1822–1888) and his project supervisor, James Strobridge (1827–1921). Their biggest problem was a lack of willing workers. Their crew barely amounted to eight hundred men, and the managers of the project figured they needed about five thousand to complete the job. Most of their laborers were Irish immigrants, and many worked only long enough to get passage west so they could go to work in the Nevada silver mines. Only about one in ten of the men that were hired stayed on the job longer than a week.

At the time there were about forty-two thousand young Chinese males living in California, and some had worked on the construction of smaller railroads in the state. The Chinese faced harsh anti-Asian prejudice that excluded them from many jobs, so many were anxiously seeking work. Strobridge did not want to hire a Chinese crew, but at Crocker's urging he hired a group of fifty Chinese workers in 1865 and he found them to be quick, dedicated, reliable workers able to successfully complete all the various tasks of construction. Soon the Central Pacific was seeking Chinese laborers throughout California and even in China. By 1867 Chinese workers represented between 80 and 90 percent of the Central Pacific Railroad workforce.

Working conditions

The Chinese workers received from $26 to $35 a month, from which they had to buy their own food. The Irish laborers received more than the Chinese: about $35 a month with food provided. The workweek was exhausting, consisting of six twelve-hour days. The Chinese workers on the railroad lived separately from the other laborers. They were organized into groups of about twenty men. Each group had a leader who collected their wages from the railroad, took out a portion for their food and supplies, and then gave the workers their fair share of what was left. Each group also had a cook, who obtained their food and prepared their meals. The Irish workers viewed the food the Chinese ate with disgust. Their diet, which was actually very healthy, included dried oysters and cuttlefish (a squid-like marine animal), vegetables, dried fruit, chicken, mushrooms, and dried seaweed. The cooks worked with railroad management to special order these foods at the Chinese workers' expense. The Chinese workers never drank plain water; instead they drank warm tea. The cook would carry it to them at their work site throughout the day. Since the water in the tea had been boiled, the Chinese did not get the illnesses caused by unsanitary water that affected many other workers. When the work crews finished for the day, the cook had a large tub of hot water to distribute to them so that each could bathe using a sponge, which was also considered odd by the other workers.

The rough road ahead

Just west of Sacramento the foothills of the rugged Sierra Nevada Mountains began their ascent. In the fall of 1865 the Central Pacific crew faced the task of laying tracks over ground that rose in a rocky wall from sea level to an elevation of seven thousand feet in just one hundred miles. Their job had to be done mainly by hand, with picks and axes and occasionally explosives. Blasting a ledge for the roadbed one thousand feet above the American River at Cape Horn took six months of dangerous and physically exhausting work.

When the crew finally reached the summit of the mountains they faced an even tougher challenge: digging and blasting many tunnels through the granite walls. The workers used only handheld drills, explosives, and shovels to dig and hand carts to carry the loose rock from the tunnels. Some of the granite was so hard even blasting would not make it give way. The workers persisted, chipping away at the rock even when they were only making eight to ten inches of progress a day. The overseers assigned crews to shifts so that work could continue day and night. Soon everyone was weary and run-down. The longest summit tunnel was nearly 1,700 feet long and took more than two years to finish. There were fifteen summit tunnels, totaling about 6,213 feet, when the project was finished. Work on the tunnels became much easier when the railroad began manufacturing nitroglycerin (a heavy, explosive liquid) at the worksite that was capable of blasting through even the toughest granite.

The winter of 1866–67 featured some of the most severe weather on record. More than forty feet of snow fell as the Central Pacific crew worked. The laborers slept in the tunnels they were digging or in rough shacks that were completely buried in snow. They cleared the areas around the chimneys of the shacks to create air vents and then lived in the dark. Long tunnels ran from their camps to the work sites. Avalanches (snow slides) killed entire gangs of workers.

In 1867 two thousand Chinese workers in the Sierra Nevadas walked off their jobs, going on strike for better pay and shorter working hours. The strikers were peaceful, simply stating their demands and quietly awaiting a decision. Crocker cut off their pay and stopped supplies from reaching them, leaving them alone at the work site for one week. The Chinese had little choice but to agree to Crocker's conditions. The conditions did include a small raise, but no relief from the long workdays.

By the summer of 1868 the construction crew had broken through the mountains and was heading to the desert regions of Nevada and Utah. There the tired Chinese workers, most of whom had now been on the job for three years, faced very different weather, with the temperature dropping well below freezing at night and then rising above 120 degrees Fahrenheit during the day. Fortunately, an end was in sight. The Central Pacific Railroad met the Union Pacific at Promontory Point in Utah on May 10, 1869. Chinese workers were not invited to many of the festivities marking the completion of the nation's first transcontinental railroad, but several tributes were made to them. Many of the country's railroad managers, journalists, and politicians had come to appreciate the essential role the Chinese workers had played in American history.

No one knows how many Chinese workers died building the Central Pacific Railroad. Most accounts suggested there were more than one thousand Chinese deaths and estimates range up to two thousand. Some historians, however, believed these numbers were greatly exaggerated and that as few as one hundred Chinese workers died during the construction of the railroad.

The bachelor society

After the transcontinental railroad was done, Chinese workers took up factory, handicraft, and retail work in cities. Many opened small businesses such as laundries, restaurants, and grocery stores. Three-fourths of all Chinese immigrants in the United States in 1870 lived in California, with a large number concentrated in San Francisco. Chinatowns of all sizes appeared along the West Coast. Most began with a temple and a cluster of stores. These immigrants formed what became known to Chinese and Americans alike as the "bachelor society" because they had no wives and children with them and remained isolated from the rest of American society. Since they had no family obligations, the men often passed the time by gathering in gambling rooms to play games and bet on the outcomes.

Anti-Asian feelings increased in the 1870s. As the U.S. economy took a turn for the worse and many workers were out of jobs, politicians spoke out against what they called the "Yellow Peril," claiming that Asian workers were invading the country and taking work away from white men. In truth the number of Chinese workers remained relatively small. Nevertheless, mobs in Los Angeles, San Francisco, and other cities in the West attacked Chinese communities, often killing or severely beating the residents. In 1882 the federal government passed the Chinese Exclusion Act, which prevented Chinese workers from entering the country. It was the first time the nation had restricted immigration. The Chinese population of the country dropped significantly after that. Many of the Chinese workers who had been instrumental in building the transcontinental railroad went back to China. Those who opted to stay, perhaps hoping that they could make their fortune or that the 1882 immigration law would be overturned, lived out their lives in the bachelor societies of U.S. Chinatowns.

For More Information


Ambrose, Stephen. Nothing Like It in the World: The Men Who Built the Transcontinental Railroad, 1863–1869. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2001.

Chew, William F. Nameless Builders of the Transcontinental Railroad. Victoria, British Columbia, Canada: Trafford Publishing, 2004.

Perl, Lila. To the Gold Mountain: The Story of the Chinese Who Built the Transcontinental Railroad. New York: Benchmark Books, 2002.


Chugg, Robert. "The Chinese and the Transcontinental Railroad." The Brown Quarterly (Spring 1997). This article can also be found online at (accessed on July 7, 2005).

Web Sites

"Chinese Contribution to the Transcontinental Railroad." Central Pacific Railroad Photographic History Museum. (accessed on July 7, 2005).

"Transcontinental Railroad." American Experience: PBS. (accessed on July 7, 2005).

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Chinese Transcontinental Railroad Workers

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