The desert of far northwestern Utah stretches 60 miles from the arid border of Nevada to the saline-crusted shores of the Great Salt Lake. The terrain is exceedingly flat, punctuated only by the intermittent dry arroyo, rocky hill or volcanic cinder cone. Horned lizards and jack rabbits dart between thorny shrubs and scrawny box elder trees. Apart from the occasional cattle ranch or sheep-herding camp, the landscape appears desolate and lonely, forgotten in the expanse of geologic time.
But in a place called Terrace, identified today by little more than a single, bullet-ridden informational sign staked into the desert soil, a close look reveals a colorful story camouflaged in the sand. Scattered among dunes and tumbleweeds are small glass bottles, ceramic jars and abandoned wooden railroad ties, clues to a surprising history.
From outside a small excavation pit, Karen Kwan and Margaret Yee watch as a researcher carefully extracts a scrap of linen clothing from the buried ruins of a house. A few yards away, another researcher brushes dirt from a ceramic bowl intricately painted with bamboo and floral motifs.
Terrace was established by Chinese railroad workers in 1869, when construction crews were racing to connect the eastward and westward tracks of the railroad 70 miles from here at Promontory Summit. Eventually, simple wood structures rose on both sides of Main Street, housing hotels, clothing stores, restaurants, railroad machine shops, even a 1,000-volume library specializing in science, history and travel literature. Because water was scarce, engineers constructed an aqueduct from hollowed-out timber, funneling water from mountain springs that were miles away. At its peak, the town was home to some 500 residents, and it welcomed hundreds more each year, mostly rail and wagon-train travelers.
In 1903, Terrace burned in a fire, and after the railroad was rerouted 50 miles south—straight across the Great Salt Lake—the following year, the town was abandoned. But researchers have returned, seeing the ghost town as an ideal site to learn not only about the workings of a remote railroad town but especially about the immigrant community that thrived here. “Terrace had all the different activities that you would expect in a frontier town,” says Michael Sheehan, an archaeologist with the U.S. Bureau of Land Management. “But it wasn’t just a railroad town. It was a microcosm that offers a glimpse into class, ethnicity, even international relations.” For descendants of Chinese railroad workers, such as Kwan and Yee, the research also allows them to recover a part of their heritage that was thought lost to history. “Archaeology like this is important,” Kwan says, “because it puts the individual back into the picture.”
The dream of a single, continuous railroad that would unite America’s east and west coasts dates back to the 1830s, not long after the introduction of the country’s first steam locomotive. A transcontinental railroad would shrink a dangerous, cross-country wagon-train journey of six months or more to less than a week, and it would open vast stretches of the West to new settlement. But it wasn’t until 1862, in the midst of the Civil War, that Abraham Lincoln signed into law the Pacific Railway Act, which finally undertook to make that dream a reality. “There is nothing more important before the nation,” he’d once said, “than the building of the railroad to the Pacific.”
The legislation granted huge swaths of federal land and substantial funds to the Central Pacific and Union Pacific railroad companies to connect Sacramento to the nation’s existing rail network terminus in Nebraska. Both railroad companies held ceremonial groundbreakings in 1863, complete with crowds, bands and parades, but the war prevented real construction from getting underway until 1865.
That spring, James Strobridge, the Central Pacific’s construction supervisor, put an ad in the Sacramento Union seeking 5,000 skilled laborers to begin blasting a path through the High Sierra. Given the job’s punishing conditions, no more than a few hundred people even replied, most of them, Strobridge later said, “unsteady men” who “would stay a few days . . . until pay-day, get a little money, get drunk, and clear out.”
Faced with a herculean project and no workforce, a railroad official named E.B. Crocker proposed a controversial plan to bring on a 50-person crew of Chinese workers who’d immigrated to California to mine for gold. According to Chris Merritt, an archaeologist and Utah state preservation official, most railroad officials believed the Chinese workers were “unskilled” and “too feminine for hard labor,” but the crew swiftly set records for rail laying. So the railroad dispatched recruitment emissaries to China’s rural Guangdong Province, which was then plagued by a civil war. “Southern China was in turmoil,” says Gordon Chang, a historian at Stanford University and the author of 2019’s Ghosts of Gold Mountain: The Epic Story of the Chinese Who Built the Transcontinental Railroad. “Wars, ethnic conflicts and economic insecurity were scourges, and young people were leaving to seek work and support their families from afar.”
Altogether, the Central Pacific Railroad hired an estimated 12,000 Chinese workers, some as young as 12. The Chinese workers, at that time the largest industrial workforce in American history, made up 90 percent of the Central Pacific’s total labor force. (The Union Pacific, by contrast, did not employ Chinese laborers.) But when Chang started looking into the subject as a young historian, in the 1970s, he was shocked to discover that he could find scarcely any information about them. Nearly all of the scholarship about the railroad’s construction centered on the European and American workforces. Chang has devoted much of his career to piecing together their history, and in 2012 he co-founded the Chinese Railroad Workers in North America Project, which now includes the most comprehensive collection of historical documents and oral histories on the subject.
The Chinese workers carried out an exceptional feat. After blasting and cutting through granite in the Sierra Nevada, they expediently laid track across the Great Basin. Chang and other historians attribute their success in part to the diversity of their training. Before migrating to the United States, many Chinese workers were architects, blacksmiths, woodworkers, cooks, doctors and farmers. Their varied skill sets allowed crews to function as miniature communities, capable of tackling complex problems encountered along the railroad grade—not only problems of engineering, such as building railroad trestles, but also maintaining large field camps in the remote desert. It also enabled crews to acquire much-needed supplies, such as cookware, medicine and even food, often imported from China at a cheaper price than could be obtained by the railroad company or in nearby towns, which gouged prices for immigrant workers.
This communal cooperation was critical, because Chinese crews were routinely marginalized, subjected to poor treatment, racist oversight and negligible support from their employers. According to the Central Pacific’s own disclosures, white workers earned $35 a month on top of full room, board and equipment. Chinese workers, by contrast, earned a salary of $30 and nothing else. “Not only were they paid less than their white counterparts,” Chang says. “They also had to pay for their food, supplies and medicine, all of which the railroad company provided to white workers.” What little money the Chinese workers saved, they sent back to their families. Despite these challenges, Chinese crews completed 690 miles of track to meet the Union Pacific builders at Promontory, Utah, in May 1869. “Without employing Chinese workers, the meeting at Promontory Summit would have never happened—period,” Merritt says. Although there were Chinese workers present to lay the final rails, not a single Chinese employee was formally honored at the Promontory ceremony.
After the railroad was completed, thousands of Chinese workers stayed on as employees of the railroad. They were forced to live on the edges of railroad towns and larger cities. White mobs repeatedly attacked Chinese neighborhoods. In Rock Springs, Wyoming, 28 Chinese coal miners (all former railroad workers) were killed in an attack that drove hundreds more from town. In Los Angeles, 18 Chinese residents were lynched in a single day, including at least one child. Reno, Nevada’s Chinatown was burned to the ground twice in 30 years. “Almost every Chinese community in the western United States in the 19th century suffered destruction,” says Chang. “Fire and forced expulsion was their lot.” In formal censuses, the U.S. government often recorded Chinese immigrants living in railroad towns simply as “Chinaman” or “Chinawoman” in place of their names. They were barred from obtaining citizenship, and the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 prohibited further immigration, which prevented many railroad workers from reconnecting with their families.
Those who returned to China faced challenges of their own, sometimes preferring not to speak about their experiences. In time, personal histories recorded in diaries or letters home were lost, or were likely destroyed during the Chinese Cultural Revolution, in 1966, when such documents could have been branded as anti-nationalist and disloyal to the Communist government.
Between the community’s exclusion in the United States and the upheaval it faced in China, its history slowly vanished. Of the 12,000 Chinese workers employed by the railroad, researchers have identified the names of just a few dozen. Still, their impact on establishing Chinese communities across the American West is unmistakable. Shortly before the start of the railroad project, census records estimated that there were 34,933 Chinese immigrants living in the country. By the time the railroad was completed, the population had nearly doubled, as family members joined relatives in places like Terrace or in other newly formed Chinese communities. By 1880, 105,465 Chinese immigrants had settled in the United States, forming anchors for many of the modern-day Chinatowns found today across the West.
Chris Merritt was walking through the remains of Terrace a few years ago, doing a general archaeological survey of Utah’s railroad towns, when he saw what looked like a dense concentration of Chinese artifacts eroding out of a log-lined depression in the ground. Located at the edge of town, these finds strongly indicated that he’d found Terrace’s Chinese neighborhood. After Merritt and Ken Cannon, an archaeologist whose team specializes in remote sensing, confirmed several buried structures using ground-penetrating radar, Merritt and Sheehan, of the Bureau of Land Management, spoke with local descendants of railroad workers in Salt Lake City, including Karen Kwan, president of the Chinese Railroad Workers Descendants Association and Utah’s first Chinese American state representative, about a collaborative project to assist the descendant community in rekindling a connection to their past.
In the fall of 2020, researchers, preservation officials and several volunteers, including descendants of Chinese workers, returned to Terrace. Instead of focusing on the most obvious architectural features around the site—heaps of bricks and earthen depressions marking the foundations and basements of Main Street—the archaeologists would focus on the Chinese neighborhood. In particular, they planned to conduct the first ever complete excavation of a house for Chinese workers along the railroad line.
Within moments of breaking ground, the team was astonished by the artifacts they encountered, which were remarkably well preserved in the arid climate. Broken rice bowls depicting intricate bamboo leaf paintings (a type known as bamboo style, made in the Pearl River Delta in southern China) connected the occupants to their original home province. The handle of a traditional Chinese soupspoon indicated that rather than using readily available pewter cutlery, the workers took extreme care in transporting fragile implements across the globe. “The items that are there, my ancestor, my great-great-great-grandfather may have touched, may have owned,” Kwan said. “To me it feels personal.”
The archaeologists also found glass gaming pieces from Go, the Chinese strategy game, which had been lost underneath the house’s floorboards, as well as silk fabric from a torn garment, the leather sole of a child’s shoe, an apparent Buddhist altar built from a wooden crate, and an inkstone used for drafting correspondence. The inkstone left a particular impression on Merritt. “This one piece transcends the objective world we often build in archaeology,” he told me. “It was owned by a literate man who left home, and he sat in Terrace and wrote letters to his family, who he maybe never saw again. I sit here and wonder, ‘Did his letters ever make it home?’”
Sifting the soil, the researchers also discovered melon seeds, peanut shells, desiccated dates and fish bones, some of which appear to come from China. With the help of recent funding from the Register of Professional Archaeologists, Cannon will continue to study the food and resource connections between Terrace and mainland China by analyzing animal bones, charred seeds and plant pollen from the site—all part of a larger project to understand how Chinese workers supported themselves through trade that stretched across the Pacific. By examining connections between the Terrace workers and their home villages, the archaeologists hope to shed light on the reciprocal support that must have helped sustain both communities through difficult circumstances.
One of the most surprising discoveries was made not in the Chinese district but on Main Street. While cataloging glass bottles, the team uncovered pieces of soy sauce containers, rice wine bottles and Chinese teacups near the remains of an unidentified building. Given the density of Chinese-specific food-related objects, Merritt and Sheehan believe they stumbled across a Chinese business, possibly a restaurant, laundry or grocery store that was never mentioned in official Terrace records. This exciting discovery suggests that while much of the Chinese population in Terrace lived on the periphery, they were also more involved in the central community than previously thought. “While we know there was a clear segregation between the two populations,” says Sheehan, “this business in the middle of Main Street shows us that the two communities must have been more integrated on a deeper level.”
But not everything they found was cause for celebration. The researchers noticed shovel holes dug into building foundations and carefully sorted piles of broken artifacts on the ground—signs that amateur collectors and treasure hunters have scoured the ghost town for valuables. Sheehan bemoaned the crucial pieces of history that could be lost. “When people take an artifact out of context and put it on a mantel, it ends up in a landfill someday,” he said. For Kwan, the lack of protective oversight was personal. “It feels as if the government has allowed somebody to come into my property to take something from me.”
Ultimately, the archaeologists and descendant community hope to better protect the site from amateur collectors. The Bureau of Land Management recently constructed a fence around a portion of the site, and in January Kwan introduced legislation in the statehouse to protect archaeological sites and prioritize public education about cultural heritage and conservation. But the researchers acknowledge that, even if the bill is passed, there is only so much formal regulation can do. “Until people can see an artifact as being a rare key to a community’s lost past, and not just a pretty object, they will continue to be taken,” Merritt says.
On the last day of the field season, as researchers prepared the workers’ house for final measurements and photographs before they would refill it with dirt to preserve the structure, several descendants lit incense, which wafted in thick clouds over heaps of fruit, sweets and mandarin cake stacked on a table next to the excavation pits. The descendants bowed one by one over the structure, in respect and remembrance for their relatives and the sacrifices they made while working in this remote town. Margaret Yee, who owns Utah’s oldest operating Chinese restaurant, had prepared a lunch of fried rice, noodles, wontons and short ribs as a gesture of thanks to the researchers who are helping her community reconnect with its heritage. Yee’s family has worked as cooks since they first arrived to help construct the railroad. Unpacking a container of rice as dust-covered researchers lined up at her cook tent, she smiled and said, “I feel connected to my family today. Together, we are continuing their story.”
Editor's Note, April 11, 2023: An earlier version of this story did not make clear that some Chinese rail workers attended the Golden Spike ceremony in their role as laborers.