The Transcontinental Railroad Wouldn’t Have Been Built Without the Hard Work of Chinese Laborers

A new exhibit at the National Museum of American History details this underexamined history

Chinese railway laborers
Chinese laborers at work with pick and shovel wheelbarrows and one horse dump carts filling in under the long secret town trestle which was originally built in 1865 on the Present Souther Pacific Railroad lines of Sacramento. Bettmann / Contributor

“Who else but Americans could drill ten tunnels in mountains 30 feet deep in snow?” In 1969, Transportation Secretary John A. Volpe, addressing a crowd at Promontory, Utah, hailed the ingenuity and derring-do that had revolutionized travel across the young nation. “Who else but Americans,” he asked, “could chisel through miles of solid granite?”

Actually, 10,000 to 20,000 immigrant Chinese laborers had helped forge the Central Pacific’s path over the Sierra Nevada to its historic 1869 meeting with the Union Pacific. The “silent spikes,” as scholars have dubbed the nameless Chinese, had constituted the largest single work force in U.S. industry during the mid-19th century—only to be erased from the retelling of their feat.

Beginning May 10, on the transcontinental sesquicentennial, the Smithsonian's National Museum of American History honors the grit of those Chinese laborers. The new installation “Hidden Workers, Forgotten Lives” features artifacts of the era—a Chinese worker’s hat, a soy sauce jug—that document the adaptability of the migrants and their influence on the culture at large. A companion display addresses the ways in which the railroad transformed the American West while also bisecting Native American lands and destroying wildlife habitats. “If one argues that history is sort of a prism—that you look at the past in order to understand the present and the future—go no further than the transcontinental railroad,” says Smithsonian curator Peter Liebhold.

The reassessment continues during Utah’s yearlong Spike 150 celebration, which will feature a performance of Gold Mountain, a new musical headlined by an Asian-American cast, and the world premiere of an orchestral work by Chinese composer Zhou Tian.

May also marks the publication of Ghosts of Gold Mountain, a groundbreaking history of Chinese railroad workers by Stanford scholar Gordon H. Chang. Given that the university’s founder, Leland Stanford, was both a critic of Chinese immigration as California governor and a beneficiary of Chinese labor as president of the Central Pacific, Chang views the 150th anniversary as the perfect occasion for rethinking the central role immigrants have played in the nation’s story.

After all, he asks, “What could be more American than to build a railroad?”

Forgotten Workers: Chinese Migrants and the Building of the Transcontinental Railroad” is on view from May 10, 2019, through spring 2020 at the National Museum of American History.

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