On a bright May day in 1869, railroad workers, businessmen, and government officials gathered in Utah for an historic event. Soon the ceremonial driving of a solid gold railroad spike would complete a six-year effort at building a railroad across America. Of course, the pricy $350 spike was quickly replaced for safekeeping. Still, it represented the bridging of 3,500 miles of railroad, and thus also symbolized an enormous amount of human labor. Much of this labor was Chinese.
Americans had contemplated constructing a transcontinental railroad since the 1830s. Without an “iron road”, overland travel from the eastern states to the California Territory entailed four to six months of hardship. A railroad would facilitate westward expansion and help realize America’s “manifest destiny”.
In 1862, President Lincoln signed the Pacific Railroad Act. This granted a charter to two railroad companies, the Union Pacific and Central Pacific, for the building of a railway and telegraph line. The companies would work from opposite directions: the Union Pacific would start construction in Omaha, and the Central Pacific would start in Sacramento. The separate projects would eventually meet and become linked.
The companies broke ground in 1863, but their projects didn’t gain full speed after the Civil War ended. In 1866 the Union Pacific increased its labor force with mostly Irish immigrants. The Central Pacific hired more than 25,000 Chinese immigrants to move through the Sierra Nevadas.
Chinese people had ventured to North America as early as 450 A.D. Still, few Chinese resided in North America until the California Gold Rush was publicized. When news of golden soil reached the Chinese mainland, peasants recognized an opportunity to escape poverty. Some men were so destitute that they had sold their children. Earning a few hundred American dollars would allow their families a life of luxury. So, thousands of men boarded tightly packed ships for passage to “the Golden Mountain” of California. The Chinese workers were especially valuable to the Central Pacific Company. With their goal of moving east from Sacramento, they needed an estimated 5,000 workers. There weren’t enough Anglo-Americans available in California, and when men were brought from the eastern states, they tended to take off for adventure! The Central Pacific hired as many Chinese immigrants as they could, and then sent agents to Hong Kong for additional recruits. By the time the rails were joined in Utah, about 90% of the Central Pacific workers were Chinese.
The Chinese immigrants, despite being crucial laborers, were not treated as well as white laborers. White men were paid $35 each month and also received a tent, food, and supplies. The Chinese were usually paid less and did not have the “benefits” of company- provided food, shelter, or supplies.
The Central Pacific workers risked their lives every day when scraping through the Sierra Nevada Mountains. Sometimes they wove man-sized baskets to suspend themselves over cliffs, 2,000 feet above ground. They used dynamite and nitroglycerine, which sometimes exploded prematurely. For many months, some lived entirely beneath the mountain snow, creating labyrinths from home to work and living by lantern light. Entire camps of men were lost to avalanches.
Once the men reached the desert, they faced another set of hazards. There they could lay rails more quickly, but the temperature reached 120 degrees! Alkali dust made most bleed from the lungs.
By January of 1869, the work was nearly complete. The federal government calculated where the two railroads should meet, ultimately deciding upon Promontory Summit. Eight Chinese men placed the final section of rail on May 10, 1869. Just five days later, passenger train service began. The overland trip from Omaha to Sacramento would now require only four days of travel!
Californians expected the railroad to bring prosperity. The most immediate effect, however, was that California’s fledgling manufacturing industry was threatened by cheaper items from the Eastern US. Californians were further irritated by the influx of job-seeking immigrants who arrived via train. The ensuing economic depression was blamed upon the Chinese immigrants who had constructed the iron road. California passed numerous anti-Chinese laws. Fortunately for the Chinese American community, however, the railroad employees had earned the immigrants a reputation for being good workers. They were recruited to work elsewhere across the United States. Every year in May since 1965, the celebration of completing the nation’s first transcontinental railroad is re-enacted at the Golden Spike National Historic Site in Brigham City, Utah.