Honor the memory of the heroic Chinese transcontinental railroad workers by telling their story with historical accuracy.
A caution for authors: This is a difficult subject to write about with accuracy because there are no first person accounts from the Chinese workers on the Central Pacific Railroad and there is a tremendous amount of misinformation in recent books and on the web.
"When in doubt, tell the truth." —Mark Twain
Chinese-Americans whose ancestors built the difficult mountainous and arid western portions of the first transcontinental railroad should look back with well justified enormous pride at their brave ancestors' amazing accomplishment – the manual construction of the greatest engineering project of the 19th century that united our nation. Those Chinese construction workers on the Central Pacific Railroad should be honored and cheered today, just as they were by the railroad officials on the day the rails were joined, and their feat memorialized as it was in the famous painting of the event, the A.J. Russell stereoview, as well as the earlier A.A Hart stereoviews commissioned by the railroad. It is a tragedy that recent accounts repeat numerous errors and fabricated embellishments abundant in the secondary historical literature. Alas (and strangely), the events were not recorded by the Chinese at the time, so the details and their perspective consequently are likely long since lost to history. In your retelling of this history please don't miss the significance of the Chinese-Americans' unimaginably difficult and pivotal contribution towards creating today's transcontinental America, thereby failing to do justice to the history of these heroic Chinese workers, their herculean labors, or their railroad.
"History would be a wonderful thing— if it were only true." —Leo Tolstoy
examine the primary sources and don't pass on myths about "mass
casualties," "slavery," "murders," or
other fabricated atrocities, "baskets," "dynamite," "attacks
with explosives," "Chinese
in tents under snow drifts," "pay
inequality," or "forced
exclusion from the golden spike ceremony at Promontory," none
of which appear to be true.
If you make such claims, it is your responsibility to prove them! – Where is the evidence? – Was the person you are quoting there to see what actually happened? (It is a logical error to suppose that anyone has a burden to disprove stuff that has been made up. The burden is entirely upon you to prove that what you write is historically accurate.)
Don't make unfounded assumptions about or oversimplify people's beliefs and prejudices! – for example, Charles Crocker who was in charge of the railroad construction company that hired the Chinese workers was an abolitionist all his life; and Leland Stanford's wife recovered from a life threatening respiratory illness in 1862 only when he sought out Chinese Dr. Yee Fung Cheung who administered herbs containing ephedrine, and he personally hired many Chinese, but he was a politician and while California governor he did pander to anti-Chinese sentiment, for example in his January 10, 1862, inaugural address. Also, the first Chinese railroad workers hired by the CPRR in January, 1864, including foreman Ah Toy, very possibly were the same men who worked for CPRR Supt. James Harvey Strobridge on his nearby farm since at least 1852. Collis Huntington wrote in 1867: "I like the idea of your getting over more Chinamen ... It would be all the better for us and the state if there should a half million come over in 1868." Kyle Wyatt, Curator at the California State Railroad Museum, states that: "The evidence I see suggests that the Central Pacific treated their [mostly Chinese] workers better and with more care than the Union Pacific did [their mostly Irish workers]."
"The best of all lost arts is honesty." —Mark Twain
Our goal in including all the information available to us about the Chinese railroad workers on the CPRR Museum website is to assure that the immense contributions of the CPRR Chinese railroad workers toward building a transcontinental America are accurately remembered and not confused with the dreadful treatment that Chinese in 19th century California sometimes experienced. It's too bad that there are no known writings by Chinese memorializing their experiences in building the Central Pacific Railroad. ( ... and we hope that someone can either locate or better explain the absence of such first hand oral or written accounts from 10,000 Chinese railroad workers – perhaps many more if worker turnover is taken into account – who were witnesses to and participated in these historic events!)
Some of the more common myths in the secondary literature:
It is claimed by some that the Chinese workers were excluded from the golden spike ceremony (supposedly demonstrating prejudice and bad treatment of the Chinese by the railroad), but our Chinese RR worker page shows an A.J. Russell stereoview of the Chinese workers participating in the celebration on May 10, 1869, and which provides a factual basis for the inclusion of Chinese workers in the famous "Last Spike" painting by Thomas Hill which commemorates the event. (Ging Cui, Wong Fook, and Lee Shao, three of the eight Chinese CPRR workers who brought up the last rail at the Promontory Summit ceremony on May 10th, 1869 lived long enough to participate in the Ogden, Utah 1919 50th Anniversary Celebration commemorating the joining of the rails, 50 years earlier.) A reporter for the San Francisco Newsletter, May 15th, 1869, described the final moments of the celebration at Promontory:
"J.H. Strobridge, when the work was all over, invited the Chinese who had been brought over from Victory for that purpose, to dine at his boarding car. When they entered, all the guests and officers present cheered them as the chosen representatives of the race which have greatly helped to build the road ....a tribute they well deserved and which evidently gave them much pleasure."
Accounts of the Chinese participation at the Promontory Summit celebration are also documented in the definitive research article on the subject.
There unfortunately was virulent, widespread, and
documented anti-Chinese sentiment in 19th century California (as
well as virulent Chinese
prejudice against "foreign devils"), but the testimony
at the U.S. Senate inquiry in San Francisco was that the Central
Pacific Railroad officials facing
economic necessity rapidly overcame
their initial prejudice against
the Chinese once they hired some Chinese laborers and discovered
that their work was outstanding. This realization and their consequent
apparent respect for the Chinese workers accounts for their hiring about
workers and made possible
the successful completion of the rail line, but this understanding seems
literature. The famous A.J. Russell photograph could not include the Chinese workers photographed earlier participating in the joining of the rails ceremony because at the moment the famous photo was being taken it was after the
conclusion of the ceremony and the Chinese workers were away from the two
engines being honored and cheered by the CPRR management. The Central Pacific
Railroad's treatment of its Chinese workers during the railroad's construction consequently appears
not to be an example of discriminatory
treatment, but to the contrary to be an excellent example of how economic
necessity in a market economy acts to prevent
discriminatory treatment despite prevalent bigoted attitudes, and can lead those individuals involved
to reconsider their prejudices when their expectations prove wrong.
Apparently [The Chinese Must Go by Wallace Hagaman, 2004], the CPRR interests were also very resistant to the anti-Chinese sentiment in Truckee 1878-1886 which ultimately resulted in the large Chinese lumbering community there being prevented from rebuilding after a fire, and (discrimination being uneconomic) the railroad switched to coal to boycott the whites in Truckee who wanted to overcharge for wood after they had expelled the Chinese, and allowed the Chinese to "relocate across the river on land donated by the Central Pacific Railroad." Similarly, after three people were murdered as a result of a dispute over a mining claim, the Sheriff of Placer County on 9/15/1876 accused Ah Sam, a Chinese cook. Within three days, the citizens of Rocklin started expelling all the Chinese townfolk, and the subsequent censuses show not a single Chinese resident remaining in Rocklin during the remainder of the 19th century.
"Why, sometimes I've believed as many as six impossible things before breakfast." —The Queen in 'Alice in Wonderland'
Ed Strobridge has done a fascinating study of the origin of the detailed misinformation about use of "baskets" in the construction at Cape Horn which shows how the details in recent books were fabricated in small increments over many years by a series of authors, and then mistakenly depicted in some artists' engravings. It does not appear that baskets could have been used on the ends of the ropes because there was no vertical cliff at Cape Horn, and it would be impossible to lower a person in a basket down a 75 degree slope because a basket would catch on the rocks and overturn – the workers' legs must be free to repel down such an angled slope.
Also, no dynamite was used as an explosive in the construction of the Central Pacific Railroad at Cape Horn or elsewhere; only black powder would have been used at Cape Horn, if explosives were actually used there (the friable shale found at Cape Horn could have been readily removed entirely with hand tools, such as pry bars). The importance and difficulty in construction at Cape Horn were exaggerated for the tourists who could stop there to enjoy the gorgeous mountain vistas that were hidden from view elsewhere by the 40 miles of snow sheds. No one photographed or wrote about the actual construction at Cape Horn at the time, although there is an engineering report published in 1864 – Chief Engineer Samuel S. Montague, later commented only that "The work at Cape Horn has proved less difficult and expensive than was first anticipated."
There is controversy as to whether Chinese workers excavated Bloomer Cut, with a lack of primary source documentation of their participation. G.J. Graves expressed the belief that there were "No Chinese at Bloomer Cut" in part based on an understanding from "congressional testimony" that "first Chinese hired mid March 1865, between Auburn and Clipper Gap" after the completion of this work, and because the report of injuries in an explosion of black powder at Bloomer Cut in which Supt. James Harvey Strobridge lost an eye do not indicate any Chinese workers. CPRR payroll records have not been located for the period in 1864 when Bloomer Cut was built, but William F. Chew who believes that Chinese workers excavated Bloomer Cut has documented that a small number of Chinese workers were on the CPRR payroll in January and February of 1864, prior to the Bloomer Cut excavation.
"Society as a whole benefits immeasurably from a climate in which all persons, regardless of race or gender, may have the opportunity to earn respect, responsibility, advancement and remuneration based on ability." —Sandra Day O'Connor
The Chinese workers were paid in gold and we can find no evidence that they were paid substantially more or less that other railroad laborers. To the contrary, in 1867, Albert D. Richardson, authored Beyond the Mississippi describing his trip to the CPRR construction sites, and reporting that: "Irish laborers received thirty dollars per month (gold) and board; Chinese, thirty-one dollars, boarding themselves." The railroad did not provide the Chinese workers their meals only because they ate a traditional (and healthier) Chinese diet as was their custom, which was unfamiliar to westerners in 19th century California. Similarly, the Chinese workers were not part of the CPRR Hospital's medical plan that cost other workers 50¢/month starting in 1868, but perhaps this is also to be expected, as the Chinese had their own doctors and their type of herbal medicine differed from 19th century western medical practices. [A recent newspaper article says instead that "Separate facilities were used for Chinese and non-Chinese patients."] Many poor Chinese men came to 19th century California in the hope of getting rich and then returning to China – the Chinese railroad workers' willingness to save likely did allow them to became quite wealthy, at least by the standards of a Canton peasant:
" The Chinese [railroad workers] ... are paid from $30 to $35 in gold a month ... They are credited with having saved about $20 a month." —Alta California, November 9, 1868 Newspaper.
U.S. and Chinese law and treaty in the 1860's evolved to recognize and protect the rights of Chinese immigrants, unlike the anti-Chinese laws of the 1880's. Chinese laborers on the CPRR were not enslaved, although there is evidence that coercion was used against strikers. "U.S. laws and the Burlingame Treated virtually prohibited bonded coolies from coming to the United States. The Chinese immigration here, unlike that in many places around the world, was free and voluntary." The U.S. Senate testimony provides a clear record that: " ... it is not servile labor. ... it is free labor; just as free labor as yours and mine. You cannot control a Chinaman except you pay him for it. You cannot make any contract with him, or his friend, or supposed master, and get his labor unless you pay for it, and pay him for it. ... We had a system of fines for men not coming out, keeping foremen and keeping horses at work when there were not enough laborers, and we charged the expenses of the horses and carts to the gang who failed to keep them employed."
We seriously doubt the various claims of "thousands killed" in the CPRR construction, for the reasons explained in the FAQ about "How many died building the Central Pacific Railroad?" – the reports of small numbers of fatalities in the construction of the Central Pacific Railroad are quite specific, and are not consistent with a large numbers of workers being killed, an idea that seems to result entirely from a solitary short newspaper report that is contradicted by another article published the same day about the arrival of a train in Sacramento on June 29, 1870 carrying the bones of deceased Chinese. (Consequently, any claims of more than 150 Chinese killed building the first transcontinental railroad now seem dubious.) Possibly deaths from a January, 1869 smallpox epidemic among the CPRR workers are also being confused with construction accidents. It apparently was the responsibility of the Chinese head-man of each worker gang to handle the Chinese payroll and keep track of the Chinese workers' names which were in a language and written in Chinese characters unknown to the railroad management – there was no effort to fail to record the names of the few Chinese workers who died. To the contrary, it apparently was the Chinese tradition to write down the names to accompany the "carefully preserved" remains of the deceased men, and to eventually transport them to China for reburial. Claims that racisim manifested as not caring about Chinese deaths demonstated by a supposed failure to record them are inaccurate as there are numerous accounts of small numbers of casualties during the CPRR construction period where most of the workers were Chinese, while reports of the deaths among the Irish workers on the UPRR during the same years are almost completely lacking.
Claims that the Chinese workers' employment was terminated and that they were supposedly "abandoned" by their railroad employer to fend for themselves in the Nevada wilderness following the May 10, 1869 completion of the railroad seem highly implausible. First, no primary source documentation to support this has been shown. Second, the premise is untrue, as the Chinese in Nevada did not work for the railroad, instead being employed by contractors who hired them as crews, not individuals, from the Chinese six companies. Furthermore, primarily Mormon, not Chinese crews completed the transcontinental railroad in Utah, so it is unlikely that there were large numbers of Chinese railroad workers remaining at the time of the completion of the transcontinental railroad. Additionally, it is known that the CPRR did hire Chinese as section workers, and the Chinese workers were also employed to continue building additional rail lines, for example from Sacramento south to Los Angeles.
Another apparent myth is that Chinese and Irish railroad workers tried to blow each other up with explosives. (There is a 19th century engraving on page 348 of Harper's Weekly Newspaper of May 29, 1869, that only appears to show this – and that we believe most likely accounts for this myth – but if you take the trouble to read the newspaper article, on pages 341-342, that the engraving illustrates – which is not on the same newspaper page as the engraving – you will immediate discover that this article with its engraving do not remotely support this obvious misinterpretation, saying instead: "The ... illustration ... shows the workmen—a medley of Irishmen and Chinamen—engaged in constructing the last line of the railroad. Thus the very laborers upon the road typify its significant result, bringing Europe and Asia face to face, grasping hands across the American Continent.") It doesn't help that this apparent tall tale appears in UPRR Chief Engineer Grenville Dodge's ghost written "autobiography" despite his being in Washington, D.C., not Utah at the time so that he could not possibly have had such first hand knowledge.
"What gets us into trouble is not what we don't know, it's what we know for sure that just ain't so." —Mark Twain
To illustrate the problem of misinformation about the Chinese railroad workers, our website reprints a chapter from a recent book to which have been added a number of red triangles indicating pop-up comments that explain each of the errors and link to the available primary source documentation, so that you can judge for yourself, rather than just depending upon the expertise and opinions of others. Inadequate editing can result in large numbers of avoidable and embarrassing errors. You can also visit a simply dreadful website which most exemplifies common incorrect rumors, errors, and myths about the Central Pacific Railroad. Also see the FAQ about transcontinental railroad myths.
Also see a modern painting, Powder Monkeys – Cape Horn 1865, by Mian Situ that shows Chinese in baskets at vertical granite cliffs at Cape Horn, but the cliffs there are not vertical, are not granite, and baskets could not have been used on a 70 degree decent.
Please also be careful about misidentified images, as not every 19th century picture showing Chinese workers next to railroad tracks is showing the construction of the Central Pacific Railroad.
It is highly doubtful that this summary of current opinions will be the last word on this subject, and one of the great features of a website is that it is so quick and easy to make any needed revisions. If you are aware of surviving primary sources that suggest that any information on this page or elsewhere on the CPRR.org website is incorrect or incomplete, please don't take offense, but instead share this documentation with us, so that we can make any needed corrections.