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Comment: 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 workers 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. Abraham Maslow said "It is tempting, if the only tool you have is a hammer, to treat everything as if it were a nail." The journalist's tool for selling stories is to concoct outrage, and unfortunately this destructive penchant by a writer best known for chronicling a WW II atrocity has resulted in a mangled history of a glorious achievement, with unjustified and divisive outrage largely directed at mythical construction events and demonized railroad bosses [as annotated below]. It is a tragedy that the chapter repeats numerous errors and fabricated embellishments abundant in the secondary historical literature. Despite the tantalizing introduction, the author has been unable to add to our knowledge by obtaining new information from primary sources or detailed oral histories from the descendants of Chinese railroad workers – but, 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. While attempting to minimize deserved credit to the engineers for their construction methods and to the eight Irish track layers who laid 10 miles of rail in one day, this chapter misses 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.
See the Review by Edson T. Strobridge, below.
—from The Chinese in America by Iris Chang (1968-2004), Copyright © 2003 by Iris Chang, Published by Viking Press, a member of Penguin Group (USA) Inc., all rights reserved, reprinted with permission from the publisher.
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CHAPTER FIVE [page 53]
Building the Transcontinental Railroad
From sea to shining sea. In the decade of the, 1840s, Americans were consumed by this vision, articulated in the doctrine of Manifest Destiny, which proclaimed it the right and duty of the United States to expand its democratic way of life across the entire continent, from the Atlantic to the Pacific, from the Rio Grande in the south to the fifty-fourth parallel in the north. The country was feeling confident (during this decade, it acquired the territories of Texas, California, and Oregon), its population was increasing, and many wanted to push west, especially to California, made famous by gold and Richard Henry Dana's recounting of his adventures there, in Two Years before the Mast.
Making the vision real, however, was dangerous and frustrating. The territory between the coasts was unsettled and there was no reliable transport or route. Crossing the continent meant braving death by disease, brigands, Native Americans, starvation, thirst, heat, or freezing. This was true especially for those headed straight to the gold hills of California, but the gold rushers weren't the only ones frustrated by the lack of a safe passage between the settled East and the new state of California in the sparsely populated West. Californians themselves were impatient at waiting months to receive mail and provisions. Washington, too, recognized the economic as well as political [page 54] benefits of linking the country's two coasts. In the West lay rich farmland waiting for settlement, gold and silver to be mined and taxed. What was needed was a transcontinental railroad to move more people west and natural resources safely and profitably to major markets back east.
There were only two overland routes west–over the Rockies or along the southern route through Apache and Comanche territory, both hazardous. It took longer, but was almost always safer, to get to California from anywhere cast of the Missouri by sea. This meant heading east to the Atlantic Ocean or south to the Gulf of Mexico, boarding a ship that would sail almost to the southern tip of South America, passing through the Strait of Magellan, and heading back north to California. The sea voyage could be shortened considerably by disembarking on the eastern coast of Central America, traveling by wagon across the isthmus, and then hitching a ride on the first steamer headed north.*
*Eventually, U.S. engineers would build the Panama Canal in the early twentieth century.
The need for a transcontinental railroad was so strongly argued that Congress, with the support of President Lincoln, passed legislation to finance the railroad with government bonds, even though the country was already at war. Two companies divided the task of actual construction. In 1862, the Central Pacific Railroad Corporation, headed by the "Big Four"—Leland Stanford, Collis P. Huntington, Charles Crocker, and Mark Hopkins—was awarded the contract to lay tracks eastward from Sacramento, while its rival, the Union Pacific, was awarded the path westward from Omaha, Nebraska, which was already connected to the East through existing rail lines. The goal was to meet in Promontory Summit, Utah, thus connecting the nation with a continuous stretch of railroad tracks from the Atlantic to the Pacific, and with a bonus for the railway company that reached Promontory first. The Union Pacific's job-laying track over plains-was much easier, while the Central Pacific had to go over [page 55] steep mountains. The Central Pacific engineers promised that the formidable physical obstacles could be overcome, and to a great extent, it was Chinese labor, and even, here and there, Chinese ingenuity, that helped make the transcontinental railroad a reality.
The first and largest challenge was figuring out how to cut a path through California's and Nevada's rugged Sierra Nevada, which stood as a final barrier to the West. The workers of the Central Pacific had the dangerous task of ramming tunnels through these mountains, and then laying tracks across the parched Nevada and Utah deserts. Some engineers, watching the project from afar, said this was impossible. In a major recruitment drive for five thousand workers, the Central Pacific sent advertisements to every post office in the state of California, offering high wages to any white man willing to work. But the appeal secured only eight hundred. Why toil for wages when an instant fortune was possible in the mines? Many men who did sign on were, in the words of company superintendent James Strobridge, "unsteady men, unreliable. Some of them would stay a few days, and some would not go to work at all. Some would stay until payday, get a little money, get drunk, and clear out." The company thought of asking the War Department for five thousand Confederate prisoners to put to work, but Lee's surrender at the Appomattox Court House ended the war and this plan.
Fortunately for the Central Pacific, Chinese immigrants provided a vast pool of cheap, plentiful, and easily exploitable labor. By 1865, the number of Chinese in California reached close to fifty thousand, at least 90 percent of them young men. In the spring of that year, when white laborers demanded higher pay and threatened to strike, Charles Crocker, the Central Pacific's chief contractor, ordered Superintendent Strobridge to recruit Chinese workers. The tactic worked, and the white workers agreed to return, as long as no Chinese were hired, but by then the Central Pacific had the upper hand and hired fifty Chinese anyway–former miners, laundrymen, domestic servants, and market gardeners–to do the hard labor of preparing the route and laying track. Many claimed the railroad did [page 56] this as a reminder to the white workers that others were ready to replace them. Needless to say, this did not contribute to harmony between the whites and the Chinese.
Of course prejudice against the Chinese railroad workers did not start with the white laborers. Initially, Superintendent Strobridge was unhappy with their being hired. "I will not boss Chinese!" he roared, suggesting that the Chinese were too delicate for the job. (The Chinese averaged four feet ten inches in height and weighed 120 pounds.) Crocker, however, pointed out that a race of people who had built the Great Wall of China could build a railroad. Grudgingly, Strobridge put the Chinese to work, giving them light jobs, like filling dump carts.
To the surprise of many–but apparently not the Chinese themselves–the first fifty hired excelled at their work, becoming such disciplined, fast learners that the railroad soon gave them other responsibilities, such as rock cuts. In time, the Central Pacific hired another fifty Chinese, and then another fifty, until eventually the company employed thousands of Chinese laborers–the overwhelming majority of the railroad workforce. E. B. Crocker, brother of Charles, wrote to Senator Cornelius Cole (R-Calif.) that the Chinese were nearly equal to white men in the amount of work they could do and far more reliable. Leland Stanford, the railroad's president, and later founder of Stanford University, praised the Chinese as "quiet, peaceable, patient, industrious and economical." (Stanford's position on the Chinese was governed by expedience. In 1862, to please the racist sentiments of the state, he called the Chinese in California the "dregs" of Asia, a "degraded" people. A few years later, he was praising the Chinese to President Andrew Johnson and others in order to justify the Central Pacific's mass hiring of Chinese. Later still–notably in 1884, when he ran for the U.S. Senate–he would ally himself with those who favored a ban on Chinese immigration.)
Delighted by the productivity of the Chinese, railroad executives became fervent advocates of Chinese immigration to California. "I like the idea of your getting over more Chinamen," Collis Huntington, [page 57] one of the "Big Four" executives at the Central Pacific, wrote to Charlie Crocker in 1867. "It would be all the better for us and the State if there should a half million come over in 1868."
The Central Pacific printed handbills and dispatched recruiters to China, especially the Guangdong province, to find new workers. It negotiated with a steamship company to lower their rates for travel. And fortuitously for the Central Pacific, Sino-American diplomacy would create more favorable conditions for Chinese immigration to the United States. In 1868, China and the U.S. government signed the Burlingame Treaty. In exchange for "most favored nation" status in trade, China agreed to recognize the "inherent and inalienable right of man to change his home and allegiance and also the mutual advantage of free migration and emigration of their citizens and subjects respectively from one country to the other for purposes of curiosity or trade or as permanent residents."
The new Chinese recruits docked at San Francisco and were immediately transported by riverboat to Sacramento, and then by the Central Pacific's own train to the end of the laid tracks, which was a moving construction site. There they were organized into teams of about a dozen or so, with each team assigned its own cook and headman, who communicated with the Central Pacific foremen. The Chinese paid for their own food and cooked it themselves-they were even able to procure special ingredients like cuttlefish, bamboo shoots, and abalone. At night they slept in tents provided by the railroad, or in dugouts in the earth. At the peak of construction, Central Pacific would employ more than ten thousand Chinese men.
The large numbers of Chinese made white workers uncomfortable. As Lee Chew, a railroad laborer, later recalled in a spasm of national pride, the Chinese were "persecuted not for their vices but for their virtues. No one would hire an Irishman, German, Englishman or Italian when he could get a Chinese, because our countrymen are so much more honest, industrious, steady, sober and painstaking." Crocker explicitly acknowledged this work ethic. After recruiting some Cornish miners from Virginia City, Nevada, to excavate one end [page 58] of a tunnel and the Chinese the other, he commented, "The Chinese, without fail, always outmeasured the Cornish miners. That is to say, they would cut more rock in a week than the Cornish miners did. And here it was hard work, steady pounding on the rock, bone labor." The Cornish eventually walked off the job, vowing that "they would not work with Chinamen anyhow," and soon, Crocker recalled, "the Chinamen had possession of the whole work."
White laborers began to feel that Chinese diligence forced everyone to work harder for less reward. Crocker recalled that one white laborer near Auburn was questioned by a gentleman about his wages. "I think we were paying $35 a month and board to white laborers, and $30 a month to Chinamen and they boarded themselves," Crocker said. "The gentleman remarked, 'That is pretty good wages.' 'Yes,' says he, 'but begad if it wasn't for them damned nagurs we would get $50 and not do half the work.'"
Some white laborers on the Central Pacific whispered among themselves about driving the Chinese off the job, but when Charles Crocker got wind of this, he threatened to replace all the whites with Chinese. Eventually the white workers gave up, placated perhaps by being told that they alone could be promoted to the position of foreman. The more Chinese workers, the fewer whites in the labor force and the less competition for foreman positions among the whites. And foremen were paid several times the wages of a Chinese laborer.
In the process of laying the track across northern California, Nevada, and Utah, hundreds of men–Chinese, Irish, German, and others–cleared a path through some of the world's largest trees, redwoods with stumps so deeply rooted that ten barrels of gunpowder were often needed to unearth them. It was dangerous work–work that loosened boulders, started landslides, and filled the air with flying debris. Even more dangerous was the work that began upon reaching the Sierra Nevada.
Ideally, the roadbed through the mountains would be tunneled through by heavy machinery. This machinery was unavailable, however, because it was expensive and difficult to transport (entire bridges [page 59] would have had to be rebuilt for such machinery to reach the current site). Thus the Chinese were forced to chisel tunnels through the granite using only handheld drills, explosives, and shovels. In some places they encountered a form of porphyritic rock so hard it was impervious to frontal attack, even with gunpowder. Work proceeded, on average, seven inches a day, at a cost of as much as a million dollars for one mile of tunnel.
In the summer of 1866, to move farther faster, the railroad kept several shifts of men going day and night. Shoulder to shoulder, hour after hour, the Chinese railroad workers chipped away at the rock, breathing granite dust, sweating and panting by the dim flickering glow of candlelight, until even the strongest of them fainted from exhaustion.
Finally, to speed up the process, the Central Pacific brought in nitroglycerin. Only the Chinese–a people experienced with fireworks–were willing to handle this unpredictable explosive, pouring it into the tunnel through holes drilled in the granite. Countless workers perished in accidental blasts, but the Central Pacific did not keep track of the numbers.
Still the workers struggled on. One terrifying challenge lay at Cape Horn, the nickname for a three-mile stretch of gorge above the American River three miles east of Colfax, California, and fifty-seven miles east of Sacramento. Through much of the way, a flat roadbed had to be carved along a steep cliff, and a Chinese headman suggested to Strobridge that they employ an ancient method used to create fortresses along the Yangtze River gorges: they could dangle supplies down to the worksite in reed baskets, attached to ropes secured over the tops of mountains.
Reeds were shipped out immediately from San Francisco to Cape Horn. At night the Chinese workers wove them into wicker baskets and fastened them to sturdy ropes. When everything was ready, workers were lowered in the baskets to drill holes and tamp in dynamite, literally sculpting the rail bed out of the face of sheer rock. The lucky ones were hauled up in time to escape the explosions; others, [page 60] peppered with shards of granite and shale, fell to their deaths in the valley below.
Disease swept through the ranks of the exhausted railroad workers, but the Chinese fared better than whites. Caucasian laborers, subsisting largely on salt beef, potatoes, bread, coffee, and rancid butter, lacked vegetables in their diet, while the Chinese employed their own cooks and ate better-balanced meals. White workers succumbed to dysentery after sharing communal dippers from greasy pails, but the Chinese drank fresh boiled tea, which they kept in whiskey barrels or powder kegs suspended from each end of a bamboo pole. They also avoided alcohol and, "not having acquired the taste of whiskey," as one contemporary observed, "they have fewer fights and no blue Mondays." Most important, they kept themselves clean, which helped prevent the spread of germs. The white men had "a sort of hydrophobia," one writer observed, whereas the Chinese bathed every night before dinner, in powder kegs filled with heated water.
In the Sierras, the railroad workers endured two of the worst winters in American history. In 1865, they faced thirty-foot drifts and spent weeks just shoveling snow. The following year brought the "Homeric winter" of 1866-67, one of the most brutal ever recorded, which dropped forty feet of snow on the crews and whipped up drifts more than eighty feet high. Power snowplows, driven forward by twelve locomotives linked together, could scarcely budge the densest of these drifts. Sheds built to protect the uncompleted tracks collapsed under the weight of the snow, which snapped even the best timber. On the harshest days, travel was almost impossible; as horses broke the icy crust, sharp edges slashed their legs to the bone. They received mail from a Norwegian postal worker on cross-country skis.
Making the best of the situation, the Chinese carved a working city under the snow. Operating beneath the crust by lantern light, they trudged through a labyrinth of snow tunnels, with snow chimneys and snow stairs leading up to the surface. Meanwhile, they continued to shape the rail bed out of rock, using materials lowered down to them through airshafts in the snow. [page 61]
The cost in human life was enormous. Snow slides and avalanches swept away entire teams of Chinese workers. On Christmas Day 1866, the Dutch Flat Enquirer announced that "a gang of Chinamen employed by the railroad ... were covered up by a snow slide and four or five died before they could be exhumed. Then snow fell to such a depth that one whole camp of Chinamen was covered up during the night and parties were digging them out when our informant left." When the snow melted in the spring, the company found corpses still standing erect, their frozen hands gripping picks and shovels.
*Gambling was as addictive for Chinese railroad workers as whiskey among their white counterparts. Chinese gamblers left their mark on Nevada, where casinos credit the nineteenth-century Chinese railroad workers with introducing the game of Keno, based on the Chinese lottery game of Pak kop piu.
Winter was only one obstacle. Other conditions also affected the workers. Landslides rolled tons of soil across the completed track, blocking its access and often smothering workers. Melting snow mired wagons, carts, and stagecoaches in a sea of mud. Once through the mountains, the crews faced terrible extremes of weather in the Nevada and Utah deserts. There the temperature could plummet to 50 degrees below zero–freezing the ground so hard it required blasting, as if it were bedrock–or soar above 120, causing heat stroke and dehydration.
The Chinese labored from sunrise to sunset six days a week, in twelve-hour shifts. Only on Sundays did they have time to rest, mend their clothes, talk, smoke, and, of course, gamble. The tedium of their lives was aggravated by the systematized abuse and contempt heaped on them by the railroad executives. The Chinese worked longer and harder than whites, but received less pay: because the Chinese had to pay for their own board, their wages were two-thirds those of white workers and a fourth those of the white foremen. (Even the allocation for feed for horses-fifty dollars a month for each-was twenty dollars more than the average Chinese worker [page 62] earned.) Worst of all, they endured whippings from their overseers, who treated them like slaves.
Finally, the Chinese rebelled. In June 1867, as the Central Pacific tottered on the brink of bankruptcy (Leland Stanford later described a two-week period when there was not a dollar of cash in the treasury), some two thousand Chinese in the Sierras walked off the job. As was their way in a strange land, they conducted the strike politely, appointing headmen to present James Strobridge a list of demands that included more pay and fewer hours in the tunnels. They also circulated among themselves a placard written in Chinese, explaining their rights. In retrospect, it is surprising that they managed to organize a strike at all, for there are also reports of frequent feuds erupting between groups of Chinese workers, fought with spades, crowbars, and spikes. But organize they did.
The Central Pacific reacted swiftly and ruthlessly. An enraged Charles Crocker contacted employment agencies in an attempt to recruit ten thousand recently freed American blacks to replace the Chinese. He stopped payments to the Chinese and cut off the food supply, effectively starving them back to work. Because most of them could not speak English, could not find work elsewhere, and lacked transportation back to California, the strike lasted only a week. However, it did achieve a small victory, securing the Chinese a raise of two dollars a month. More important, by staging the largest Chinese strike of the nineteenth century, they demonstrated to their current and future employers that while they were willing and easily managed workers, if pushed hard enough they were able to organize to protect themselves, even in the face of daunting odds.
Later, the railroad management expressed admiration at the orderliness of the strike. "If there had been that number of whites in a strike, there would have been murder and drunkenness and disorder," Crocker marveled. "But with the Chinese it was just like Sunday. These men stayed in their camps. They would come out and walk around, but not a word was said; nothing was done. No violence was perpetuated along the whole line." [page 63]
The Chinese were certainly capable, however, of violence. As the railroad neared completion, the Chinese encountered the Irish workers of the Union Pacific for the first time. When the two companies came within a hundred feet of each other, the Union Pacific Irish taunted the Chinese with catcalls and threw clods of dirt. When the Chinese ignored them, the Irish swung their picks at them, and to the astonishment of the whites, the Chinese fought back. The level of antagonism continued to rise. Several Chinese were wounded by blasting powder the whites had secretly planted near their side. Several days later, a mysterious explosion killed several Irish workers. The presumption was that the Chinese had retaliated in kind. At that point, the behavior of white workers toward the Chinese immediately improved.
If relations were often tense between the Chinese and the Irish, there were also moments of camaraderie. In April 1869, the Central Pacific and Union Pacific competed to see who could throw down track the fastest. The competition arose after Charlie Crocker bragged that the Chinese could construct ten miles of track a day. (In some regions, the Union Pacific had averaged only one mile a week.) So confident was Crocker in his employees that he was willing to wager $10,000 against Thomas Durant, the vice president of Union Pacific. On the day of the contest, the Central Pacific had eight Irish workers unload materials while the Chinese spiked, gauged, and bolted the track, laying it down as fast as a man could walk. They broke the Union Pacific record by completing more than ten miles of track within twelve hours and forty-five minutes.
On May 10, 1869, when the railways from the east and west were finally joined at Promontory Summit, Utah, the Central Pacific had built 690 miles of track and the Union Pacific 1,086 miles. The two coasts were now welded together. Before the transcontinental railroad, trekking across the country took four to six months. On the railroad, it would take six days. This accomplishment created fortunes for the moguls of the Gilded Age, but it also exacted a monumental sacrifice in blood and human life. On average, for each two miles of [page 64] track laid, three Chinese laborers were killed by accidents. Eventually more than one thousand Chinese railroad workers died, and twenty thousand pounds of bones were shipped back to China.* Without Chinese labor and know-how, the railroad would not have been completed. Nonetheless, the Central Pacific Railroad cheated the Chinese railway workers of everything they could. They tried to write the Chinese out of history altogether. The Chinese workers were not only excluded from the ceremonies, but from the famous photograph of white American laborers celebrating as the last spike, the golden spike, was driven into the ground. Of more immediate concern, the Central Pacific immediately laid off most of the Chinese workers, refusing to give them even their promised return passage to California. The company retained only a few hundred of them for maintenance work, some of whom spent their remaining days in isolated small towns along the way, a few living in converted boxcars.
*Years later, some of the Chinese railroad workers would journey back to the Sierra Nevada to search for the remains of their colleagues. On these expeditions, known as jup seen you ("retrieving deceased friends"), they would hunt for old gravesites, usually a heap of stones near the tracks marked by a wooden stake. Digging underneath the stones, they would find a skeleton next to a wax-sealed bottle, holding a strip of cloth inscribed with the worker's name, birth date, and district of origin.
The rest of the Chinese former railway workers were now homeless as well as jobless, in a harsh and hostile environment. Left to fend for themselves, some straggled by foot through the hinterlands of America, looking for work that would allow them to survive, a journey that would disperse them throughout the nation.
Courtesy Tim McCall, Viking Press.
Review by Edson T. Strobridge of
The Chinese in America: Chapter 5. Building the Transcontinental Railroad
In reviewing Chapter 5 " Building the Transcontinental railroad" it
becomes very obvious to me that Iris Chang knows little about the subject,
has done nothing to learn the truth of our history and aside from copying and
paraphrasing other authors has done little or no real research on the subject.
Perhaps it is not her intent to accurately report on the detail of building
the Central Pacific railroad but if that is her intent than she should refrain
from trying to do so and expect her readers to believe what she writes is true.
It is also very obvious that Ms Chang's agenda is to portray our Chinese
citizens and their early ancestors as victims rather that tell of all the contributions
and accomplishments her people have
made in the face of the adversity they were subjected to. She does no more
than exploit the people she writes about with this continued repeating of myths
and lies about their contribution to building the West.
Here are some comments that point out a few of Ms. Changs errors, exaggerations and made up historical events.
pg. 53: "disembarking on the eastern coast of Central America, traveling by wagon across the isthmus [of Panama]
Even though crossed for 200 years or so by the Spanish the isthmus was never crossed in wagons. There was never more than a narrow improved trail which was crossed either on mule back or on foot and that remained so until the Panama Railroad was completed on Jan 27, 1855.
It is interesting to note that in 1854, 1000 Chinamen had been brought to the Isthmus to help build the railroad "and every possible care taken which could conduce to their health and comfort. Their hill-rice, their tea, and opium, in sufficient quantity to last for several months, had been imported with them — they were carefully housed and attended to. It was expected that they would prove efficient and valuable men." However, after a month they too fell victim to the ravages of the swamps and jungles and "within a few weeks scarcely 200 remained." The cause was mass suicide, over 400 occurring within days. The remaining Chinese in Panama were removed to Jamaica never again to be used in the construction of the railroad.
Illustrated History of the Panama Railroad by F.N. Otis, 1861 [reprint 1971, Socio-Technical Books, Golden West Books, Donald Duke, Editor]; The Panama Railroad: The Tragedy of the Chinese
pg. 54: In 1862, the Central Pacific Railroad Corporation, headed by the "Big Four" — "was awarded a contract to lay tracks eastward from Sacramento.
The Central Pacific Railroad Company was formally incorporated June 28, 1861 and was never awarded a contract to lay tracks; they were authorized to construct a railroad to the California border, if they were able, by the passage of the 1862 Pacific Railroad Act by Congress and approved by Abe Lincoln.
[in the same paragraph] "The goal was to meet at Promontory Summit" "and with a bonus for the railway company to reach Promontory first".
The above statement is made up. The only goal was to connect the two railroads, the exact route not determined until surveyors established the route which took several years. There was no bonus for reaching Promontory as the point of railroad connection would not be established until early 1869. The lands and Bonds given by the Federal Govt. were an aid to construction, not a bonus, and were earned for each 20 mile section completed, by either railroad company.
Pg.57: "As Lee Chew, a railroad laborer, later recalled — the Chinese were persecuted not for their vices but for their virtues".
Lee Chew was a wise man but taking this one statement out of Mr. Chew's 1903 autobiography is using his story out of context. Mr. Chew states that he came to the US "twenty years ago" which would have been about 1883, consequently he did not work on the first transcontinental railroad. He experienced none of the conditions prevalent at that time. Lee Chew also said "I have found out, during my residence in this country, that much Chinese prejudice against Americans is unfounded." He also stated that "There is no reason for the prejudice against the Chinese. The cheap labor cry was always a falsehood. Their labor was never cheap and is not cheap today  It has always commanded the highest market price" Lee Chew's autobiography is worthy of reading by anyone interested in the Chinese perspective, however, to pick and choose isolated statements and use them out of context only adds to an already misrepresented history of the Central Pacific Railroad.
pg. 58-59: (1) "Ideally, the roadbed through the mountains would be tunneled through by heavy machinery."
(2) "Work [tunnel #6] proceeded on average seven inches a day"
(3) "Countless workers perished in accidental blasts"
(1) This is a new discovery to railroad historians who have studied
the subject for years. The first question is 'what heavy machinery'? There
was no heavy machinery" available for tunneling. The reason given for not using this mythical equipment was "because it was expensive and difficult to transport".
This, at a time when the Central Pacific was moving locomotives and thousands
of tons of rail over the Summit to Truckee by sled, wagon and oxen. The author's
claim needs to be documented for the benefit all students of the history of
the Pacific Railway.
(2) The average daily progress was more than twice what Chang reports. Engineer John R. Gillis in his report to the American Society of Civil Engineers in 1870 states that in tunnel #6 that the average daily progress in the heading was 1.18' (over 14") using powder and 1.82' (nearly 22") using nitroglycerine; Using the information supplied by Engineer Gillis the average daily progress using both types of explosives was more than 18" more than twice the rate reported by Ms. Chang.
(3) Engineer John R. Gillis reported "At Donner pass I only recollect two accidents [using nitroglycerine] and those would have happened with powder." There may have been a few deaths but certainly not "countless" numbers. (ASCE Transactions, Tunnels of the Pacific Railroad, Vol. I 1872, pg 160.)
pg. 59: "One terrifying challenge lay at Cape Horn"
Here the entire description of the challenge at Cape Horn is refuted
in "The Central Pacific Railroad and the Legend
of Cape Horn" which
proves that it was not a serious challenge at all, was only approximately
1200' in length, not three miles as Ms Chang claims and finds no documented
that Chinese laborers even worked at this location much less being suspended
in baskets. Iris Chang has become a victim
herself by relying on the description of discredited authors who she accepted
as reporting the truth.
pg. 60: 'The Homeric Winter of 1866-67" — "Sheds built to protect the uncompleted tracks collapsed under the weight of snow"
The permanent snow sheds were built during the summer of 1868.
(High Road to Promontory, by George Kraus, 1969, pg. 159)
pg. 61: "The Chinese labored from sunrise to sunset six days a week, in twelve hour shifts."
"With the exception of a few white men at the west end of tunnel
No. 6, the laboring force was entirely composed of Chinamen with white foremen -- the laborers working usually in three shifts of eight hours each, and the foremen in two shifts of twelve hours each."
(Engineer John R. Gillis, ASCE Transactions, Tunnels of the Pacific Railroad, Vol. I 1872, pg 160.)
pg. 62: (1) Worst of all, they endured whippings from their overseers, who treated them like slaves.
This only happened in the imagination of discredited authors during
the 20th century. There is no documentation that this kind of treatment ever
occurred on the Central Pacific railroad. Had Chang reviewed of the testimony
in the Senate Report No. 689, 44th Congress, 2nd Session she would have
learned the truth of the matter.
(2) The entire description of the strike is exaggerated with made up statements and claims which are not true. Chang claims that the Chinese secured a raise of $2 a month when in fact the Chinese negotiators in desperation tried to get a settlement of at least 25 cents a month which Crocker refused. Crocker and his Associates ultimately determined that the strike was caused by Chinese gamblers and merchants who Crocker would not allow on the job and whose agents threatened to whip those who went to work and burn their camps if they settled the strike. Crocker promised his Chinese employees that he would protect them from those threats and would shoot down any man who attempted to do the laborers any injury and forgive them the charges he normally deducted out of their wages for not working if they would immediately return to work. He had the Sheriff and posse come up to see that there was no fighting. The fact was that the laborers made $10 a month more on the railroad than by mining.
In general the stories and claims on pg. 62 are made without any documentation or proof and are no more than a rehash of several older histories written by authors who have no credibility among railroad historians. A review of the 1876 Congressional Testimony will soon show that the members of Congress who conducted the questioning and who attempted to get Crocker, Strobridge and others, to testify to the fact that the Chinese were treated like slaves, were unworthy of citizenship and were keeping American citizens from employment were unsuccessful. Even so, Congress went ahead with passing The Chinese Exclusion Act, more for political expediency to satisfy their constituents then to treat the Chinese in a fair and equitable way. After all the Chinese did not have a vote.
Pg. 63: The description of the violence between the Chinese and the Irish gangs never occurred. The Chinese grading crews never worked alongside the Union Pacific grading crews. The Union Pacific crews never did any grading beyond Promontory Summit and the Chinese crews never graded any further east than Toano, Nevada. All the grading between those points was done under contract with the Mormons. This story has been thoroughly discredited and only repeated by authors who have done little or no original research, Iris Chang among them.
Pg.: 64: Chang also uses unsubstantiated information regarding the number of Chinese deaths attributed to building the Central Pacific railroad and goes further by embellishing the information with more unsupported information. In general the deaths that were reported were during the building of the railroad over the Sierras but once over the mountains and into the deserts of Nevada and Utah there are no records of any deaths except during a Jan. 1869 smallpox epidemic when nearly all that went into the Pest Cars died. Even then, no nationalities or numbers were reported.
Courtesy of Edson T. Strobridge. [Hyperlinks added.]
> This perhaps not so brief memo is sent upon reflection of learning of the death of a delighful lady, Iris Chang. Ms. Chang wrote a book Chinese in America in which she wrote of the history of the Central Pacific Railroad, parts of which I found conficting to the history that I had learned, the hard way, walking the grade, and reading old news articles. I wondered this morning, after reading of the death of Mrs. Chang, why it is so important to some of us to retell the history of the Central Pacific using only primary sources. Perhaps the consequences of insisting on this reality will lose some folks, however some things that have been told and retold become "facts" in American history, and these are not "facts" at all. I suppose that I have two challenges with this retelling; the first is academic: What really happened? The second is that some stories have become American Myth. The harm in the American Myth can be found by going to "GOOGLE" and searching for 'Chinese hanging in baskets,' for example. You will be amazed at the variety of stories told, and retold there, by folks that really believe that what they are writing really happened. And, our American educational system taps into this same source, and goes forward with the myth, as fact. The story and mental image that are conjured up are strong; the hard work the Chinese accomplished, the risks they took, the non-caring attitude of the white bosses towards their Chinese employees, and how Chinese workers used old, traditional methods of work where modern technology would not work. (Modern, that is, in 1865 terms). The challenge? There is no primary source support for this Cape Horn myth. None. Nada. Where did it all start? Perhaps Wes Griswold's book in 1962 Work of Giants where on page 123 he says "... Here Strobridge had had to lower Chinese from the top of the cliff in wicker baskets ..." The challenge is Mr. Griswold gives us NO SOURCE for his story. Likewise, the 1869 Croffut guide give us no source for "... were held by ropes until firm footholds could be excavated." Nor is there a source for William Minturn in 1877 "... – hardy industrious Chinese – were held and steadied by the aid of rope ..." nor is there a source for the Pacific Tourist in 1877 "... and where the first foot-hold ... was gained by men who were let down by ropes from the summit." All of the above is light years from the report from Sam Montague: "August first (1865) the work above Colfax was commenced...the heaviest portions of the work were well underway early in September, and at the present date (December, 1865) the grading ... is two thirds completed ... The work at Cape Horn has proved less difficult and expensive than was first anticipated." Thank Heavens for good friend David Haward Bain, The Old Iron Road where he says "... I preferred to back away from those durable baskets; unfortunately it was too late to change the passage (in Empire Express) in question. And sticklers, amateur and professional historians alike, will rib me about the Cape Horn baskets until we are all gone." Iris Chang tried her best to tell the story of the Chinese workers and the Central Pacific Railroad, as we all still do. We cannot let these myth stories stand; we must go back to the primary sources of the period 1863-1869 (as did Norman Tutorow in his book The Governor), hard as that is, and do the hard detective work necessary to keep our common history pure. I would like to think that someone, in my lifetime, will be able to explain the article in the Elko Independent, January, 1870 that reported that to effect that ... six cars are strung along the grade, picking up bodies of deceased railroad workers ... and then in June, 1870 the Sacramento Reporter noted 1,200 bodies of railworkers came through Sacramento, on their way to burial in China. If it took SIX RAILROAD CARS to pick up bodies between Elko and Toano, what killed all those workers? Surely not the Sierra Nevada, surely not black powder (there are no mountains to blast between Elko and Toano); surely not Cape Horn, surely not Mr. Stobridge with his awful pick ... There is a mystery here, a noble mystery, that needs to be explained. It is too bad Iris is not here to unravel this mystery, I think she would have enjoyed the work. —G J Chris Graves, NewCastle, Cal., 11/11/2004