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National Golden Spike Centennial Commission Official Publication
The Last Spike is Driven

Chinese Laborers and the Construction of the Central Pacific

By George Kraus
Mr. Kraus is with the Public Relations Department, Southern Pacific Company, San Francisco. He is the author of an account of the building of the Central Pacific Railroad, [High Road to Promontory]...

Utah Historical Quarterly, Winter 1969, Volume  37, Number 1, pages 41-57. PDF
"Copyright Utah State Historical Society, used by permission."

Courtesy Stan Layton, Utah State Historical Society.

Centennial Chinese RR Worker Commemorative Plaque
Centennial Commemorative Plaque at the Golden Spike National Historic Site
Courtesy National Park Service.

THE STERN TASK FACED by Central Pacific's "Big Four" in driving the nation's first transcontinental railroad over the High Sierra and across the Nevada plains and desert to join with Union Pacific at Promontory Summit, Utah, would have taken much longer were it not for the Chinese laborers who played such a significant role in building the railroad. Charles W. Crocker 覧 known as the organizer, construction genius, and leader of men among the Central Pacific's Big Four 謡as the man responsible for recruiting the Chinese, first in California, and later in Canton Province and bringing them to California.

Due to a shortage of money, Central Pacific was able to field only three hundred workers during the extremely mild Sierra winter of 1864 compared with the twelve thousand they would have on the payroll two years later[1] But on January 2, the California Supreme Court reaffirmed the constitutionality of the state legislature's act providing for payment by California of interest on $1.5 million in bonds for the hard-pressed Central Pacific at the rate of seven per cent. This made the bonds immediately salable and gave the railroad instant relief from long and agonizing financial strain.
[1] Erle Heath, "From Trail to Rail," Southern Pacific Bulletin, XV (1927), Chap. XV, p. 12.

Four days later, the Sacramento Union carried a Central Pacific advertisement calling for "5,000 laborers for constant and permanent work; also experienced foremen." Construction, long halted at Newcastle, California, was speeded immediately. Apparently the need for labor was unduly advertised, for the Shasta Courier carried this advertisement on January 2.

The Central Pacific Railroad Company advertises for 5,000 laborers to work upon the road between Newcastle and Illinoistown [Colfax]. It is the intention of the company to employ at once as many men as can be advantageously worked on the distance between these points 覧 23 miles. The iron for laying this additional amount of track is already in Sacramento and it is expected that the cars will run to Illinoistown by August next. The above opportunity affords a chance for those out of employment.
Base camp for Superintendent J. H. Strobridge's construction crews was in Auburn. New men were hired as a result of the fresh money in the treasury and were put to work completing the unfinished grading of the twelve miles between Newcastle and Clipper Gap.

It was after passing Auburn early that year that the first Chinese were employed apparently because Central Pacific was unable to fill its ranks. The first indication of this appears in a letter written April 12, 1865, by Central Pacific's legal counsel judge E. B. Crocker to his longtime friend Cornelius Cole, who was retiring as a California congressman and returning to his home.

Friend Cole,. . . We have now about 2000 men at work with about 300 wagons and carts and I can assure you they are moving the earth and rock rapidly. We are now on some of the heaviest work in the mountains, but so far we have been fortunate in meeting very little hard rock. You will be astonished when you come back and see the amount of work we have done.

A large part of our force are Chinese, and they prove nearly equal to white men, in the amount of labor they perform, and are far more reliable. No danger of strikes among them. We are training them to all kinds of labor, blasting, driving horses, handling rock, as well as the pick and shovel.... We want to get a body of 2500 trained laborers, and keep them steadily at work until the road is built clear across the continent, or until we meet them coming from the other side. . . . [2]

[2]  Catherine Coffin Phillips, Cornelius Cole, California Pioneer and United States Senator ... (San Francisco, 1929), 138.

Charles Crocker, who conceived the plan of employing the Chinese, was opposed by Strobridge, who gave in only after a series of trials demonstrated the worth of the Celestial worker. Crocker insisted that the race that built the Great Wall of China could certainly be useful in building a railroad, countering Strobridge's claim that they were "not masons."[3]  Strobridge finally agreed to try fifty Chinese. They did so well, he agreed to fifty more 覧 and before the road was finished, there were about twelve thousand on the payroll. As the Chinese increased their numbers and their skills, the ascent of the railroad toward the summit also increased in speed, despite ever increasing difficulties.[4]
[3] Edwin L. Sabin, Building the Pacific Railway ... (Philadelphia, 1919), 125.
[4]Heath, "Trail to Rail," S.P.B., XV, Chap. XV, p. 12.

Shovel and pick and black powder were the only aids to grading, and horsepower meant horses pulling small carts. Speedy construction under such conditions required employment of many men 覧 and nothing was scarcer in California than labor in 1865. Such Caucasians as were not employed on ventures of their own found it more profitable to work in the mines or follow agricultural pursuits than to face the hardships of hand-carving a railroad right-of-way up the steep slopes and through the granite spires of the Sierra. At the same time, there were many thousands of Chinese in California. Drawn here by gold fever, they were eager for employment.[5]
[5] Ibid.

S. S. Montague, in his annual report of 1865, said

It became apparent early in the season that the amount of labor likely to be required during the summer could only be supplied by employment of the Chinese element in our population. Some distrust was at first felt regarding capacity of this class for the services required, but the experiment has proved eminently successful. They are faithful and industrious and, under proper supervision, soon become skillful in the performance of their duty. Many of them are becoming very expert in drilling, blasting and other departments of rock work.[6]
[6] Ibid. An original copy of this report is in the California State Library, Sacramento.

The Chinese on the Central Pacific were divided into small groups. Each group had a cook who not only prepared their meals, but also kept a large boiler of hot water ready every night so that when the Chinese came off the road they could fill their tubs made from powder kegs and take a hot sponge bath. This bath and change of clothes were regular habits every night before they took their evening meal. Strobridge, who earlier opposed employing the Chinese, pronounced them the best in the world. "They learn quickly, do not fight, have no strikes that amount to anything, and are very cleanly in their habits. They will gamble, and do quarrel among themselves most noisily 覧 but harmlessly."[7]
[7] Heath, "Trail to Rail," S.P.B., XV, Chap. XV, p. 12. See also John Debo Galloway, The First Transcontinental Railroad: Central Pacific, Union Pacific (New York, 1950), 144, and Robert F. G. Spier, "Food Habits of Nineteenth Century California Chinese," California Historical Society Quarterly, XXXVII (No. 1 and 2, 1958), 79-84, 129-36.

Leland H. Stanford, in a report to Andrew Johnson, had this to say about the Chinese on October 10, 1865:

As a class they are quiet, peaceable, patient, industrious and economical. Ready and apt to learn all the different kinds of work required in railroad building, they soon become as efficient as white laborers. More prudent and economical, they are contented with less wages. We find them organized into societies for mutual aid and assistance. These societies can count their numbers by thousands, are conducted by shrewd, intelligent business men who promptly advise their subordinates where employment can be found on most favorable terms. No system similar to slavery, serfdom or peonage prevails among these laborers. Their wages, which are always paid in coin each month, are divided among them by their agents who attend to their business according to the labor done by each person. These agents are generally American or Chinese merchants who furnish them their supplies of food, the value of which they deduct from their monthly pay.

We have assurance from leading Chinese merchants that, under the just and liberal policy pursued by the company, it will be able to procure during the next year not less than 15,000 laborers. With this large force the company will be able to push on the work so as not only to complete it far within the time required by the Acts of Congress but so as to meet the public impatience.[8]

[8] Heath, "Trail to Rail," S.P.B., XV, Chap. XV, p. 12.

The difference in the eating and drinking habits of the Chinese and white workers building the Central Pacific was as great as their other living habits. The Chinese menu included dried oysters, abalone, cuttlefish, bamboo sprouts, mushrooms, five kinds of vegetables, pork, poultry, vermicelli, rice, salted cabbage, dried seaweed, sweet rice crackers, sugar, four kinds of dried fruit, Chinese bacon, peanut oil, and tea. Seemingly, this was the forerunner of the modem American well-balanced diet. The fare of the Caucasian laborer consisted of beef, beans, bread, butter, and potatoes.

On the grade the Caucasians relieved their thirst with water 覧 not always the best and at times, despite all precautions, a source of illness. The Chinese drank luke-warm tea. It stood beside the grade in thirty and forty-gallon whiskey barrels, always on tap. Several times daily a Chinese mess attendant brought fresh tea, pouring it into the big barrel. These beverage reinforcements were carried to the work site in powder kegs suspended from each end of a bamboo pole which was balanced on a Celestial shoulder.[9]
[9] Ibid. and Spier, "Food Habits of the Chinese," C.H.S.Q., XXXVII, 78, 80, 83, 130.

On October 10, 1865, Governor Stanford again wrote President Andrew Johnson and Secretary of Interior James Haran:

A call was issued for 5,000 laborers and from that day to the present, every able-bodied laborer that could be procured has been employed and kept constantly at work in the construction of the road.

Labor is, however, scarce and dear in this state. For several months the number procured was comparatively small, but recently they have increased more rapidly, until now, 5,000 men are employed, with over 6,000 teams and the prospect is that the number of laborers will be increased to 6,000 during this season.

A large majority of the white laboring class on the Pacific Coast find more profitable and congenial employment in mining and agricultural pursuits, than in railroad work. The greater portion of the laborers employed by us are Chinese who constitute a large element in the population of California. Without them it would be impossible to complete the western portion of this great national enterprise within the time required by the Acts of Congress.

Governor Stanford held the Chinese workers in such high esteem that he provided in his will for the permanent employment of a large number. Some of these were still living and working lands now owned by Stanford University in the 1930's. [10]
[10] Heath, "Trail to Rail," S.P.B., XV, Chap. XV, p. 12.

Building the Central Pacific road over and through the granite walls of the Sierra Nevada was done literally by hand. Chinese were lowered in baskets over cliffs two thousand feet above the base of the American River Canyon to chisel a roadway through the granite reaches and occasional shale deposits for the iron rails.[11]  It is easy to understand why Central Pacific's Chinese became known as "Crocker's Pets," when you consider their industriousness and steadiness.[12]
[11] Ibid., Chap. XVI, p. 12.
[12] Sabin, Building the Pacific Railway, 112.

Central Pacific and its Chinese laborers met the biggest problem in the fight to cross the Sierra after the line was opened to Cisco. This problem was the summit tunnels-eleven of them numbered three to thirteen within a twenty-mile stretch between Cisco, located at Mile Post 92 (from Sacramento), and Lake Ridge at Mile Post 112 just west of Cold Stream Valley on the eastern slope of the summit. These tunnels were bored while the mountain slopes were covered with as much as thirty feet of snow.

Civil Engineer John R. Gillis, who worked on these tunnels, told the American Society of Civil Engineers, which recently declared the Central Pacific a National Civil Engineering Landmark, that

 During the fall of 1866, the track reached Cisco, and as fast as the gangs of Chinamen were released, they were hurried to the Summit to be distributed among the tunnels in its vicinity. The year before [in August, 1865] some gangs had been sent to Summit Tunnel No. 6, and commenced the cuts at its extremities; winter set in before the headings were started, and the work had to be abandoned. To avoid a repetition of such delay, the approaches to all the tunnels were covered with men ... [who] worked day and night in three shifts of eight hours each. Thus, time was saved, and the tunnel organization started at once. As an illustration of the hurry, I may mention walking two miles over the hills after dark and staking out the east end of Tunnel 12 by the light of a bonfire. At nine o'clock the men were at work. . . .  [13]
[13]  J. G. Gillis Speech Before the American Society of Civil Engineers, January 5, 1870 (typescript, Southern Pacific Company Archives, San Francisco), 10.

Gillis went on to describe the weather problem at the summit and said that "At Tunnel 10, some 15 or 20 Chinese were killed by a slide" that winter. The year before, in the winter of 1864-65, two wagon road repairers had been buried and killed by a slide at the same location.[14]
[14]  Ibid., 6. Also, Galloway, First Transcontinental Railroad, 149.

J. O. Wilder, for many years a Central Pacific-Southern Pacific employee, in an interview with the late Erle Heath, one-time Southern Pacific historian, said:

The Chinese were as steady, hard-working a set of men as could be found. With the exception of a few whites at the west end of Tunnel No. 6, the laboring force was entirely composed of Chinamen with white foremen. A single foreman with a gang of 30 to 40 men generally constituted the force at work at each end of a tunnel; of these, 12 to 15 worked on the heading, and the rest on the bottom removing material. When a gang was small or the men needed elsewhere, the bottoms were worked with fewer men or stoped so as to keep the headings going.

The Chinese were paid $30 to $35 in gold a month, finding [maintaining] themselves, while the whites were paid about the same with their board thrown in .... [15]

[15]  Erle Heath, editor of the Southern Pacific Bulletin, conducted question and answer interviews with various persons who had worked on the construction of the Central Pacific. Copies of these interviews are on file in the archives of the Southern Pacific Company in San Francisco.

Wilder said that nine-tenths of the force on the road were Chinese. Using black powder, the Chinese averaged an advance of 1. 18 feet daily. The first train arrived at Summit Station[16] from Sacramento November 30, 1867. The summit tunnels had been completed in August of that year and the thousands of workers, mostly Chinese, were turned loose to build the line that had been graded previously to the Nevada State line. Now the job of hauling locomotives, cars, and iron over the summit for the forty miles of roadbed awaiting the rails began.
[16]There is no longer a station by that name, although at one time trains did stop at Summit.

A. P. Partridge, who also aided in construction, told of the conditions under which the railroad gangs worked in the winter of 1866. He told Heath that the snows came early that year

and drove the crews out of the mountains. There were about 4,000 men ... 3,000 of them Chinese. Most ... came to Truckee and filled up all the old buildings and sheds. An old barn collapsed and killed four Chinese. A good many were frozen to death. [17]
[17] Heath, Interviews.

A construction report by Strobridge indicated crews, that winter, were at work many miles ahead of the line.

It was necessary to have the heavy work in Palisade Canyon done in advance of the main force, and 3,000 men with 400 horses and carts were sent to that point, a distance of 300 miles in advance of the track. Hay grain and all supplies for the men and horses had to be hauled by teams over the deserts for that great distance. Water for men and animals was hauled at times 40 miles.[18]
[18] Heath, "Trail to Rail," S.P.B., XV, Chap. XX, p. 9.

On August 1, 1867, C. P. Huntington issued a report from his New York office as the race to meet Union Pacific gathered storm: "The company hopes to increase its force of 10,000 men to 15,000 during the present season when progress over the plains will be very rapid."[19]
[19] Collis P. Huntington, Railroad Communications with the Pacific with an account of the Central Pacific Railroad of California: The Character of the Work, its Progress, Resources, Earnings and Future Prospects (New York, 1867). A copy of this pamphlet is in the archives of the Southern Pacific Company in San Francisco.

Charles Crocker announced as a New Year's resolution "a mile a day for every working day in 1868." Apparently, the other associates were of the same mind as on January 26, 1868, Collis P. Huntington wrote to Crocker,

I consider it of the most vital importance that we build to the Wasatch Mountains.... I would build the road in the cheapest possible manner then go back and improve it at once, because the Union Pacific have built the cheapest kind of road.
On June 20, 1868, the Alta California of San Francisco carried a story on the first trip between Sacramento and Reno. The reporter who told the story mentioned that below Cisco "Chinamen are swarming all along the road. They have nearly finished their work in this vicinity and are packing their traps preparatory to passing on over the Summit into the great interior basin . . . ."

He continued his story:

As the first through passenger train sweeps down the eastern slopes of the Sierras, John [meaning the Chinese laborers] comprehending fully the importance of the event, loses his natural appearance of stolidity and indifference and welcomes with the swinging of his broad-brimmed hat and loud, uncouth shouts the iron horse and those that he brings with him.

John with his patient toil, directed by American energy and backed by American capital, has broken down the great barrier at last and opened over it the greatest highway yet created for the march of commerce and civilization around the globe ....

Central Pacific found it desirable to increase grading forces considerably, so they brought several hundred Chinamen direct from China and organized them into construction gangs. The Piute Indians got among these Chinese and told them some big stories about enormous snakes out on that desert large enough that they could swallow a Chinaman easily ... four or five hundred took their belongings and struck out to return directly to Sacramento. Crocker & Co. had spent quite a little money to secure them and they sent men on horseback after them .... Most of them came back again, kind of quieted down, and after nothing happened and they never saw any of the snakes, they forgot about them.

Despite such diversions, progress was swift. The Alta California Pictured the pace of Central Pacific construction:
Camp equipage, work shops, boarding house, offices and in fact the big settlement literally took up its bed and walked. The place that knew it in the morning knew it no more at night. It was nearly 10 miles off and where was a busy town of 5,000 inhabitants in the morning, was a deserted village site at night, while a smooth, well-built, compact road bed for traveling stretched from the morning site to evening tarrying place .[20]
[20]  Alta California (San Francisco), June 20, 1868.

Caxton, pen name for San Francisco Chronicle correspondent W. H. Rhodes, along on an inspection trip by railroad commissioners early in September 1868, wrote:

... we were informed by Mr. Crocker ... he had just placed upon the work all the Indian tribes living in the great basin of the Humboldt, consisting chiefly of the Pah-Utahs, Cowchillas and Washoes. I asked him how many men he had at work? He replied that it was impossible to tell as no list of names was kept and the men worked by the squad and not as individuals. In explanation, he added that Indians and Chinese were so much alike personally that no human being could tell them apart and, therefore, for fear of paying double wages, he devised the scheme of employing, working and paying them by the wholesale. Thus, every morning a count is made of those who go to work, a second of those who eat and a third of those who quit at night. In this way, lengthy bookkeeping is avoided, time is saved and cheating prevented. At the present time, there are about 10,000 Chinese, 1,000 whites and "any number" of Indians employed on the road . . . . [21]
[21]  San Francisco Chronicle, September 10, 1868.

At the end of track, 307 miles from Sacramento between Mill City and Winnemucca, the train trip ended. Caxton reported

Here we found a very large number of men at work 覧 principally Chinese 覧 laying the track.... A horse was furnished me by Gen. Crocker and I rode on a gallop to the front. The grading is completed several hundred miles in advance of the track laying, so there is no delay in placing the rails.

It would be impossible to describe how rapidly, orderly and perfectly this is done without seeing the operation itself. There are just as many employed as can conveniently work, and no more. Vehicles laden with ties are always in advance, and Chinese with guage and leveling rod place them across the grade, almost as quick as thought. The car with the rails is brought up at a gallop and six white men 覧 three at each rail 覧 roll the iron off the car and drop it upon the track with the velocity of steam. The empty car is lifted off the track, and then one fully loaded is drawn to the front, and the same operation repeated ad infinitum.

I found it was no joke ... [when] Gen. Crocker ... [said] it would be no easy task to overtake the end of the road. Taking out my watch, I timed the last half mile I saw laid, and it took a little less than 28 minutes . . . . [22]

[22]  Ibid.

On November 9, 1868, the Alta California further pictured the Chinese forces in action at the rail end:

Long lines of horses, mules and wagons are standing in the open desert near the camp train. The stock is getting its breakfast of hay and barley. Trains are shunting in from the west with supplies and materials for the day's work. Foremen are galloping here and there on horseback giving or receiving orders. Swarms of laborers, Chinese, Europeans and Americans, are hurrying to their work.... By the side of the grade smokes the camp fires of the blue clad laborers who could be seen in groups waiting for the signal to start work. These are the Chinese, and the job of this particular contingent is to clear a level roadbed for the track. They are the vanguard of the construction forces. Miles back is the camp of the rear guard 覧 the Chinese who follow the track gang, ballasting and finishing the roadbed.

Systematic workers these Chinese 覧 competent and wonderfully effective because tireless and unremitting in their industry....

The Chinese board themselves. One of their number is selected in each gang to receive all wages and buy all provisions. They usually pay an American clerk 覧 $1 a month apiece is usual 覧 to see that each gets all he earned and is charged no more than his share of the living expenses. They are paid from $30 to $35 a month, out of which they board themselves. They are credited with having saved about $20 a month. Their workday is from sunrise to sunset, six days in the week. They spend Sunday washing and mending, gambling and smoking, and frequently, old timers will testify, in shrill-toned quarreling.

At sunrise a signal to turn to is given from the camp train. What at first seemed confusion to the visitor soon is the aim of this third gang to keep pace with the rail gang. At times lack of wagons make it impossible to keep up the supply of poles and the telegraph gangs, who pride themselves on never letting the track get ahead of them utilize sage brush, barrels, ties 覧 surreptitiously taken from the track 覧 or anything else that would keep the wire off the ground until the supply of poles again equal the demand.

Then comes a wagon bearing a reel of wire which unrolls as the wagon goes ahead. As the wire uncoils it is carried upon the poles and made fast to the insulators.

Back of the track builders follows a gang with the seven or more ties necessary to complete the foundation for each rail. These are put into position and spiked by another gang, which also level up the track and leave it ready for the ballasters.

Meanwhile on board the camp train cooks are preparing dinner, clerks are busy with accounts and records, and the telegraph wire is tapping back the needs for tomorrow in the way of material and supplies.

Twice a day the camp train moves to the end of the track 預t noon to give all hands the hot dinner that six揺ours of labor has earned and at night to give supper and sleeping accommodations.

Immediately on reaching the end of the track at night a telegraph wire is cut in from the last pole to the telegraph car and Sacramento is notified of the number of miles of track laid.

The Vallejo Evening Chronicle of January 11, 1869, told how the Chinese gangs were paid:
Sisson and Crocker Co. had an interpreter named Sam Thayer and also a Chinese interpreter. When they came up to these gangs of Chinamen, the money due them would be already counted out and they would dump the money in one of the Chinese' hats for that gang with a statement written in Chinese. There would be no time for explanations. They had to take it whether they liked it or not. This Sam Thayer claimed he could speak half a dozen Chinese dialects. If there were any claims about the pay, they would take it up with the Sisson and Crocker Company later.
The most intense construction took place in the early months of 1869. One day Union Pacific's Irish "terriers" laid six miles of track. Crocker's "pets," paced by Central Pacific's own Irish track builders, followed with seven. This was bettered by the rival camp and brought the boast from Crocker that his men could lay ten miles of track in a day. It is, said that his wager of $ 10,000 was "covered" by Thomas C. Durant, vice-president of the Union Pacific. Crocker and Strobridge made careful plans. Ties were laid several miles in advance and materials were hauled ahead to strategic points. On April 28, 1869, while a number of officers of both companies, including General G. M. Dodge chief engineer of the Union Pacific, several newspaper correspondents, and workers from the rival camp looked on, the Central Pacific forces, working with military precision and organization, laid ten miles and fifty-six feet of track in a little less than twelve hours, a feat that has never been equaled. This day's performance brought the Central Pacific railhead past Camp Victory, later Rozel, a few miles from Promontory and completion of the Central Pacific.[23]
[23]  Heath, "Trail to Rail," S.P.B., XV, Chap. XXII, p. 11.

Although many claims have been made about the Central Pacific and Union Pacific powder crews blowing up each others forces as the grades began to parallel in Utah, such activity has not been substantiated by any contemporary account.

The Salt Lake City Deseret Evening News of March 25, 1869, reported that

Sharp and Young's blasters are jarring the earth every few minutes with their glycerine and powder, lifting whole ledges of limestone rock from their long resting places, hurling them hundreds of feet in the air and scattering them around for a half mile in every direction. Mr. T. E. Ticks showed me a boulder of three or four hundred pounds weight that was thrown over a half mile and completely buried itself in the ground within twenty yards of his cook room. I ate a hearty breakfast and left that spot sine dine. At Carlisle's works a few days ago, four men were preparing a blast by filling a large crevice in a ledge with powder. After pouring in the powder they undertook to work it down with iron bars, the bars striking the rocks caused an explosion; one of the men was blown two or three hundred feet in the air, breaking every bone in his body, the other three were terribly burnt and wounded with flying stones ....

From what I can observe and hear from others, there is considerable opposition between the two railroad companies, both lines run near each other, so near that in one place the UP are taking a four feet cut out of the CP fill to finish their grade, leaving the CP to fill the cut thus made in the formation of their grade.

The two companies' blasters work very near each other and when Sharp & Young's men first began work, the CP would give them no warning when they fired their fuse. Jim Livingston, Sharp's able foreman, said nothing but went to work and loaded a point of rock with nitro-glycerine, and without saying anything to the CP "let her rip." The explosion was terrific. The report was heard on the Dry Tortugas, and the foreman of the CP came down to confer with Mr. Livingston about the necessity of each party notifying the other when ready for a blast. The matter was speedily arranged to the satisfaction of both parties.

Nothing was mentioned of any injury or death resulting from actions of the other road, however.

On May 6, the San Francisco Evening Bulletin reported a Chinese Tong war:

A battle has occurred between two rival companies of Chinamen, several hundred in number, laborers of the See Yup and Teng Wo Companies. They have been idle at [Camp] Victory, eight miles from here, for a number of days past. The row occurred about $15 due from one camp to the other. After the usual braggadocio, both parties sailed in, at a given signal, armed with every conceivable weapon. Spades were handled and crowbars, spikes, picks and infernal machines were hurled between the rank of the contestants. Several shots were fired and everything betokened the outbreak of a riot. At this juncture, Superintendent Strobridge, with several of his men, rushed into the melee and, with the assistance of the leading "Chinamen," who were more peaceably disposed, he succeeded in separating the combatants and restoring order ....

The casualties include the shooting, fatally, it is supposed of a Chinaman. The ball penetrated his left side, tearing the flesh and inflicting a very ugly wound. If this man dies, another encounter will certainly follow and much bloodshed will doubtless ensue. Dr. Blackwood has rendered surgical attendance to the wounded man.

Further fighting was apparently avoided since no other mention appeared in the newspaper.

On May 8, a dispatch to the San Francisco Evening Bulletin reported that

A large gang of graders attached to the Union Pacific road, made their appearance here today, announcing their intention to "clean out" the Chinese who had an encounter here yesterday.... Though much bluster and menacing language was indulged, still no positive demonstration has yet been made.... At all events, no collision can occur today and steps will be taken to prevent such altogether.

"Crocker's Pets," who had made the road possible, almost disrupted the final events that were to celebrate their labor. On the way to Promontory, the Stanford special narrowly escaped catastrophy. Chinese, cutting timber on the mountains above the entrance to Tunnel No. 14 near the state line cast of Truckee, saw the regular train pass. Unaware of the following special, they carelessly skidded a log down upon the track below. The log, fifty feet long by forty-two inches in circumference, landed in a cut with one end against the bank and the other on a rail. The engineer, rounding a curve there, braked his train but it struck the log, crippling the engine. A guest, riding on the cowcatcher, was injured. The log scraped all along one side of the car, taking the steps with it. A wire was sent ahead from the next station in time to hold the train at Wadsworth until the Stanford coach could be attached. Thus, the Chinese were responsible for the use of the Central Pacific locomotive "Jupiter" at the ceremonies, rather than the "Antelope" which had started to make the trip.

Ogden May 10th, 1919. Courtesy National Park Service.
"Golden Spike 50th Anniversary Celebration" Float May 10th, 1919, Ogden, Utah.
Ging Cui, Wong Fook, Lee Shao three of the eight Chinese men who
brought up the last rail fifty years earlier stand on the float.

Courtesy National Park Service.

The famous Gold Spike ceremony that united the Central Pacific and Union Pacific railroads at Promontory took place only a few days later, on May 10, 1869. With the completion of the Central Pacific, many Chinese workers moved to other railroad construction jobs, including some for the Central Pacific. Others returned with their savings to their families in Canton. Others still sent to China for wives and settled in various western communities as laundrymen and restaurateurs. The majority who remained, however, returned to the Pacific Coast.

[Accompanying illustrations not yet available.]

 "China Labour" – CPRR Payroll, March, 1865. (Enlarged below)China Labour, CPRR Payroll, March, 1865
"China Labour C. P. R. R. PAY ROLL, NO. 102, for month of March 1865, Received from C. CROCKER, Contractor, Central Pacific Railroad Company, the Sums set opposite our respective names, for services performed, during the month of March 1865"
Early Payroll showing Chinese Workers on the Central Pacific Railroad. Note the signature in Chinese. Courtesy G.J. "Chris" Graves.
China Labour, CPRR Payroll, March, 1865

William F. Chew, grandson of Chew Wing Qui, a worker of the CPRR and whose maternal grandfather, Woo Sing Jung, was a worker on the Southern Pacific Railroad, has studied the CPRR payroll records at the California State Railroad Museum dating from 1864 to 1867 and written a book, Nameless Builders of the Transcontinental Railroad, reporting his discovery that one thousand Chinese workers are named and their wages and occupations listed. He discovered Payroll Sheets No. 26 and No. 34 dated January and February 1864, recording the first Chinese CPRR workers, headman Hung Wah and foreman Ah Toy (who supervised a crew of 23).

More CPRR Payroll records

Regarding two of the men named in the above payroll, see: Ah Henge & J.Millard

> Some comments and research from G.J. "Chris" Graves:

The 1852 California Census names Ah Toy as being 31, born in China, and working for James Harvey Strobridge on his ranch in Sacramento ... in the Census, while living in what is now Rio Linda, on the land owned by Pitcher and Strobridge,  [the Chinese] were listed on the census as miners [but] no mines that I a know of in Rio Linda. The film is of poor quality, but Ah Toy is easily read. ... in February, 1864 the Central Pacific Railroad was just going past the Strobridge farm, in Rio Linda. That is very near to where "The Sierras began." ... Most Chinese noted on the 1852 Census were listed as "18 Chinese" and not by name.  In the case of Pitcher and Strobridge, all the workers are named. ... the 18 Chinese workers [were] employed by Stobridge on his farm and hotel in 1852 ...

Eighteen Chinese and James H. StrobridgeThe California Special Census, 1852
A brief history of James Harvey Strobridge is necessary to understand the following census data: Strobridge, was born in Vermont on April 23, 1827. At age 16 he worked for the Boston and Fitchburg Railroad in Massachusetts.  He sailed for California from New York on January 30, 1849, and arrived in San Francisco on July 8, 1849. He joined with Edward M. Pitcher in 1850 in a gold mining venture at Coon Hollow, near Placerville.  Edward Pitcher was the son of the Governor of New York, Nathaniel Pitcher. In 1851 Pitcher and Strobridge obtained land for a hay farm and hotel on the Rancho del Paso, near what is today Rio Linda.  (I spent many hours, years ago, walking around the area identified as the farm and hotel operation, nothing of their occupation remains. ... the Rio Linda School District, in days past, needed a bus barn, and seeing some vacant land nearby, paved over the lot, and built the bus barn. Edward M. Pitcher, partner of J. H. Strobridge, and son of the Governor of New York, happened to have the poor luck to be buried in Rio Linda. You guessed it. Mr. Pitcher is under the Rio Linda School bus barn, along with 7 other unfortunates. His children and grand children and great grand children are buried in Sylvan Cemetery, in Citrus Heights. His great great grand son lives in Sacramento, with some furnishings that belonged to Edward M. Pitcher still in family use.) In August, 1852, a special census was done for the new State of California, on which is noted Mr. Pitcher, his wife and children, James H. Strobridge, and 18 Chinese workers, all at the same address. (Please realize that I am working from a badly copied census record – kindly do not hold me responsible for incorrect spellings!) The following is a listing of the Chinese workers, and their ages.  All of them are listed as miners, although there are no mines in or near Rio Linda.  It would be my guess that they worked for Pitcher and Strobridge in Coon Hollow, and then, at the time of the census, transferred their homes to the Pitcher/Strobridge property. ... it has been a difficult thing to find these names, as the 1852 index was done by the DAR, and page numbers do not collate with the actual census.  A search had to be done, page by page, name by name ... It was a long four days.

California Special 1852 Census, page 194:
1. Ah Sing 37
2. Peter 31
3. Ah Chinn 33
4. A.  Zee 31
5. Ah Poo 41
6. Sty Hair 39  (this name is nearly illegible, spelling most likely is incorrect ... )
7. Ah Toy 31  (this name is repeated on the CPRR payroll file)
8. Accony 20
9. Ah Sing 24
10. Accut 36  (this may be spelled Accup)
11. Ah  Fropp--- 30
12. Ah Poot  41
13. Acchung 21
14. A. Uog 33
15. A. Mung 30
16. A. Much 30
17. Ah Fines 32
18. Ah Tu--- 39
Next named are Pitcher and Strobridge

1852 California Census, page 194
Page 194 of the California 1852 census, that shows the
18 Chinese workers on the farm of Strobridge and Pitcher.
(Ah Toy, Strobridge, and Pitcher are 'starred')

Courtesy G.J. "Chris" Graves and Carol Graves.

The report by Chief Engineer Montague, dated November 25, 1865, says that the total number of workers at work on January 1, 1865, as graders was 300.  That number increased to 1,200 by April 1, 1865, to 2,000 by June 1, and to 4,000 by the end of July, most of whom were Chinese and "who, under proper supervision, soon became skillful in the performance of their duties, and even expert in drilling, blasting and other departments of rock work.  That while at first there had been some distrust felt as to their capacity, this no longer existed." [emphasis added]

The Alta Californian of November 9, 1868 has a long article about end of track. "These Chinese work on a thorough system, keeping things moving in perfect order. Each division is in charge of an American foreman, who keeps the time book for each gang under him.  These gangs, consisting of about 30 men ... " and "away back behind the track gang and the camp train comes the rear guard ... ballast and finish the roadbed ... these are also Chinese."

Bloomer Cut work started – Placer Herald, Feb. 27, 1864: "On last Monday work was commenced by the contractor, with a force of some thirty men, on the deep through cut on the Pacific Railroad, one mile south-west of Auburn. The point is known as Bloomer Gap ... "

Bloomer Cut accident – Placer Herald, April 16, 1864: "Horrible accident – Yesterday on the deep cut of the of the Pacific Railroad, near town, some of the workmen under the superintendence of Mr. Trowbridge [sic] attempted to set off a blast containing about 50 pounds of powder. From some cause it failed, when Mr. T. [sic], and two of the hands, – a Portugese and a Frenchman – commenced using a crowbar or drill upon the hole, when the blast went off suddenly, mutilating them in a horrible manner, especially the Portugese who is not expected to recover; but Mr. Trobridge [sic] will, with probably the loss of his left eye. The Frenchman was cut in the chin and his lip slit; he was less hurt than the other two."

Bloomer Cut workers – Placer Herald, July 30, 1864: The number of workmen at Bloomer Hill "does not exceed 40 ... men ... now at work on the road ... does not exceed 60." ... Bloomer is only 800 feet or so long.  ... Having spent time in the Cut, I would agree that 40 would be max, assuming each man had a shovel, and every 4 or 5 a wheelbarrow. ...

Bloomer Cut completed – Montague's November, 1864 report says: "The cut through Bloomer Divide, which is the heaviest ... is now fully completed."

May 6, 1865: Serious Blasting Accident – On Tues. evening last, the hands working on the Pacific Railroad, in a deep cut below the station, put in a blast, containing just over a keg of powder, but from some cause it would not explode. On Wednesday morning the foreman suggested that a new hole be drilled but Patrick Maginn and Joseph Good, who had charge of the blasting, thought the rock was seamy and that the powder had gone into the seams so far it would prove a dangerous operation, and that it would be safer to pour water into the old hole and extract the powder. Accordingly they went to work at it and succeded in getting out considerable powder, when Maginn put down his drill into the hole causing an immediate explosion of the balance of the powder. He was badly cut and bruised in both hands, breast, neck and face. Fortunataely he had no limbs broken, nor were his eyes injured. In time he will recover; Good is only injured in the face – more particularly about the eyes, but it is not yet known whether he will lose his eyesight or not. Both men have families residing in Grass Valley. The Foreman was on the opposite side of the cut at the time, and was lifted up several feet by the explosion, falling upon the edge of the bank. When he came to himself he was just balancing on the edge of the brink. Had the blast been exploded it would have killed 15 or 20 men.

Congressional testimony says that first Chinese were hired between Auburn and Clipper Gap, March 1865.

Owyhee Avalance, May 26, 1866, page 3: "Fifty Chinese were on their way to Idaho City and all but one were murdered by brutal Indians on the 21st.

Los Angeles Times, June 18, 1972: " ... Tuscarora was the largest Chinese community in ... [Nevada] history ... When the Central Pacific was pushed through to Promontory ... 12,000 Chinese laborers were suddenly without work ... a third of the labor force wandered into Tuscarora, 52 miles northwest of Elko, and stayed on. 4,000 out of work railroad laborers became Tuscarora miners. ... Many of the railroad workers turned miners lived out their lives in Tuscarora, and were buried in a Chinese cemetery ... "

Smallpox – Reese River Reveille: January 8, 1869: "Rumor of Small pox in the Chinese quarter.  There was a rumor in the city yesterday afternoon that the small pox had made its appearance in the Chinese quarter ... There is no class in the city that would spread the fell disease so rapidly and widely as the Chinese, for its members do the principal part of the washing for our citizens ... "

... I spent some time on the phone with Jay Thornton, of Wells, Nev. this evening [1/12/2005], discussing his 75 years of chasing the ghosts of the CPRR, UPRR and WPRR. He said that he never saw a grave that was Chinese on the old grade.  In fact, he said, the only grave he did see was that of an Anglo. He knows of one intact Chinese dugout, totally complete and untouched for 135 years.

ErrataSee William Chew's Rebuttal

> Some further comments from G.J. "Chris" Graves:

... recall ... the challenge presented by some historians as to the number of Chinese railroad workers that died during construction ofthe Transcontinental railroad, with the inference being Caucasian cruelty/indifference caused the 'slaughter'. If one were to read the papers published between 1863 and 1869, a more-than-casual reader will discover that 137 deaths of Chinese railroad workers were reported on by local newspapers. These 137 workers were just that – workers – that died during their period of employment. Some deaths were from disease, some from avalanche, some from gun shot, etc., and a few actually from accidents that occured while the workers were on the job.

The challenge presents itself is this: January 5, 1870, from the ELKO INDEPENDENT: "Six cars are strung along the road between here and Toano, and are being loaded with dead Celestials for transportation to the Flowery Kingdom. We understand the Chinese Companies pay the Railroad Company $10 for carrying to San Francisco each dead Chinaman. The remains of the the females are left to rot in shallow graves while every defunct male is carefully preserved for shipment to the Occident." To understand the above, you should know that the Chinese workers were largely pulled back at Mormon Hill (Toano, Nevada) and were replaced by Mormon workers under contract to Brigham Young.

Then, on June 30, 1870, in the SACRAMENTO REPORTER: "Bones in Transit – The accumulated bones of perhaps 1,200 Chinamen came in by the eastern train yesterday from along the line of the Central Pacific Railroad. The lot comprises about 20,000 pounds. Nearly all of them are the remains of employes of the company, who were engaged in building the road. The religious customs of the Celestial Empire require that, wherever possible, the bones of its subjects shall be interred upon its own soil, and the strictness with which this custom is observed is something remarkable." Well, 1200 deceased workers is a heck of a long stretch from the 137 that are noted in news reports of the day.

I can account for a few of them: June 2, 1866 THE HUMBOLDT REGISTER: "a drove of Chinamen on their way to Montana was attacked, just over the line, in the Queen's river country, and 40 are reported killed."

More: June 18, 1972, THE LOS ANGELES TIMES: " ... Tuscarora was the largest Chinese community in the State's (NEVADA) history. When the Central Pacific was pushed through to Promontory, Utah, in 1869, and linked with the Union Pacific to form the nation's first transcontinental railroad, 12,000 (sic) Chinese laborers were suddenly without work. Thousands of them spent weeks walking the 800 miles to San Francisco and the Pacific Coast. But a third of the abandoned labor force never made it that far. They wandered into Tuscarora, 52 miles Northwest of Elko, and stayed on. Four thousand out of work railroad laborers became Tuscarora miners ... But there's not a sign of a single grave (on Tuscarara Cemetery Hill) of the scores of Chinese who were once buried here. Every year or two, a bunch of Chinese would come back to Tuscarora to dig up the bones of their ancestors and ship them back to China, says Mrs. Trembath ... "

And, following completion of the Transcontinental, according to the July, 1869 PLACER HERALD "Corinne, (Utah) June 29 Three car loads of Chinamen leave here July 1 to commence work on the Union Pacific Railroad. After this gang is distributed the China force on that road will reach from Ogden to Bitter Creek, a distance of 250 miles." Did any of these workers become deceased, and therefore part of the 1,200 noted in July, 1870?

Further, the January 8, 1869 DAILY REVEILLE of Austin, Nev. says "Rumor of small-pox in the Chinese Quarter – There was a rumor in the city yesterday afternoon that the smallpox had made its appearance in the Chinese quarter, north of Court Street and on the West side of Pine Street ... There is no class in the city that would spread the fell disease so rapidly and widely as the Chinese....Since writing the above the Marshall called upon and informed us ... that there was no smallpox among the inmates."

We know from EMPIRE EXPRESS and other sources that 'pest cars' were maintained to treat Chinese and other small pox victims in 1868/69. In fact, Mrs. Strobridge contracted the disease while ministering to the workers. (Mrs. Strobridge was the wife of James Harvey Strobridge, foreman of the work on the CPRR.) After struggling thru all of the above ... you will see the challenge. What killed all those 1,200 workers? ...

Advertisement in the Pacific Railroad Gazetteer, 1870.
Advertisement in the Pacific Coast Railroad Gazetteer, 1870.

The following is a transcription of CP wage information, and Chinese vs White employment.
Central Pacific Labor
Testimony of J. H. Strobridge, US Pacific Railway Commission, pp. 3139-41, as printed in Stuart Daggett: Chapters in the History of the Southern Pacific, p. 70n.
Year    Chinese               Rate of Pay      White Workers    Rate of Pay
1864    Very few              -                1,200            $30 a month
1865    7,000                 $30 a month      2,500            $35 a month
1866    11,000                $35 a month      2,500 - 3,000    $35 a month
1867    11,000                $35 a month      2,500 – 3,000    -
1868    5,000 – 6,000         -                2,500 – 3,000    -
1869    5,000                 -                1,500 – 1,600    -

Note that across Nevada the Central Pacific also employed the local Indians, not reflected in the above chart.
Kyle K. Wyatt
Curator of History & Technology
California State Railroad Museum
111 "I" Street
Sacramento, CA 95814
My work address is: kwyatt@parks.ca.gov
My personal address is: kylewyatt@aol.com


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