150 Years Later and the Forgotten History of the Transcontinental Railroad

Celebration at the completion of the transcontinental railroad. Photo courtesy of Andrew J. Russell

On May 10, 1869, the transcontinental railroad was officially completed, marking a significant moment in American history. As the United States was financially recovering from the Civil War, the transcontinental railroad dramatically improved trade and business. Most importantly, by connecting the east coast to the west coast, it was seen as symbolically (and literally) connecting the country together. While many celebrate the railroad’s benefits for the country, many Americans do not know that the railroad could not have been constructed without the labor of Chinese immigrants.

The transcontinental railroad marked the construction and joining of the Union Pacific railroad and the Central Pacific railroad. The Central Pacific railroad started its construction in Sacramento, CA on the backs of up to 20,000 Chinese immigrants — almost 90% of the railroad’s entire labor force. Chinese laborers were not the first choice of the railroad financers, but after failed attempts to attract white laborers (many of whom would stay for short periods of time due to the high-risk nature of the work), they turned to Chinese immigrants to do the deadly work required.

Anti-Chinese sentiment was overwhelming during this time. Chinese immigrants, who had largely come to California around the Gold Rush, were viewed as outsiders, foreigners who were desperate for work, and physically and emotionally weak. This racism was so pervasive that the State of California and local governments passed anti-Chinese laws to deny Chinese workers their civil rights.

Without any other viable option, Chinese immigrants joined the transcontinental railroad construction effort. Their accomplishments while working on the railroad are nothing short of impressive. Chinese laborers performed work by hand that is typically performed by big machinery in the present day. They dug tunnels and constructed retaining walls, and even planted explosives when necessary, risking their lives in hopes that they were pulled up in time.

Despite the fact they performed the most dangerous tasks, they were paid 30% less than their white co-laborers without board. In considering Chinese laborers’ life-threatening tasks alongside grueling weather, it is no wonder that there are estimates…

Advancing Justice Southern California (AJSOCAL)

AJSOCAL is the nation's largest legal aid and civil rights organization serving the Asian American, Native Hawaiian, and Pacific Islander community