Friday, May 12, 2017

TGIF FEATURE: Chinese transcontinental railroad workeers finally get their 'day'

Chinese workers grade a section of the transcontinental railroad.

IT'S NOT TOO LATE to celebrate the contributions of the thousands of Chinese workers who built the western half of the transcontinental railroad, one of the most remarkable engineering feats of the 19th century.

May 10 -- from this year onward -- will be known as California Chinese Railroad Workers Memorial Day in honor of the nearly 12,000 Chinese railroad workers who worked on the first railroad line to link the coasts of the United States.

In connection with Asian American & Pacific Islander Heritage Month, the California state Assembly passed the resolution authored by Assemblymember Evan Low, on May 8 in an unanimous vote. May 10

"The thousands of Chinese immigrants who risked their lives to build the Transcontinental Railroad faced prejudice, unsafe working conditions and low wages. Their sacrifice and courage must never be forgotten," said Low, who represents parts of the South (San Francisco) Bay, aka Silicon Valley. Hear more from Low, below:


At the national level, the request for the U.S. Postal Service to issue a stamp commemorating the completion of the Transcontinental Railroad was introduced by Rep. Grace Meng, NYC.

"The story of the Chinese railroad workers and the tremendous contributions they made to the growth and prosperity of our country must be told," Meng said in a statement. "They deserve the recognition they earned, and a commemorative postage stamp would be a very appropriate tribute to this important part of American history."

Meng's resolution was referred to the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform, which oversees the Postal Service.

BACKGROUND ON TRANSCONTINENTAL RAILROAD

In early 1865, the year the American Civil War ended, the Central Pacific Railroad arranged with labor contractors to recruit workers from China, mostly from Guangdong province in South China.

Desperate for work, the Chinese workers left their hometowns, which suffered from poverty and civil unrest, and boarded ships for California to support their families.

The Chinese railroad workers set a world record by laying 10 miles of railroad track in just one workday and were considered indispensible by their foremen.

However, the Chinese workers faced prejudice, isolation and dangerous working conditions. Nearly 1,200 Chinese railroad workers died during while working on the railroad through avalanches, explosions and other causes while carving the rail lines through the Sierra Nevada Mountains.

"The Chinese railroad workers' contribution will be remembered by more and more people both in the U.S. and in China," said Gordon Chang, a professor of American history at Stanford University and director of the Center for East Asian Studies.

When the task was completed on May 10, 1869, at Promontory Point, Utah, a photograph was taken showing the workers and those who attended the historic moment linking the country from coast to coast.
As the final insult to their hard work, the photograph omitted the Chinese laborers. Many people have questioned why the Chinese workers were not in the official photograph marking the historic occasion. Turns out, they were out to lunch.

"J.H. Strobridge, when the work was all over, invited the Chinese who had been brought over from Victory for that purpose, to dine at his boarding car. When they entered, all the guests and officers present cheered them as the chosen representatives of the race which have greatly helped to build the road ... a tribute they well deserved and which evidently gave them much pleasure."
There was only one photograph that gave any indication of Chinese involvement in laying down the last few rails of the railroad. A stenographic view was taken by A. J. Russell titled "Chinese at Laying Last Rail UPRR."

The view clearly shows at least one Chinese worker and a partner with rail-laying tools appearing to adjust the last rail laid (from the CPRR side), with a wooden track gauge stick still in place while two others look on.



The final tasks of laying down the rails and connecting East and West -- as the stereograph depicts -- was described in the report from End of Track, November 9, 1868, as quoted in the Southern Pacific Bulletin, August, 1927:
"Long lines of horses, mules and wagons were standing in the open desert near the camp train. The stock was getting its breakfast of hay and barley. Trains were shunting in from the west with supplies and materials for the day's work. Foremen were galloping here and there on horseback giving or receiving orders. Swarms of laborers, Chinese, Europeans and Americans were hurrying to their work. On one side of the track stood the moveable blacksmith shop where a score of smiths were repairing tools and shoeing horses and mules. Close by was the fully equipped harness shop where a large force was repairing collars, traces and other leather equipment. To the west were the rails and line of telegraph poles stretching back as far as the eye could reach. The telegraph wire from the last pole was strung into the car that served as a telegraph office. To the eastward stretched the grade marked by a line of newly distributed earth. By the side of the grade smoked the camp fires of the blue clad laborers who could be seen in groups waiting for the signal to start work. These were the Chinese, and the job of this particular contingent was to clear a level roadbed for the track. They were the vanguard of the construction forces. Miles back was the camp of the rear guard–the Chinese who followed the track gang, ballasting and finishing the road bed. Systematic workers these Chinese – competent and wonderfully effective because tireless and unremitting in their industry ... The rails, ties and other material were thrown off the train as near to end of the track was as feasible, and then the empty train was drawn back out of the way. At this point the rails were loaded on low flat cars, and hauled by horses to end of track. The ties were handled in the same way. Behind came the rail gang, who took the rails from the flat cars and laid them on the ties. While they were doing this a man on each side distributed spikes, two to each tie; another distributed splice bars; and a third the bolts and nuts by which the rails were spliced together. Two more men followed to adjust and sent back for another load ... Back of the track builders followed a gang with the seven more ties necessary to complete the foundation for each rail. These were put into position and spiked by another gang, which also leveled up the track and left it ready for the ballasters. ..." 
The California resolution states that "through their fight against discrimination, the Chinese railroad workers set an example for the millions of Asian Americans who came to the United States after them."

"Both the descendants of the workers and the wider Asian-American community view the sacrifices of the Chinese railroad workers as being integral to the creation of the vibrant and growing Asian-American community that exists throughout the country today," the proclamation says.

A. J. RUSSEL
No Chinese were show in the historic photo showing the completion of the transcontinental railroad.

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