Tuesday, September 19, 2017

Chinese Railroad Workers Project In North America: Uncovering Secrets from the Past

On August 26th, the Director of the American Studies Program at Stanford, Dr. Shelley Fisher Fishkin joined USCPFA to explain some special research: the Chinese Railroad Workers in North America Project.
Dr. Shelley Fisher Fishkin explains research.
Dr. Fishkin said that when she joined the University in 2003, she had heard that Chinese labor was the key to the fortune with which Leland Stanford founded Stanford University, and assumed she would find something in the library—a letter from one of the workers or a something.  There was nothing.  She asked her colleague in the history department, Dr. Gordon H. Chang, where she might find something. He said, “Nowhere.” Not a single letter or journal entry or remittance slip from the people who had done the most for the railroad…for the university, for the states, for the country.
Just as unbelievable—and heartbreaking-- was a collective national amnesia that the Chinese had even participated. During the 100th anniversary of the completion of the railroad in 1969, a celebration was held during which the role of the Chinese was attributed to non-Chinese.
“Who else but Americans can drill ten tunnels in mountains 30 feet deep in snow?” asked the orator officiating the ceremony, Secretary of Transportation John Volpe. “Who else but Americans could chisel through miles of solid granite? Who else but Americans could have laid ten miles of track in twelve hours?”
But, the people who performed all those engineering marvels hadn’t been Americans.
They had been Chinese.
Let’s look back. In the 1800s it took months to travel from the east coast of the United States to west, and sometimes people didn’t make it.  (Think Donner Party, 1846). Communication, goods and services took time as well, and lots of it. So, despite the demands of the raging Civil War, President Lincoln signed a bill and urged Congress to back him on the construction of a transcontinental railroad.  In 1862, Congress passed that bill—the Pacific Railroads Act—authorizing two railroad companies (the Union Pacific and the Central Pacific) to construct lines. 
The owners of the Union Pacific hired more than 8,000 Irish, German and Italian immigrants to build west from Omaha, Nebraska. This portion of the railroad line was relatively easy to build, since the land across the prairies was flat. On the other hand, the Central Pacific—from west to east—proved to be more difficult.  The line from Sacramento to the east had to cut through the Sierra Nevada mountain range—an incredibly difficult task, which included building tunnels through long stretches of solid granite in unpredictable and harsh weather.
Said Dr. Fishkin,  “After a year of struggling with Caucasian workers who didn’t want to work in the Sierra Nevada, and who were quitting on him in droves, Charles Crocker,  who oversaw the construction—suggested hiring Chinese workers.” 
This was an odd suggestion at the time.  This was right after the California gold rush when many Chinese had left drought, famine and war in China, and come to the U.S. to seek out their fortune. The Chinese were accused of taking all the jobs, of having strange eating habits, of being barbaric. Leland Stanford, in his inaugural address as Governor of California in 1862,  had promised to rid the state of “the dregs of Asia,” meaning the Chinese people.
But, in 1864, the businessman Stanford--one of the owners of the Central Pacific, and no longer governor-- decided these “dregs” would be his best bet.
It is estimated that 12-15,000 Chinese worked on and finished the railroad. (Almost twice the number of Irish, Italian, Germans employed for the Union Pacific.) As Leland Stanford wrote in a letter to President Johnson in 1865, “The greater portion of the laborers employed by us are Chinese…..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.”
This Chinese labor—and the completion of the railroad-- not only created a good part of the fortune which founded Stanford University, but more importantly linked the east coast to the west coast, and made it possible to get from one end to the other in a week rather than three months. “It paved the way for new waves of settlers to travel from east to west, and provided a much less expensive way to transport goods,” said Dr. Fishkin. “The labor of the Chinese helped hasten America’s entry into the world as a modern nation.”
So one would think the Chinese participation in this important piece of history is all well documented. 
It isn’t. To right this wrong, and to avoid repeating that disgraceful 1969 ceremony at the 150th anniversary of the railroad’s completion in 2017, Dr Fishkin and Dr. Chang convened a group of researchers at Stanford, creating the Chinese Railroad Workers in North America Project. The purpose of the project, which is sponsored by universities, foundations and private donors worldwide, is to find out who these Chinese were and what happened to them. For, despite the overwhelmingly large participation of the Chinese on the railroad, very little is known about them as individuals. There are no memoirs to turn to. Very little written documentation.
The Chinese Railroad Workers Project is exploring every avenue.
They are looking at photographs, and payroll records. From the latter, it is clear that not only did Chinese workers have to pay for their food and lodging and tools from their wages, they weren’t paid as well. According to one scholar’s calculations, the Chinese workers cost the Central Pacific about two-thirds of what it paid white workers.
The Railroad Project is looking at company reports, government census files, and immigration records. They are exploring letters, books and newspaper articles. From these they discovered that the winter of 1886-1887, when the Chinese were working on blasting through the Sierra Nevada Mountains, was one of the harshest on record. There were 44 storms and an average of 18 feet of snow on the summit. One article they found detailed how a snow slide killed 19 Chinese workers. Snow wasn’t the only danger. “Landslides, explosions, blasting accidents, falls, Indian raids, and disease all took their toll,” Dr. Fishkin said.
Another article noted that during construction of the summit tunnel (1659 feet long through solid Sierra Nevada granite) many people had predicted it would take three years to do what the Chinese workers did in one.  Another feat was documented on April 28, 1869: 4,000 Chinese laborers working with eight Irish rail handlers laid ten miles and fifty-six feet of track in a bit less than twelve hours.  (This was the engineering feat Secretary Volpe mistakenly attributed to American labor in the ceremony in 1969.) That record has never been duplicated in railroad construction.
The Railroad Project is also following the findings of archeologists who have worked along the railroad route, and have unearthed thousands of pieces of rice bowls, gaming pieces, cooking vessels and opium pipes.
They are asking the descendants of the railroad workers to come forward and share what they know.  As a result, slowly, what once was this blurry idea of “Chinese laborers” is becoming clearer.
“For example,” said Dr. Fishkin. “Wilson Chow said his great grandfather Jun Yuk Chow left his home in Kaiping County, attracted by the idea of the Gold Rush, and took a ferry to Hong Kong where he booked 3rd class passage on a 3-mast sailboat across the Pacific. The journey took 48 days. He worked as a miner in Gold Hill, Nevada, when he was recruited to work on the Central Pacific.
“Another worker—Lim Lip Hong—similarly came looking for gold. He left Guangdong on a junk with his uncle and twelve relatives in 1885. Their journey took six months, as they got stuck in a dead zone in the middle of the ocean. Several of the group tried to commit suicide. They finally made it across. Some years later, they too were recruited to work on the railroad.”
The supply of Chinese workers already in the country was not enough to meet the demand of the railroad, so Central Pacific began recruiting directly from China. Hung Lai Wow left his village in Toisan as a teenager, along with one of his brothers, to join the work crew. Chin Lin Sou was also recruited directly from Guangdong.
Despite all of the accomplishments of the Chinese railroad workers—and after the Central Pacific, many went on to build other railroad lines, performing other marvels, other engineering feats—waves of anti-Chinese hostility continued to grow. “From 1870-1890 the Chinese were attacked all across the west and driven out of 34 towns in California, three in Oregon, and four in Nevada. There were 153 anti-Chinese riots between 1870-1880,” said Dr. Fishkin.
Anti-Chinese hysteria prompted lawmakers to pass the Chinese Exclusion Act in 1882.  That act would stay in place until 1943.
The Chinese Railroad Workers in North America Project is doing its utmost to remember and honor the people who worked hard—despite extreme hardship—to make America what it is today. “We are trying to tell a story that has indelibly shaped us all,” said Dr. Fishkin.
And continues to shape us.
For the descendants of railroad workers include Flying Tigers defending the shores of the America,  famous actresses, like Arabella Hong (Flower Drum Song) and Medal of Arts recipients, like novelist Maxine Hong Kingston, etc. etc.
Two years ago, Stanford co-hosted a conference in Guangdong, the region from which nearly all the railroad workers came from, and the University officially recognized the achievements of these Chinese workers for the very first time.  The secret about who is responsible for thrusting America into the modern world is being revealed, thanks to the Chinese Railroad Workers Project in North America, one story at a time. Keep your eyes out in the near future for a description of the project in book form. Also, look forward to the celebration of the 150th Anniversary of the railroad, a celebration we all can be proud of.
"Thank you, Dr. Fishkin!"

 **If you have neighbors, friends, or relatives who have a connection with this chapter in American history, please contact the Project.  They want to hear your stories. Additionally, if you would like to support them, the Project welcomes your tax-deductible donations.


  1. Thanks Jana for this post share. Also thanks Dr. Fishkin to compare it. It is very interesting and enjoyable post for me. I want contact this project because I have a relatives like this.I also need usf admission essay information.