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150 years ago, Chinese workers in Utah played key role in Golden Spike connection

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This story is sponsored by Chinese Railroad Workers Descendants Association. Learn more about Chinese Railroad Workers Descendants Association.


A desolate, northern Utah local was the focal point of the U.S. on May 10, 1869. History was made when a golden spike joined the Central Pacific Railroad and Union Pacific Railroad in the first transcontinental railroad line in the United States.

The event, known as the “wedding of the rails,” took place at Promontory Summit, Utah, and was the culmination of six years of hard labor involving tens of thousands of workers, including many thousands of Chinese immigrants.

Central Pacific Railroad recruited Chinese laborers

Estimates vary, but between 11,000 and 15,000 Chinese workers are believed to have labored on the construction of the railroad. Most worked for the Central Pacific Railroad Company, which was building eastward out of Sacramento, California.

The role Chinese laborers played in the construction of the transcontinental is hard to overstate, but it began as an experiment. Because of 19th-Century stereotypes, many people at the time doubted the ability of the Chinese worker to withstand 10- to 12-hour shifts of back-breaking labor during a six-day work week.

Charles Crocker, a Central Pacific founder, hoped Chinese workers would be the perfect solution for the labor shortage and labor strikes Central Pacific Railroad faced. Many thousands of them were already pouring into California following news of the gold rush, making themselves a self-replenishing labor pool. Working as chief railroad contractor for the Central Pacific, Crocker initially hired 50 Chinese workers, according to the National Park Service, but many more were added shortly afterward as evidence of their work ethic shone through.

“The Chinese labor force easily dispelled the doubts of others by performing the tasks they were given at a good pace and with exceptional quality workmanship,” the park service recounts. “In fact, a crew consisting mainly of Chinese workers was eventually able to complete the task of laying 10 miles of track in one day, which is a record that still stands to this day.”

The Chinese laborers offered other benefits to their employers: they were viewed as peaceful and submissive and “the generally balanced diets they followed made them healthier than their Irish coworkers,” according to Immigration Direct. They tended to drink copious amounts of boiled tea, which protected them from water-borne illnesses and, by extension, led them to drink less alcohol than their laborer counterparts.

Discrimination and dangerous working conditions

Despite proving their strength and the quality of their workmanship, the Chinese workers faced discrimination from nearly everyone they met.. Not only did Chinese laborers received lower wages than their white coworkers, but the Chinese workers were additionally made to pay for their clothing, food and board.

As a result, “Chinese workers often had to live in the underground tunnels they were constructing, and more than 1,000 died in accidents and avalanches while laboring in the mountains,” Immigration Direct reports.

Because industrial regulations were almost non-existent in the 19th Century, no official records were kept of the number of Chinese immigrants who worked for the railroads or how many died during construction, but the number was likely very high. The problem soon arose of how to handle the bodies of the deceased immigrants who had worked and died so many thousands of miles from their homeland.

“The Chinese Culture Center was first established to transport the bodies and coffins of the deceased railroad workers from the U.S. back to Tung Wah Coffin Home in Hong Kong, where the coffins would be transported individually back to their families across China,” according to the Chinese Railroad Workers Descendants Association.

In the early 20th Century, the effort was suspended and the remaining deceased workers were buried at local cemeteries in the United States. The Chinese Culture Center paid for all burial sites and related costs. At least 500 Chinese workers were buried in Utah.

Driving the “Golden Spike” at Promontory Summit

In April 1869, after heated debate, representatives from the two railroads agreed on Promontory Summit as the joining point for the transcontinental railroad. The ceremony was planned for May 8 but was delayed until May 10 because of weather and labor disputes. As a result, the original golden spike actually bears an engraving of the wrong date.

On the day of the ceremony, Union Pacific No. 119 and Central Pacific No. 60 were drawn facing each other within feet of touching. Somewhere between 500 and 3,000 people were on hand to witness the driving of the final stakes. A pre-bored tie of polished California laurel was placed in the final space and four total spikes were driven into the bores: a lower-quality gold spike, a silver spike, a blended gold, silver and iron spike and the final golden spike, made of 17.6 karat copper-alloyed gold. The trains were then drawn together until they were touching as a symbolic union of the two railroads. All four spikes, as well as the laurel tie, were removed immediately following the ceremony and replaced with a normal tie and spikes.

The final report on the transcontinental railroad

A total of 1,776 miles of track were laid between 1863 and 1869 with 690 miles laid by the Central Pacific and 1,086 by the Union Pacific. Because of the Central Pacific's route through the Sierra Nevada Mountains, Chinese workers needed to construct 15 tunnels. That included the Summit Tunnel at Donner Pass which stretched 1,659 feet and required 15 months of drilling and blasting to complete. Extreme conditions in the mountains also required railroad crews to construct 40 miles of snow sheds to prevent blizzards from blocking the tracks.

Prior to 1870, it took about six months to cross the country and required the use of horse and/or wagon. Thanks to the heroic effort of thousands of laborers, however, following the completion of the railroad a $65 ticket could buy a person passage from New York to San Francisco on a trip that would take a mere seven days to complete.

With their mammoth task finished, some Chinese immigrants returned home to China, but many others remained in America despite discrimination and persecution. Eventually, they created communities within larger cities and found ways to flourish in American society. It requires no leap of imagination to say that the work of Chinese Americans was integral to the development of the United States infrastructure and economy.

On May 10, Promontory Summit will once more draw the eyes of the nation as Utah celebrates the 150th anniversary of the driving of the “final spike.”

As part of the events celebrating the 150th Anniversary, an awards gala for the Chinese Railroad Workers Descendants Association will take place May 11. For more information on the 150th-anniversary special events or to learn more about the contributions Chinese immigrants made to American history, visit http://www.goldenspike150.org/.