SPECIAL REPORT: Golden Spike – the Chinese Contribution

Local News

SALT LAKE CITY (ABC4 News) – Friday marks the 150th anniversary of the completion of the Transcontinental Railroad. But did you know that 15,000 Chinese workers made the biggest contribution to its construction and 500 of them are buried right here in Utah?

The Chinese railroad workers’ contribution began in 1864 when officials with Central Pacific realized they were creeping up onto a big problem – there were not enough working men to build their railroad on the west coast.

“They were in financial difficulty and they couldn’t find enough labor to work on the railroad. and so they decided to look to the Chinese to help them solve this problem,” said Michael Kwan, who is a descendant of a Chinese railroad worker and president of the Chinese Railroad Workers Descendants Association (CRWDA).

During that time, millions died during the Taiping Rebellion in China. Those that remained looked for a way out to save and support their families. As a result, recruiters brought more than 10,000 men from Southern China over to the United States to work on the railroad.

Laborers and rocks near opening of Summit Tunnel (Courtesy: Stanford University Library, obtained by Chinese Historical Society of America in San Francisco)

By 1865, Chinese workers made up four out of five jobs on the Central Pacific line. Margaret Yee says it was scary for her great-great-grandfathers to leave everything they had behind with the hope of pursuing something better.

“They came to a new place and the language is different, the weather is different, and the customs are different,” said Yee.

Initially, Chinese railroad workers were met with open arms but found themselves in the most dangerous and unfair working conditions.

“When officials paid their white counterpart, they included food and room and board.  Chinese people were paid much less and it didn’t include food, room, and board,” said Yee.

Chinese camp at end of track (Courtesy: Stanford University Library, obtained by Chinese Historical Society of America in San Francisco)

While other workers slept in heated boxcars, Chinese railroad workers lived in small tents, sometimes even sleeping in the tunnels that they worked in.

“That was one of the worst winters ever recorded and there were avalanches. In the spring, when they would find the bodies, they would often find them still holding their tools because it was the most valuable possession they had,” said Kwan.

Their biggest challenge came from the Sierra Nevada Mountains. Between 1865 and 1868, Chinese railroad workers built 15 tunnels to get the trains through. But it came at a price.

“The explosives were manually lit with fuses. There was a job called ‘fuse runner’ and that was because you lit the fuse and you ran. You literally ran for your life and sometimes, they wouldn’t make it,” said Kwan.

The Chinese worked so efficiently, they became an integral part of the historic event known as ‘Ten Mile Day.’ In April 1869, Central Pacific picked a crew of 1,300 Chinese workers and just eight Irish workers to win a bet against Union Pacific on the amount of track laid in one day. The team shattered the record, laying more than 3,500 rails in 12 hours, totaling more than ten miles.

“They are really hard, hard workers. Because of their hard work and skills, they got it done in seven years when it was supposed to be done in 14 years.”

After six years, the Transcontinental Railroad was finally completed. Leland Stanford, president of the Central Pacific Railroad placed the last spike on May 10th, 1869.

“But when it came time for the photograph, the Chinese railroad workers were nowhere to be seen,” said Kwan.

In the most famous photo from the Golden Spike celebration event, not a single Chinese railroad worker was included – essentially erasing their pivotal role and vital contribution to this great American achievement. Consequently, not all descendants like Yee and Kwan know that their ancestors were Chinese railroad workers.

“We’ve been calling them the nameless and faceless Chinese railroad workers for 150 years and we want to be able to give back their names. Even on the payroll records, they kept it simplified. They put everything as ‘a…so forth, a this, a that.’ Not all their first names are ‘a’, that’s more of a nickname,” said Max Chang, board member for Spike 150.

That’s why Yee and Kwan established the Chinese Railroad Workers Descendants Association. Each year, they travel up to the Chinese Arch at Golden Spike National Park to pay respect to their ancestors.

As the 150th anniversary of the Golden Spike approaches, they want to make sure their ancestors’ legacy will be recognized in U.S. history and told from their perspective.

“Doing this every year, sometimes we bring the younger generation to Promontory Summit to remember the story and so they can see the importance that the Chinese had with building the railroad,” said Siulin Santee, board member for the Chinese Railroad Workers Descendants Association.

CRWDA’s Golden Spike conference kicked off Wednesday night and will continue until Sunday. Yee will lead a cohort of Chinese people to recreate the iconic Transcontinental Railroad completion photo on Friday at Promontory Summit.

For more information about the Golden Spike 150 festivities, click here (http://goldenspike150.org/)

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