homepage logo

Exhibit probes contributions, struggles of Chinese laborers building transcontinental railroad

By Rob Nielsen - | May 5, 2024
1 / 4
The Golden Spike Monument, a sculpture by artist Douwe Blumberg, is dispalyed in front of Union Station on Friday, May 3, 2024. The 43-foot, gold leaf-covered monument was commissioned to honor the power and diversity of those who built the transcontinental railroad. After the ongoing driving tour is completed, the monument will be permanently displayed outside Brigham City beginning in 2025.
2 / 4
People view archaeological finds from railroad worker towns during the opening ceremony for the Golden Spike History Exhibition and Chinese Art Show at Union Station in Ogden on Friday, May 3, 2024.
3 / 4
Union Station visitors view the Golden Spike History Exhibition and Chinese Art Show on Friday, May 3, 2024.
4 / 4
Wei Zhang, president of the U.S.-China Railroad Friendship Association, speaks at Union Station in Ogden on Friday, May 3, 2024.

OGDEN — The transcontinental railroad helped bridge the country, but it came at a great cost to many groups both involved with its construction and living along its route.

A new exhibit at Union Station is looking to shed a long-overdue light on one of those groups — the thousands of Chinese immigrants who came to this country to help build that railroad, whose names and contributions otherwise largely would be relegated to the shadows of history.

On Friday, as part of the museum’s celebration of the 155th anniversary of the driving of the golden spike, several dignitaries helped to open up the Golden Spike History Exhibition and Chinese Art Show. The exhibit is hosted by Union Station in partnership with the Utah Chinese Golden Spike Society, the Asian Arts & Culture Association, the U.S.-China Railroad Friendship Association and the China Qiaodu Museum of Overseas Chinese.

Festivities kicked off in sight of the 43-foot Golden Spike Monument, which was on display at Union Station Plaza in Ogden on Friday as part of a whistle-stop tour on its way to permanent display in Brigham City.

Among those speaking was Wei Zhang, president of the U.S.-China Railroad Friendship Association.

“More than 1,200 people died during the construction, but we don’t know who they are,” she said. “This year is the 155th anniversary of the completion of the transcontinental railroad. While we celebrate the achievement, we want everybody to remember the laborers who built the first transcontinental railroad.”

Utah state Sen. Karen Kwan, who is the president and CEO of the Chinese Railroad Workers’ Descendants Association, is the descendant of a Chinese railroad worker herself and drove home how overshadowed the history of these laborers has been.

“Many of our stories came down through oral histories,” she said. “Many of their names weren’t even taken, so I don’t even know the name of my ancestor who worked on the railroad.”

Kwan said this exhibit helps course correct an important part of the country’s history.

“This is a chance for us to right that wrong,” she said. “This is a chance for us to be an important voice, an important part of Utah history and of the nation. Chinese American workers did the hardest work for the lowest pay. They faced discrimination, they faced violence and they also were not allowed to be citizens per the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882. That didn’t get overturned until 1943.”

Just as the exhibit’s opening began, the sun came out on the city — a fact that Ogden Mayor Ben Nadolski made sure to note during his speech.

“I don’t think it happened by accident,” he said. “I’m a big believer in faith and things do not happen by accident, they happen for a reason. And the reason the sun came out is not only so that it will bless our bodies and give us warmth, but it would help to illuminate a story that is not shared enough.”

He added that it isn’t quite his story to tell.

“This is my story to hear,” Nadolski said. “I’m here to listen and I’m here to learn.”

Museums at Union Station Curator Hope Eggett said she and the museum staff are happy to help give a voice to an often overlooked group.

“This story is one that’s often erased from history,” she said. “The transcontinental railroad changed everything about the way we communicate, that we move people, we move goods, we move ideas around our country. It’s really impossible to know how different our lives would be today without those Chinese railroad workers who made this transcontinental communication possible.”

The exhibit is open during regular museum hours and will be on display through June 29.


Join thousands already receiving our daily newsletter.

I'm interested in (please check all that apply)