OGDEN — Thousands of Chinese migrants were America’s forgotten superheroes in the 1860s, pulling off the seemingly impossible while toiling for the Central Pacific Railroad during the construction of the transcontinental railroad.
Until recently, their gargantuan contribution remained largely unrecognized. But at this year’s 150th celebration of the May 10, 1869 driving of the golden spike — signifying completion of the U.S. transcontinental railroad — the story of these Chinese laborers finally takes center stage.
Tuesday evening, Stanford University professor and author Shelley Fisher Fishkin presented details of the Chinese Railroad Workers in North America Project, a team effort launched in 2012. Held at Ogden’s Union Station, Fishkin’s presentation drew an eager audience of about 100.
Fishkin described the discrimination such workers faced as they risked life and limb to complete the monumental project.
“In his inaugural address as governor in 1862, (Leland Stanford) promised to rid the state of California of the ‘dregs of Asia.’ But that was Stanford the politician speaking,” Fishkin said. “Two years later he was out of office, and Stanford the businessman — to his surprise — would find out the Chinese would turn out to be his savior.”
Stanford served as president of the Central Pacific Railroad from 1861 to 1893 and also founded Stanford University in 1885. A powerful but polarizing figure, some praised him as an industry leader while others derided him as a robber baron.
Between 1864 and 1869, some 12,000 to 15,000 workers from China’s Guangdong Province came to labor under harsh conditions and low pay ($26 per month which later increased to $35) for Stanford’s railroad, blasting through mountains, building tunnels and laying down many marathon miles of track. Several hundred lost their lives in the process.
Their seemingly superhuman feats included the building of 15 tunnels through the Sierra Nevada in 1865 — the most difficult being the Summit Tunnel cut through solid granite.
But their to-do list on April 28, 1869 involved the approach near Ogden where they lay 10 miles of track in a single day.
According to Stanford University’s website detailing the Chinese Railroad Workers project, eight Irish rail-handlers and about 5,000 workers, mostly Chinese, worked from 5 a.m. to 7 p.m. to make it happen. The task took 25,800 ties, 3,520 rails, 55,080 spikes, 14,050 bolts and other materials that together totaled almost 4.5 million pounds. The track climbed the slope of Promontory Mountain and traversed curves that required manual bending of the rails.
Well-choreographed teamwork seemed to make that triumph possible. A U.S. Army officer who witnessed the work was quoted as saying, “It was just like an army marching over the ground and leaving the track behind them.” While the railroad recorded the names of the eight Irish workers, the Chinese laborers remained nameless and invisible.
Unfortunately, they also became unwelcome. Following completion of the Central Pacific Railroad in 1869, anti-Chinese hostility took hold in the western U.S., fueled in part by the fear they were taking American jobs. By federal law, Chinese immigrants were denied citizenship until 1943, and at the 1969 centennial Golden Spike celebration, no official acknowledged their invaluable accomplishments.
Fishkin told the audience that racism lay at the root of that omission.
“In 2012 when we began our project, we knew very little about this particular population. But we know a lot more about them now,” Fishkin said.
A lack of documentation also came into play. Central Pacific had paid contractors a lump sum each month to divide among their unnamed Chinese laborers. So reconstructing their collective experience meant piecing together archaeological details, newspaper clips, photographs, related writings and anecdotal accounts from descendants of some of those workers.
Workers sent letters home to China at the time, Fishkin said, but a “perfect storm of reasons” obliterated much of that documentation.
“The region that they sent them to was disrupted by terrible social and political turmoil and natural disasters,” Fishkin said. “People were moving constantly, and pieces of paper don’t do well in war and those kinds of situations.”
In response to one audience member’s remark that the Chinese workers were treated worse than hell, Fishkin agreed.
“They were treated very badly,” Fishkin said. “There was a tremendous amount of violence, and it was a very ugly chapter in many ways.”
Randy and Dianne King traveled from St. James City in South Florida to join in the 150th Golden Spike celebration.
“The lecture was excellent,” Randy King said of Fishkin’s presentation. “The Chinese are the forgotten story. And it’s not forgotten anymore.”
Dianne King also savored the new dimension to an old story: “Now we’re getting to go deeper into what is the true history, and I’m glad to see that Utah is really embracing it.”
Fishkin teamed with Stanford history professor Gordon Chang to co-direct the ongoing project. They also recently published a book titled “The Chinese and the Iron Road.”
For more information about the ongoing Chinese Railroad Workers in North America Project, go to https://web.stanford.edu/group/chineserailroad/cgi-bin/website.