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The Chinese and the Iron Road: Celebrating the 150th Anniversary of Chinese Working on the Transcontinental Railroad

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Almost 250 attended “The Chinese and the Iron Road: Building the Transcontinental” at Stanford University on June 6, 2015. The event, co-sponsored by the Chinese Railroad Workers in North America Project at Stanford University and the Chinese Historical Society of America (CHSA), commemorated the 150th anniversary of the employment of large numbers of Chinese laborers on the construction of the Central Pacific portion of the transcontinental railroad. The overflow crowd included more than 50 descendants of the railroad workers.

The event opened with welcoming remarks by Project Co-Director Professor Gordon Chang and CHSA’s Executive Director Sue Lee, as well as an overview of the Project’s work by Co-Director Professor Shelley Fisher Fishkin.

Richard Saller, Stanford Dean of the School of Humanities and Sciences, welcomed the audience to “this unprecedented event,” highlighting “the crucial role that the Chinese who built the Central Pacific Railroad played in creating the fortune with which Leland Stanford founded our university.” Dean Saller offered the important statement that “today marks the first time that Stanford University has formally honored their memory.” To those descendants in attendance he expressed “our appreciation of the grueling work your ancestors did to make the first railroad linking the nation’s east and west coasts possible.”

Chinese Consul General Luo Linquan noted that the participation of Chinese workers is “of great historic significance.” He observed, “Without their contribution, America’s development and progress as a nation would have been delayed by years.”
These railway workers are the predecessors of the early Chinese immigrants in California. They not only helped reshape the geographic and social landscape of the West, but also blazed a trail for the very existence and development of overseas Chinese living in the U.S. Their diligence, dedication, team spirit and commitment represent the traditions and personalities of the Chinese nation. They are pioneers for the people-to-people exchanges and friendship between China and the U.S.
Ambassador Luo emphasized the significance of good relations between the United States and the need for both countries “to build a new model of major-country relations featuring no conflict, no confrontation, mutual respect and win-win cooperation.”

Associate Director Dr. Hilton Obenzinger presented a narrative in word and image of Chinese participation in building the railroad. Professor Barbara Voss, director of the Project’s archaeology network, presented aspects of the work of historical archaeologists and plans to conduct more research along the railroad route. Available at the event was the newly released special issue of Historical Archaeology on the Chinese railroad workers, which presents articles on the work done so far. The event included the premiere of a new film ‘The Work of Giants” on the Chinese building the Summit Tunnel in the Sierras. Produced by Laurence Campling for Donner Memorial State Park, the film features archaeologist Scott Baxter and historian/railroad worker descendant Connie Young Yu touring the tunnel and remains of work camps as they relate the story of the difficult and dangerous construction of what was at that time an engineering marvel.

A moving highlight of the program was the introduction of railroad worker descendants. Filmmaker Barre Fong and Connie Young Yu presented excerpts of oral histories of families of descendants of railroad workers gathered as part of the joint effort of the Project and CHSA. Two descendants, Paulette Liang and Russell Low, mesmerized the audience with their family stories accompanied with photographs. Railroad worker descendant and musician and storyteller Charlie Chin performed about the Chinese and the railroad, including a re-interpretation of the old song “I’ve Been Working on the Railroad.”

The audience savored a hearty lunch and mingled to talk with descendants and view the outstanding seven-panel exhibit on the Chinese working on the railroad produced by the Project and designed by CHSA graphic designer Amy Lam. (The exhibit is now on display at the CHSA in San Francisco.) At the end of the program many joined in a guided tour of the campus and the university’s relationship to the Chinese workers by Berkeley graduate student Christopher Lowman, including a stop at the East Asia Library to enjoy a photographic exhibition, “The Chinese Railroad Workers Memorial Exhibit: Revising the Stories We Tell Ourselves,” curated by Stanford undergraduates Eve Simister and Noelle Herring and, finally, at the Cantor Arts Center an opportunity to view the famed Golden Spike that commemorated the completion of the railroad on May 10, 1869.

Richard Saller, Dean of Humanities and Sciences Stanford University
Richard Saller, Dean of Humanities and Sciences Stanford University

PRC Consul General Luo Linquan
PRC Consul General Luo Linquan

Scrapbook of Images from The Chinese and the Iron Road: Building the Transcontinental (click to see full size render):

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June 6, 2015 – “The Chinese and the Iron Road: Building the Transcontinental” Welcome from Stanford University Dean Richard Saller, Vernon R. and Lysbeth Warren Anderson Dean of the School of Humanities and Sciences

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On behalf of Stanford University, it is a great pleasure to welcome all of you to this unprecedented event. The Chinese Railroad Workers in North America Project at Stanford was created in recognition of the crucial role that the Chinese who built the Central Pacific Railroad played in creating the fortune with which Leland Stanford founded our university.

Today marks the first time that Stanford University has formally honored their memory. We are delighted that a number of their descendants are here. On behalf of Stanford, I would like to mark our appreciation of the grueling work your ancestors did to make the first railroad linking the nation’s east and west coasts possible.

We are also pleased that official representatives of China are here as well. I welcome Ambassador Luo Linquan and your colleagues. The University is looking forward to hearing more from the Chinese Railroad Workers Project in the future.

Let me also take this opportunity to recognize and congratulate the leadership of this project: Shelley Fishkin and Gordon Chang, co-directors, and Dr. Hilton Obenzinger, the associate director.

The event is co-sponsored with the Chinese Historical Society of America: Erwin Tam, current CHSA board president, Connie Young Yu, emeritus board member, and Sue Lee, executive director.

June 6, 2015 – “The Chinese and the Iron Road: Building the Transcontinental” PRC Consul General Luo Linquan’s Remarks

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Professor Richard Saller,
Professor Gordon Chang,
Professor Shelley Fisher Fishkin,
Leaders of Chinese History Society of America,

Dear friends, ladies and gentlemen,

It is my great pleasure to be with you at prestigious Stanford University to commemorate the 150th anniversary of the introduction of large number of Chinese workers into the construction of the western portion of the first transcontinental railway across the United States, and also to celebrate the wonderful research conducted by Chinese Railroad Workers in North America Project at Stanford and the Chinese History Society of America.

As Consul General of the People’s Republic of China in San Francisco, I’d like to take this opportunity to send our warm greetings to all the participants, scholars and researchers, volunteers and descendants of Chinese railroad workers on behalf of the Chinese Consulate General as well as in my own name. I am pleased to know that Professor He from Guangxi, China joins us in today’ celebration. Welcome you to San Francisco Bay Area.

Ladies and Gentlemen, 150 years ago, shortly after the United States began to build the first transcontinental railroad, it was faced with a labor shortage because the daunting circumstances had driven the Irish workers away. Then about 10 to 15 thousand Chinese workers were recruited into the construction work. At one time, Chinese workers accounted for 80% of all the railroad workers. They worked in extremely harsh, difficult and dangerous conditions far beyond our imagination. Thousands of them died during the construction due to either extreme weather or hazardous geographical conditions. It’s fair to say that it is the Chinese railroad workers who made the construction of the western part of the transcontinental railway possible. The Chinese workers’ participation in the railroad is of great historic significance. Without their contribution, America’s development and progress as a nation would have been delayed by years.

These railway workers are the predecessors of the early Chinese immigrants in California. They not only helped reshape the geographic and social landscape of the West, but also blazed a trail for the very existence and development of overseas Chinese living in the U.S. Their diligence, dedication, team spirit and commitment represent the traditions and personalities of the Chinese nation. They are pioneers for the people-to-people exchanges and friendship between China and the U.S.

Today, as a closer political, economic, and social relationship is being developed between China and the U.S., it is essential for us to recall and remember this dramatic episode in history.

Ladies and Gentlemen, today, the United States is the biggest developed country in the world while China stands as the biggest developing country and a rising power. The China-U.S. relationship is regarded as the most important bilateral relationship in the world. A good relationship not only meets the fundamental interests of our two peoples, but also contributes to peace, stability and development of the Asia-Pacific region and the world as a whole. And of course for this purpose, it takes two sides to work together.

As you may already know, upon the invitation of President Obama, Chinese President Xi Jinping will pay a state visit to the U.S. this September. Both leaders have agreed to build a new model of major-country relations featuring no conflict, no confrontation, mutual respect and win-win cooperation, and I firmly believe that President Xi’s coming visit will inject new momentum into our efforts to build the relationship.

Finally, I’d like to take this opportunity to salute to the Chinese Railroad Workers in North America Project at Stanford and Chinese History Society of America. It is through your project that the Chinese railroad workers’ contribution is and will be remembered by more and more people, both here in the U.S. and in China. I also appreciate the Center for East Asia Studies of Stanford for its efforts to strengthen academic and people-to-people exchanges with Chinese sides. I am sure that your work will certainly help inject new and positive energy in the current China-U.S. relationship. If we can be of any help to promote such exchanges, please feel free to let us know.

Thank you!

Special Issue of Historical Archaeology

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In commemoration of 150th anniversary of the introduction of Chinese workers to the first transcontinental railroad, the Society for Historical Archaeology has published a special thematic issue of its journal, Historical Archaeology. “The Archaeology of Chinese Railroad Workers in North America” features sixteen original articles, including never-before-published accounts of some of the earliest archaeological discoveries on Chinese work camp sites. The journal issue was developed through a Stanford University workshop in October 2013, sponsored and organized by the Chinese Railroad Workers in North America Project; the Project’s Director of Archaeology, Barbara L. Voss, served as guest editor for the thematic issue. To foster interdisciplinary and international collaboration, the Society for Historical Archaeology and the Chinese Railroad Workers in North America Project have generously made four of these articles available for free download.

Fragments of the Past: Archaeology, History, and the Chinese Railroad Workers of North America. Gordon Chang and Shelley Fisher Fishkin

The Historical Experience of Labor: Archaeological Contributions to Interdisciplinary Research on Chinese Railroad Workers. Barbara Voss

Commentary on the Archaeology of Chinese Railroad Workers in North America: Where Do We Go from Here? Mary Praetzellis and Adrian Praetzellis

Forgotten Chinese Railroad Workers Remembered: Closing Commentary by an Historian. Sue Fawn Chung

 

Our Historical Archaeology Thematic Issue, “The Archaeology of Chinese Railroad Workers in North America,” is now available for individual sales. Copies of the journal issue can be ordered through lulu.com:

Paperback ($25): http://www.lulu.com/content/paperback-book/the-archaeology-of-chinese-railroad-workers-in-north-america/16826551 

Ebook ($20): http://www.lulu.com/content/e-book/the-archaeology-of-chinese-railroad-workers-in-north-america-%28ebook%29/16853399

 

For a limited time, the preface, introduction, and commentaries on the volume can be downloaded free of charge from the CRWNAP website: 

http://web.stanford.edu/group/chineserailroad/cgi-bin/wordpress/historical-archaeology-journal-issue/

November 2014: Presentation on the Chinese Railroad Workers in North America Project at Stanford by Gordon Chang at the Newberry Library

On November 9th Gordon Chang gave a presentation on the Project at the Chicago Humanities Festival. The program was presented in partnership with the Stanford Humanities Center, the Stanford Arts Institute, the Newberry Library, and the Karla Scherer Center for the Study of American Culture at the University of Chicago. His talk is at the video link here.

October 2014: Presentation on the Chinese Railroad Workers in North America Project at Stanford at conference on digital visualization of social science data

On October 20th the Bill Lane Center for the American West at Stanford, Stanford University Libraries, and Stanford’s Institute for Research in the Social Sciences sponsored a conference at Stanford on Geospatial Computational Social Science. In the video at this link, Hilton Obenzinger introduces goals for the digital project related to Chinese workers on the transcontinental railroad; Shelley Fishkin presents the breadth of the project’s work; and Gordon Chang discusses the overall history of the project and the challenges it faces.

September 2014: International Symposium on the North America Chinese Laborers and Guangdong Qiaoxiang Society, Sun Yat-sen University, Guangzhou, China

The symposium, held on September 8-11, 2014, was jointly organized by the History Departments at Stanford University and Sun Yat-sen University with the goal of facilitating transnational cooperation in research on historic Chinese migration. The Guangdong Overseas Chinese History Compilation Committee and the Chinese Railroad Workers in North America Project co-sponsored the symposium. The four-day program included two days of symposium paper presentations, and two days of local travel to visit other programs and sites in the Wu Yi (five counties) region of Guangdong Province. Attendees included scholars in history, literature, film studies, photography, oral history, cultural studies and historical archaeology.

Symposium
The conference opened with welcome remarks by Chen Chunsheng, the Managing Deputy Secretary and the Vice President of Sun Yat-sen University; Lin Lin, Overseas Chinese Affairs Office of Guangdong Province; Gordon Chang, Olive H. Palmer Professor in Humanities at Stanford, Director of the Center for East Asian Studies, Co-Director of the Chinese Railroad Workers in North America Project, Stanford University; and Wu Yixiong, Director of Sun Yat-sen University’s History Department.

Thirty-two papers were presented at the symposium in English and Chinese, with translation summaries provided by bilingual students. The opening keynote address, “Seeing Absence, Listening to Silence: The Challenge of Reconstructing Chinese Railroad Workers’ Lives” was given by Shelley Fisher Fishkin, the Joseph S. Atha Professor of Humanities, Professor of English, and Co-Director of the Chinese Railroad Workers in North America Project. Stanford. Professor Barbara Voss, Director of the Archaeology Network, joined other archaeologists to introduce historical archaeology to symposium attendees as a source of information about Chinese immigrants in North America. Hilton Obenzinger, Associate Director of the Project, also demonstrated the possibilities of the digital archive we are constructing, including ways to visualize data through digital design. Evelyn Hu- Dehart, Professor of History and Ethnic Studies, Director of the Center for Study of Race and Ethnicity in America, Brown University, and a leader of the project, gave a presentation comparing the experiences of the Chinese who went to Cuba and the railroad workers.. In his closing remarks, Professor Yuan Ding, Professor and Director of South-East Asia Study Institute at Sun Yat-sen University and Associate Editor-in Chief of the Guangdong Overseas Chinese History Project, exhorted his Chinese colleagues to increase their research, and to conduct fieldwork and archaeology in Guangdong.

Tour of Wu Yi (Five Counties) Region
Following the symposium meetings, our Chinese hosts arranged a two-day tour of the Wu Yi (five counties) region of Guangdong Province to show visitors from the U.S. and Taiwan the resources that have been developed for the study of Overseas Chinese and their ancestral villages (qiaoxiang).

We visited the Guangdong Qiaoxiang (Overseas Chinese Hometowns) Cultural Research Centre at Wu Yi University in Jiangmen, Guangdong. Wu Yi University was founded in 1985 through support of Overseas Chinese donors. The Cultural Resource Centre is an active research program with several affiliated faculty and graduate students. The Centre includes an archive composed primarily of records donated by families in the area, and produces a publication series. Professor Zhang Guoxiong gave a presentation of documents relating to Chinese going to the United States to work. The growth of such an archive is exciting.

We were taken to the Jiangmen Wuyi Museum of the Overseas Chinese. We were impressed by the high-concept, four-story museum constructed in 2002. Beginning with exhibits about home villages and labor recruitment, the museum traces the journey of Overseas Chinese people through ocean voyages, labor recruitment, the establishment of Chinatowns overseas, the struggle against anti-Chinese discrimination and exclusion, and the long-term contributions of Overseas Chinese both in China and abroad. One of the most interesting aspects of the museum is the international perspective used, in which Chinese immigration to the United States is a significant but not dominant aspect of the overall story. Chinese immigration to other Asian countries, Australia, Latin America, and Canada are prominently featured in exhibits and interpretation.

We also visited a charity cemetery. Many Overseas Chinese communities shipped the remains of the deceased back to Guangdong to be buried by relatives. But some human remains were unclaimed, and the cemetery provides a final resting place. Visiting this cemetery was especially moving, as symposium participants were given opportunities to honor the deceased through incense offerings and flowers.

We were welcomed at the Kaiping Diaolou Conservation and Development Project led by Wu Yi University architectural historian Selia (Jinhua) Tan and part of the Research Center for Overseas Chinese Hometown Culture in Guangdong Province. Professor Tan led a tour of ancestral villages in the Kaiping region. Several locations are recognized as UNESCO World Heritage Sites as well as National Cultural Heritage Sites because of the presence of distinctive architecture, including diaolous (watchtowers that were built in the 19th and 20th centuries to provide protection against bandits.) During the drive to the villages, Dr. Tan pointed out prominent homes once owned by labor recruiters, and explained the geography of clan residences. Our tour stopped at two villages, including Cang Dong Village, to see ancestral halls, schools, and other structures built by returning Overseas Chinese. At Cang Dong Village, Dr. Tan founded and directs the Cang Dong Education Centre to conserve and interpret the architecture, landscapes, and culture of this distinctive region.

Overall the conference was very valuable in helping us better understand the work currently being done by researchers in Chinese universities and heritage sites on the history and culture of transnational Chinese migration. Without question, the symposium opened up new potential avenues for collaboration and exchange among scholars in North American and Asia.

Adapted by Hilton Obenzinger from Barb Voss’s report to the Archaeology Network

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Conference participants International Symposium on the North America Chinese Laborers and Guangdong Qiaoxiang Society, Sun Yat-sen University, Guangzhou, China

 

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Professor Yuan Ding (Sun Yat-sen University), Associate Editor-in Chief of the Guangdong Overseas Chinese History Project and Professor Chen Chuensheng (Sun Yat-sen University),  Vice President,  being presented with photo of the Golden Spike at the Cantor Center for the Visual Arts at Stanford by Chinese Railroad Worker Project Co-Directors and Stanford University professors Gordon Chang and Shelley Fisher Fishkin.

 

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Chinese Railroad Worker Project Organizers Gordon H. Chang, Evelyn Hu-DeHart, Shelley Fisher Fishkin, and Dongfang Shao with Zhang Guoxiong (in red), Vice Chancellor of Wu Yi University and Vice President of the Guangdong Overseas Research Association at the Overseas Chinese Cultural Research Center in the Overseas Chinese Hometown in Guangdong at Wuyi University.
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Diorama of the Chinese workers on the Central Pacific Railroad at the Jiangmen Wuyi Museum of the Overseas Chinese.

 

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The group pays their respect to the dead Overseas Chinese in a charity cemetery.

 

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Professor Matt Sommer, a Chinese historian from Stanford, identifies the headstone of a woman whose remains were sent back to Guangdong from the United States in the charity cemetery.

 

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Long Gang Li, the home village of Central Pacific railroad worker Bein Yiu Chung, a part of the Kaiping Diaolou Conservation and Development Project led by Wu Yi University architectural historian Selia Jinhua Tan. Professor Selia Jinhua Tan conducted a tour of Long Gang Li.

 

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Hearth in Long Gang Li in the ancestral home of a railroad worker.

 

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Professor Barbara Voss (Stanford) photographing ceramic potsherds in Long Gang Li.
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Professor Selia Jinhua Tan (Wuyi University) describes the objects of daily life in Cang Dong Village at the the Cang Dong Education Centre she directs that is devoted to conserving and interpreting the architecture, landscapes, and culture of this distinctive region.

 

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Project participants Barbara Voss, Connie Young Yu and Hilton Obenzinger discuss the pottery on display at the Cang Dong Education Centre in Cang Dong Village, Guangdong Province.

 

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Pottery made in China on display at the Cang Dong Education Centre.

 

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A mysterious china bowl the group saw at the Cang Dong Education Centre with a train painted on it that was probably made in China. Project member Li Ju, a photographer based in Beijing who has travelled along the railroad route, suggested that the building resembles the Ogden, Utah railroad station. Project member Chris Merritt, an archaeologist and Senior Preservation Planner at the Utah Division of State History, notes that the train appears to be an engine that was designed specifically for the Union Pacific Railroad from the 1940s until 1959.

 

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Archaeologist Ryan Kennedy (Indiana University) photographs artifacts in Cang Dong Village.

 

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Archaeologist Professor Barbara Voss photographing the opening of the ancient Nanfeng Zao (Dragon) Kiln in Foshan. The kiln has remained in continuous operation since the Ming Dynasty (1506-1521), and much of the pottery found at railroad worker campsites was made at kilns like this.

July 2014: Five Stanford undergraduates spend their summer working on the Chinese Railroad Workers Project

Five Stanford undergraduates are working on the Chinese Railroad Workers Project this summer from late June through mid-August. In addition to implementing a new software platform and building our annotated bibliography, these students have been researching Southern Pacific Railroad records in Special Collections at Stanford, indexing our Oral Histories, and analyzing the Central Pacific Railroad payroll records, among other projects. On July 23, 2014, the group toured the Leland Stanford Mansion in downtown Sacramento, and then spent the afternoon exploring the California State Railroad Museum in Old Sacramento. In addition to being a fun day away from campus, the field trip to Sacramento was an opportunity for these students to more fully connect their research experience with the actual locations, buildings and streets where the Central Pacific Railroad began.

Field Trip

Summer Research Assistants took a day-long field trip to Sacramento, California with Project researcher Teri Hessel. Pictured (from left-to-right) are Teri Hessel, Debra Pacio, Maria Greer, Niuniu Teo, Hye Jeong Yoon, and Brianna Brown.

May 2014: Project Signs Agreement with Jinan University

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Chinese Railroad Workers Project co-directors Gordon Chang and Shelley Fisher Fishkin met with a delegation from Jinan University (Cao Yunhua and Chen Jianrong) to sign a cooperative research agreement.

April 2014: Committee of 100 Presents their Annual “Common Ground Award” to Stanford

The Committee of 100, an organization of prominent Chinese Americans dedicated to advancing understanding between the United States and Asia held its annual conference in San Francisco on April 25, 2014. The group honored Stanford University with its Common Ground Award for the Advancement in U.S.-China Relations, noting Stanford’s Chinese Railroad Workers in North America Project as well as the university’s scientific and academic exchanges over the years. Stanford President John Hennessy received the award, and the Project’s co-directors Professors Gordon H. Chang and Shelley Fisher Fishkin were introduced to the audience. A short video describing the project was also viewed.

Read the Stanford News article here

March 2014: Project Members Capture Digital Images of Payroll Records at the California State Railroad Museum

In late March 2014, four Stanford members of the Chinese Railroad Workers in North America Project—Shelley Fisher Fishkin, Jason Heppler, Teri Hessel and Denise Khor—traveled to the California State Railroad Museum in Sacramento to digitize every extant Central Pacific Railroad Payroll Sheet that contained the names of Chinese workers. All of these payroll records will eventually be accessible to the public in the Project’s Digital Archive.

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Teri Hessel, Jason Heppler, Shelley Fisher Fishkin, and Denise Khor at the Central Pacific Railroad Depot in Sacramento, near the California State Railroad Museum.

We are enormously grateful to Cara Randall, Librarian of the California State Railroad Museum and her staff for making our visit—and our access to these documents—possible. We were excited about the chance to collaborate with the California State Railroad Museum on this important venture.

Armed with a Canon EOS Rebel T3i camera, extra batteries, a tripod and a set of halogen camera lights, we were ready for action when the Museum opened on the morning of March 24th—or so we thought.

The payroll records turned out to be so large that to capture one sheet in its entirety, the tripod had to be mounted on the table—where it cast shadows on the document that made the already-faint writing nearly illegible.

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Shelley Fisher Fishkin, Jason Heppler, Denise Khor and Teri Hessel trying to capture a payroll record sheet with the equipment that they brought.

What we needed, Cara Randall realized, was something none of us had ever used before: a copy stand, a device designed precisely for the kind of challenge that faced us. But the Library didn’t have one. We began to look into renting one locally—to no avail.

At that moment, Kyle Wyatt, Curator of History and Technology at the Railroad Museum happened by and saw our long faces. He remembered that in the 1990s he had bought a copy stand. It was still in his garage. In boxes – never unpacked. In an act of wonderful generosity, Kyle drove home, loaded the pieces of the copy stand into his car, and drove back to the museum with it, where he painstakingly put it together. (He took the opportunity to donate the copy stand to the California State Railroad Museum Library, so the institution will have one available in the future—for its own use as well as for use by
visiting researchers.)

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Kyle Wyatt arriving at the museum with the copy stand in boxes, assembling it as Cara Randall looks on, and beaming over his work when it was finished.

The Project owes a tremendous debt of gratitude to Kyle Wyatt for going far beyond the call of duty to ensure that our trip accomplished its end and to Cara Randall for all she did to set our collaboration in motion and make it all possible.

IMG_1813Jason Heppler and Denise Khor digitizing one of the payroll records with the copy stand Kyle Wyatt assembled.

October 2013: Project Hosts Archaeology Workshop at Stanford

Organized by Stanford Professor Barbara Voss, archeologists who have studied Chinese sites along the Central Pacific Railroad’s construction gathered at Stanford University, CA to discuss their research.

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The program for the Archeology Workshop is available here:

 

Abstracts of the papers given at the Archeology Workshop are also available (in English and simplified Chinese):