Key Questions

The following responses to these questions are based on the collective research of the Chinese Railroad Workers in North America Project, particularly the books and essays produced by members of the project: The Chinese and the Iron Road: Building the Transcontinental Railroad, eds. Gordon H. Chang and Shelley Fisher Fishkin with Hilton Obenzinger and Roland Hsu (Stanford University Press, 2019); Ghosts of Gold Mountain: The Epic Story of the Chinese Who Built the Transcontinental Railroad, by Gordon H. Chang (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2019); the digital essays published by the Chinese Railroad Workers in North America Project, and the essays in the Special Issue of Historical Archaeology, “The Archaeology of Chinese Railroad Workers in North America.” 2015, Vol. 49, No. 1, edited by Barbara Voss.

When did Chinese participate in the construction of the transcontinental railroad?

Chinese were involved in building railroads in California long before 1863, when construction of the western portion of the transcontinental railroad, the Central Pacific Railroad (CPRR), began. In 1858 the Sacramento Union reported that 50 Chinese were hired for the construction of the California Central Railroad, and later Chinese worked on the railroad that linked San Francisco and San Jose. In 1864 Chinese began to work for the CPRR. In early 1865, when only a few white men answered the call for workers, large numbers of Chinese from communities in California began working on the CPRR. Soon shiploads of workers recruited from Guangdong province in China began to arrive. The Chinese worked until the CPRR was linked to the Union Pacific Railroad (UPRR) on May 10, 1869, and many continued to work on the CPRR and UPRR, as well as other railroads from California to New York.

For detailed timeline of Chinese participation, please see our Timeline page.

How many Chinese worked on the first transcontinental railroad?

Records are incomplete and inexact, so the precise number of Chinese who worked on the railroad from 1864 to 1869 is not clear. The railroad did not list most individual Chinese workers by name in their payroll records, and instead listed headmen of work crews or labor contractors who distributed pay to the individuals on the crew. In January 1864, the Central Pacific hired a crew of 21 Chinese workers and hired more during that year. In January 1865, convinced that Chinese workers were capable, the railroad hired fifty Chinese workers and then fifty more. But the demand for labor increased, and white workers were reluctant to do such backbreaking, hazardous work. As Leland Stanford reported to Congress in 1865, “A large majority of the white laboring class on the Pacific Coast find most profitable and congenial employment in mining and agricultural pursuits, than in railroad work. The greater portion of the laborers employed by us are Chinese, who constitute a large element of the population of California. Without them it would be impossible to complete the western portion of this great national enterprise, within the time required by the Acts of Congress.”

Soon the Chinese labor pool from California was exhausted, and the Central Pacific arranged with labor contractors to recruit large numbers of Chinese workers directly from China. By July 1865, the Chinese workforce on the CPRR was nearly 4,000. In February 1867, approximately 8,000 Chinese were working on the construction of tunnels and 3000 were laying track, representing ninety percent of the workforce. Historians estimate that at any one time as many as 10,000 to 15,000 Chinese were working on constructing the railroad. Most Chinese probably did not work for the entire duration of construction and others would take their place, particularly because the work was so difficult and dangerous. Consequently, the total number of Chinese was even greater.

See Gordon H. Chang, “The Chinese and the Stanfords: Nineteenth-Century America’s Fraught Relationship with the China Men,” in Gordon H. Chang and Shelley Fisher Fishkin, eds., Chinese and the Iron Road: Building the Transcontinental Railroad, Stanford University Press, 2019.

Where did the Chinese workers come from?

Railroad workers recruited by labor contractors came mostly from Guangdong (Canton) province, especially Siyi (四邑 Sze Yap, meaning four counties: Taishan 台山, Kaiping 开平, Xinhui 新会 and Enping 恩平).  These counties suffered from poverty and civil unrest, and the area was close to Hong Kong as a point of departure. Desperate for employment and seeking opportunities, workers from this part of Guangdong boarded ships for California and other parts, such as working the guano mines in Peru or cutting sugar cane in Cuba.

See Evelyn Hu-DeHart, “Chinese Labor Migrants to the Americas in the Nineteenth Century: An Inquiry into Who They Were and the World They Left Behind”, in Gordon H. Chang and Shelley Fisher Fishkin, eds., Chinese and the Iron Road: Building the Transcontinental Railroad, Stanford University Press, 2019.

What were the Chinese workers paid in comparison to workers of European descent?

When Chinese were first hired in 1864, the company paid $26 a month for a six-day workweek, with the Chinese paying for their own food, unlike white workers. Rates would vary depending on how skilled or dangerous the work. For example, those who worked in the tunnels were paid an extra $1 per month. In the spring of 1867, the company raised their wages from $31 to $35 a month. However, Chinese workers were still paid less than their white counterparts, worked longer hours and had to pay for their food; the Central Pacific and Union Pacific provided white workers food without additional cost.

The work of the Chinese ranged from basic unskilled tasks, such as moving earth and snow, to highly skilled tasks, such as blacksmithing, carpentry, tunneling, and drayage. They were cooks, medical practitioners, masons, and loggers. They cleared the roadbed, laid track, handled explosives, bored tunnels, and constructed retaining walls. Virtually all work was done by hand, with hand tools. No power tools or power-driven machinery was used in the construction work (except for a locomotive engine used to carry debris from the Summit Tunnel).

Despite their efficiency, endurance, intelligence, and dependability, the Chinese worked longer hours for less pay than their white peers. Historians estimate that they cost the company between one-half and two-thirds of what white workers cost.

See Stanford Libraries, Chinese Railroad Workers Project, Digital Materials Repository Galleries.

How did the workers send remittances back home?

Many of the Chinese railroad workers supported families in their home villages. The average worker was able to save only a small amount, after paying expenses or paying debts. How they were able to send money home is still not well known. It appears that Chinese in America would either take money back on their own person or pay couriers to carry the funds. Merchants in San Francisco and other towns served as early banks to hold the money for the workers. As the flow of money to China increased over the years, money orders and fund transfers developed. Money from the workers helped their home villages with new schools, village halls, and celebrated diaolou guard towers throughout the region to protect the villages from bandits and other violent attacks.

See “Overseas Remittances of Chinese Laborers in North America” by Yuan Ding and Roland Hsu in in Gordon H. Chang and Shelley Fisher Fishkin, eds., Chinese and the Iron Road: Building the Transcontinental Railroad, Stanford University Press, 2019.

Did Chinese form labor contracting companies?

According to payroll records, Chinese who were often middlemen were sometimes identified as, for example, Hung Wah Company. These contractors received lump sums of wages and then divvied it up among the workers they had on their payroll who sometimes numbered in the hundreds. The largest labor contractors were white owned (e.g. Sisson, Wallace, Egbert companies) but the Chinese contractors, who themselves may have numbered several hundred, were very important. Almost all the descendants whom we interviewed in our Oral History project identify their ancestors as contractors. It is no coincidence that there are descendants from this “class,” as they were the ones who were able to accumulate some capital and then go into business themselves after the completion of the CPRR. Line workers were often too poor to have wives and families. A lot of the workers also had aspirations of getting rich. The contractors often did not live much differently than the line workers and may have labored right along side the workers. The contractors learned some English, and that amounted to important cultural capital. In most cases, the small amount of monetary capital that the contractors accumulated was minuscule compared to that which the bosses and probably the white foremen amassed.

See Stanford Libraries, Chinese Railroad Workers Project, Digital Materials Repository Galleries.

What kind of food did they eat?

The workers insisted on eating Chinese food: rice, dried vegetables, dried oysters, dried abalone fish, and some pork and poultry. Much of these foodstuffs came from California sources, such as fresh vegetables. They also drank tea and hot water, and occasionally they drank wine; they also smoked opium. The Irish or white workers were fed mainly meat and potatoes along with whiskey. The Chinese diet and especially the use of boiled water reduced the outbreak of dysentery and other diseases. In order to provide food for the workers, a network of growers, and local Chinese importers established a trans-Pacific supply chain. Food included rice, preserved meats; dried fish, shrimp, and other shellfish; dried legumes; dried noodles, preserved vegetables, dried seaweeds, and teas. Evidence at work sites indicated that the workers ate far more meat – such as chicken and pork deer, along with bear and other game – than they would have back home. The Central Pacific made an arrangement with one of the labor contractors, Sisson, Wallace & Company, who had exclusive right to sell food and other supplies to the Chinese workers. As the work moved through Nevada, the Central Pacific had two train cars labeled “China Store,” from which goods could be purchased. Because the demand for tea was so high, the contractor decided to bypass the middlemen and had their agents in their Hong Kong office purchase the tea directly from growers in China. Food was so important that the Chinese cooks were paid more than unskilled workers. A Chinese physician often accompanied labor teams.

See J. Ryan Kennedy, Sarah Heffner, Virginia Popper, Ryan P. Harrod, and John J. Crandall, “The Health and Well-being of Chinese Railroad Workers,” in Gordon H. Chang and Shelley Fisher Fishkin, eds., Chinese and the Iron Road: Building the Transcontinental Railroad, Stanford University Press, 2019. See also, Christopher Merritt, Kenneth Cannon, and Michael Polk, “Chinese Workers at Central Pacific Railroad Section Station Camps, 1870-1900.”

What were the hardest and most hazardous parts of the railroad route for them to build?

Bloomer Cut

In early 1864 workers began blasting and digging through steep terrain on the Bloomer Ranch near Auburn, California, to create a level grade for tracks. Bloomer Cut, 38 miles/61 kilometers from Sacramento, was 800 feet/243 meters long and 63 feet/19.2 meters high, and workers dug a trough through naturally cemented gravel and hard clay with picks, shovels and black powder. This was the first major engineering challenge for the railroad, and it was dangerous work. At least some Chinese worked there by the time Bloomer Cut was completed in March 1865. Chinese worked on other numerous huge ‘cuts’ and ‘fills’ along the line.

Cape Horn

In summer 1865 construction began on Cape Horn (named after the treacherous route for ships sailing around the tip of South America) and completed a year later. This was a three-mile roadbed curving along steep terrain of the Sierra Nevada at least 1300 feet/396 meters high above the American River east of Colfax. Work required grading, leveling and clearing trees, stumps, rocks and other obstructions along an irregular slope dropping off between 45 and 75 degrees. Hundreds of kegs of black blasting powder were used to form a ledge from which a level roadbed could be laid. There are conflicting reports on how the work was carried out, including the belief that Chinese workers were lowered down mountainsides in baskets to plant charges (see below).


In fall 1865 Chinese workers began building 15 tunnels, most of them at high elevations through the Sierra Nevada for a total of 6,213 feet/ 1894 meters. The most difficult tunnel was No. 6, the Summit Tunnel (Mile 105.5/Kilometer 170) cut through solid granite, 1,695 feet/516 meters long and 124 feet/38 meters below the surface. Progress was agonizingly slow, with many kegs of black powder used each day. A chemist mixed nitroglycerine on site, but it was too unstable, risking accidental explosions (in April 1866 an explosion obliterated six workers who were handling it). The company soon ended its use not because of nitroglycerine’s danger but because Alfred Nobel, the explosive’s inventor, placed patent restrictions on it, and government restricted its use and transportation because of its danger.

In order to move the work more quickly, a steam engine from a stripped down locomotive was hauled to the top of the tunnel and work gangs set about sinking a vertical shaft 73 feet/22 meters down the center of the tunnel. Workers were let down into the tunnel and lifted out through the central shaft, and the debris was hauled out with buckets raised by the steam engine. Now work could proceed in four directions, at both the east and west faces, and inside out.

Always wanting to make quicker progress, Charles Crocker decided that faster, more experienced workers were needed for tunneling out from the center of the shaft. According to his account, the Central Pacific offered extra wages for Cornish miners to do the work, recruiting them from the Nevada silver mines. Miners from Cornwall in southwest England had gained a reputation as being among the best miners in the world.

Rather than putting the Cornish miners directly to the task, Crocker decided to set up a competition between them and the Chinese. He faced Chinese workers chipping away at the rock from one direction and the Cornish miners from the opposite direction. Setting up competitions, especially along ethnic or racial lines, was a typical management practice of this time; competition would help speed up the work, setting different groups of workers against each other.

As Crocker described the results of this competition: “We measured the work every Sunday morning; and the Chinamen without fail always outmeasured the Cornish miners; that is to say, they would cut more rock in a week than the Cornish miners did, and there it was hard work, steady pounding on the rock, bone-labor.” The Cornish miners returned to work in Nevada.

Work continued through two of the harshest winters on record. Forty-four storms were counted from November 1866 to May 1867, with snow at the summit averaging 18 feet/5.5 meters and a total snowfall reaching over 40 feet/12 meters. Snow from fierce blizzards often blocked tunnel entrances, and the workers shoveled out tunnels through the snow, as much as 500 hundred feet long; they dug open windows, and they rested and ate in their white ice caves after spending their shifts in the dark of the mountain. Winters were especially dangerous: avalanches would sweep away camps of Chinese workers, carrying many to their death. Twenty workers died in one avalanche, and individuals disappeared in smaller snow slides. Some frozen bodies were found in the spring with their shovels or picks still in their hands.

The Summit Tunnel was completed, graded and track laid on November 30, 1867. The first passenger train passed through the tunnel in June 1868. Because of the severe winter storms, the Central Pacific built 37 miles/59.5 kilometers of snow sheds to cover the tracks in 1868 and 1869. The snow sheds were nicknamed the “longest barn in the world.”

Ten Miles in One Day

On April 28, 1869 ten miles and fifty-six feet (16 kilometers and 17 meters) of track was laid in one day. The accomplishment was in response to a $10,000 wager Charles Crocker made with Thomas Durant of the Union Pacific that his workers were capable of doing what seemed impossible. A squad of eight Irish rail-handlers and a small army of 5000 workers, mostly Chinese, accomplished the feat, working between 5 a.m. and 7 p.m., with a mid-day break after laying six miles of track. In the end 25,800 ties, 3,520 rails (averaging 560 lbs. each), 55,080 spikes, 14,050 bolts, and other materials, totaling in weight 4,462,000 pounds, were laid down. The track had to ascend the slope of Promontory Mountain, and there were curves that required tremendous effort to bend the rails manually.

The teamwork that went into laying ten miles plus of track in less than twelve hours was tremendous.  It was like a choreographer orchestrating a complex dance sequence.  Everyone moved with a rhythm. An officer of the U.S. Army witnessed the work. “It was just like an army marching over the ground and leaving the track behind them,” he observed. “[I]t was a good day’s march for an army.”

The names of the eight Irish workers were recorded by the railroad, and they were hailed in a parade in Sacramento. None of the Chinese workers’ names were recorded; they remain nameless.

What is the controversy over whether Chinese workers were lowered in baskets to place explosive charges at Cape Horn?

For some time, railroad enthusiasts and historians have debated the use of baskets at Cape Horn. Cape Horn, a stretch of railroad looping around a high steep mountain above the American River, was named for the treacherous southern tip of South America where the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans meet, and through which all ships had to pass on the way to California. Many accounts, starting in the early twentieth century, told of Chinese workers hanging over sheer precipices in straw baskets to chip away holes for explosives. Once they lit the fuse, they signaled to be hastily drawn up to avoid the blast, a very risky operation, and many would lose their lives if the basket were not drawn up fast enough. In some accounts Chinese workers requested to weave the baskets, explaining that they were already skilled doing such work along the Yangtze River.

Other historians point out that there were no reports from engineers, no reports by Construction Superintendent James Strobridge, no newspaper accounts, and no photographs of baskets being used during construction at Cape Horn. In this view, the story began in a 1927 article by a publicity agent of the Southern Pacific Railroad; and the use of baskets is an exaggeration or even a fiction, a legend that has expanded over time with each new version of the story.

Recent research has uncovered accounts from long before1927 that contain firm evidence that supports the claim that Chinese did in fact use ropes as well as woven baskets in construction work through the Sierra. Whether these episodes were at Cape Horn or at other Sierra locations to the east, is not clear, but the “baskets story” now seems more compelling than ever.

An 1869 article in The Overland Monthly described how workers “were suspended by ropes from above, the chain-bearers signaling to those holding the ropes, up and down, forward or back.” One account described how workers sat on boatswain’s (or boson’s) chairs, flat seats of woven ropes like swings. They were then let down to prepare for drilling and blasting. A newspaper account from 1868 was published in several newspapers describing how “the Chinamen who did the work were let down in baskets, and in this position drilled holes and charged them in the side of the mountain.” The article did not identify where the scene took place, so it may have been at another site in the Sierra Nevada, such as Crested Peak, farther east. The slope at Cape Horn was not a sheer cliff but a drop between 45 and 75 degrees, so laboring in baskets could have actually hindered work, since no one would be able to use his feet to maneuver.

Researchers in China also point out that the laborers from Guangdong would have much experience working at great heights for building roads and structures along the Yangtze River, as well as climbing tall trees to gather delicacies for cooking.

The image of Chinese workers hanging from baskets to do such hazardous work has been powerful, and the depiction of workers in baskets along cliffs has appeared in many graphic images and literary representations, as well as in histories. Whether hung in baskets or by rope, there is no question the Chinese workers undertook an arduous and dangerous task of cutting through steep terrain

For a full discussion of the controversy, see Gordon H. Chang, Ghosts of Gold Mountain: The Epic Story of the Chinese Who Built the Transcontinental Railroad, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2019.

What happened in the 1867 strike?

On Wednesday June 19, 1867, a massive tunnel explosion occurred a mile north of Cisco. According to a news report, the accident took the life of a “white man Burns, having a wife and family at Cisco,” and “five Chinamen,” who were “blown up” and “horribly mangled.” The thunder from the disastrous explosion reverberated for miles up into the foothills, and was no doubt heard by the other Chinese railroad workers in the Sierra Nevada.

The Chinese did the most dangerous work, and the explosion may have been the last straw. On June 24, three thousand Chinese workers put down their tools and refused to work. From Cisco to Truckee, almost thirty miles, Chinese at numerous job sites stopped work in unison in a highly organized labor action.

When Chinese workers were first hired in 1864 they earned $26 a month for a six-day work week, with the Chinese paying for their own food unlike white workers who were fed at the expense of the railroad. Chinese workers were paid less than half the amount white workers were paid. In the spring of 1867, the company raised its wages from $31 to $35 a month to try to attract more Chinese workers. The striking workers, seeking parity with European American workers, demanded $40 a month, a workday reduced from eleven to ten hours, and shorter shifts digging in the cramped, dangerous tunnels. Shifts were supposed to be eight hours in the tunnels, but they were often forced to work longer. As the Sacramento Union reported, the workers also protested “the right of the overseers of the company to either whip them or restrain them from leaving the road when they desire to seek other employment.” While Crocker and Strobridge would employ axe handles and whips to speed up work or break up fights, no other report substantiates the claim of management preventing workers from leaving the job site.

Crocker recalled that, “If there had been that number of white laborers [on strike] … it would have been impossible to control them. But this strike of the Chinese was just like Sunday all along the work. These men stayed in their camps. That is, they would come out and walk around, but not a word was said. No violence was perpetrated along the whole line.” While not violent, a French traveler described the striking Chinese workers as defiant, arrogant and swaggering, who “left their pickaxes buried in the sand and walk around with arms crossed . . .”

The strike was disciplined and methodical. “How they planned, communicated, and coordinated with one another, however, is not known at all,” according to Gordon Chang in Ghosts of Gold Mountain. “A news report at the time spoke of a flyer that circulated among the Chinese just before the strike, but considerable deliberation and organization must have occurred long in advance of the walkout. Reaching unity in purpose, in specific demands, and in timing of action from three thousand workers spread along miles of construction work and living camps was a stunning achievement.”

The strike posed a mortal threat to Crocker, Stanford and the other railroad “Associates” who received government subsidies based on the miles of track laid. “The truth is they are getting smart,” Charles’ brother E. B. Crocker wrote, observing that the Chinese were aware of the scarcity of labor and therefore of their own leverage to bargain. E. B. Crocker and Mark Hopkins urged that the CPRR take advantage of the newly created Freedmen’s Bureau to hire recently freed slaves as strikebreakers. Hopkins reasoned, “A Negro labor force would tend to keep the Chinese steady, as the Chinese have kept the Irishmen quiet.” Charles Crocker, in desperation, asked Huntington to get as many new workers as possible to come out. “The only safe way for us is to inundate this state and Nevada with laborers, Freedmen, Chinese, Japanese, all kinds of laborers.”

The Chinese labor agents stopped supplying the workers with goods and provisions, according to E.B. Crocker. Later, Charles Crocker took credit for cutting off food and other supplies. After eight days of increasing privation, Crocker confronted the hungry workers, joined by James Strobridge, the local Sherriff, and a contingent of deputized white men; he insisted that he would make no concessions and threatened that he would order his posse to “shoot down any man that attempted to do the laborers any injury.” Facing starvation and coercion, the workers ended the strike.

The company did not at first concede any of the strike demands, but it would be wrong to conclude that the Chinese had simply been defeated. The workers coordinated an effort that involved thousands spread over miles of the Sierra; they stood up to the company. The collective action had deeply shaken the Associates, and they realized that the workers could never be taken for granted. The Chinese workers were truly indispensable, wielding leverage because of the scarcity of labor. It appeared that the company also quietly raised pay following the strike, at least for skilled and experienced Chinese workers, over the subsequent months. Wages for them went above $35 a month. And when railroad construction reached the Nevada desert Charles Crocker gave all the workers a bonus for working in extreme heat during the summer months.

No evidence exists for whether or not the workers themselves had thought they had failed; yet, as Gordon Chang argues in Chapter Seven of Ghosts of Gold Mountain, “the strike might be understood as being as much, or even more, a clash of cultural logics rather than an incident seen in standard Western labor-management terms. Collective action could be an important expression of will, a matter of achieving ‘face’ and self-respect. The specific outcome was less significant than the act of defiance itself.”

Were the workers literate, and did they send letters back to China? Why has no letter or journal from a worker been found?

Since the workers came from the agricultural region of Guangdong, it is generally believed that most were illiterate farmers. To be literate in China at that time involved being conversant with Chinese classical texts, and by that definition, almost all of the workers were not literate. However, by the commonly accepted American definition of literacy – being able to read and write – many may, in fact, have been literate. Evidence suggests that at least some of the workers were formally educated; certainly, the headmen and agents for labor contractors could speak English and tally accounts. Mark Twain, writing about the 1860s about Virginia City, Nevada, observed in Roughing It that the Chinese “can read, write and cipher with easy facility.” So far, though, no letter or document of any sort written by one of the Central Pacific workers has been found. Chinese who worked on other lines after the first transcontinental, such as the Southern Pacific, have left some documents.

It’s reasonable to think that workers sent letters home. But Guangdong suffered from rebellions, civil conflict, bandits and warlords in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, so if letters or documents were sent to families they may have been destroyed in the turmoil. Also, families may not have regarded the letters as important, since their fathers and sons were merely laborers. As well, the families may not have been able to preserve them in the subsequent 150 years of invasions, famine and social unrest.

See Zhang Guoxiong, with Roland Hsu , “The View from Home: Dreams of Chinese Railroad Workers Across the Pacific,” in Gordon H. Chang and Shelley Fisher Fishkin, eds., Chinese and the Iron Road: Building the Transcontinental Railroad, Stanford University Press, 2019.

Why do we not know many of their names?

English speakers found Chinese names very difficult to understand, and they are listed in payroll records and newspaper articles in simplified forms or what could be described as nicknames, such as Ah Fong, Ah Chung and Ah Lim, with “Ah” serving as a designation less formal than “Mister.” As Gordon Chang explains in Chapter Seven of Ghosts of Gold Mountain, “The diminutive ‘Ah’ precedes an effort to spell what presumably is a Chinese surname.” Or payroll records record “John Chinaman.” Consequently, we have very few actual names, making it very difficult to track down the origins and descendants of the workers. We have been collecting names from oral history interviews of descendants and other sources, and we hope to obtain more.

See Stanford Libraries, Chinese Railroad Workers Project, Digital Materials Repository Galleries.

How many Chinese workers died building the Transcontinental railroad?

The Central Pacific did not keep records of the deaths of any workers on the railroad, much less Chinese workers. Not knowing the fate of the Chinese workers is unnerving, and historians can only estimate the number of dead from engineering reports, newspaper articles, oral histories of descendants. Some estimate that 50 to 150 to over 1000 Chinese workers were killed as a result of snow slides, landslides, explosions, falls and other accidents. One 1868 newspaper article reports that the Chinese Six Companies organized searches for the remains of 300 along the rail line. Chinese practice was to bury the deceased temporarily and at a later date collect the remains in a box in a ritual fashion, according to spiritual beliefs. The bones would then be shipped back to China to be reburied in the worker’s home village. The Six Companies and others made great efforts to search for and repatriate the remains.

One newspaper article entitled “Bones in Transit” of June 30, 1870 in the Sacramento Reporter reported that “about 20,000 pounds of bones” dug up from shallow graves were taken by train for return to China, calculating that this amounted to 1,200 Chinese. Another newspaper reported the same information, stating that only the bones of about 50 Chinese were on the train. There is no way to bridge the vast difference in estimates, but there is considerable evidence of how perilous life was for Chinese in the West overall, especially as the “Chinese Must Go” movement grew, precipitating murderous riots. Others believe that some Chinese must have also died in a smallpox outbreak among railroad workers, although there are no records indicating whether any of the dead were Chinese, and smallpox inoculation had existed in China for centuries. Charles Crocker, testifying before Congress after the line was completed, acknowledged that a great many were lost during construction – and most of those workers were Chinese.

What did the railroad workers do after the Central Pacific Railroad was completed?

Upon completion of the railroad, some workers went back to China; others went to work in agriculture, mining, logging, building levees along the rivers or went to Chinatowns in Sacramento, San Francisco, and the small towns in the Sierras to enter domestic service or work in manufacturing to produce cigars and other items. Some continued to work for the Central Pacific and the Union Pacific upgrading the hasty construction, such as filling in land to remove a trestle. Many Chinese also went to work on the railroad from Sacramento down San Joaquin Valley to Los Angeles. We have not yet been able to determine how many workers from the original transcontinental line went to work on other railroads versus the number of fresh workers contracted in China, but there were large contingents of Chinese building the Southern Pacific and Northern Pacific Railroads, as well as other railroads throughout the West and even in the East. Chinese workers helped build and maintain at least 70 other rail lines (and railroad depots) in the United States. Many of the workers also went north to labor on the Canadian transcontinental railroad—the Chinese experience there being better known and honored by Canadians than that in the United States.

For more on Chinese railroad workers after the Transcontinental, see Shelley Fisher Fishkin, “The Chinese as Railroad Builders After Promontory” and Zhongping Chen, “The Construction of the Canadian Pacific Railway and the Transpacific Chinese Diaspora, 1880 -1885,” in Gordon H. Chang and Shelley Fisher Fishkin, eds., Chinese and the Iron Road: Building the Transcontinental Railroads, Stanford University Press, 2019.