Key Questions

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

The first Chinese involvement in the construction of of the transcontinental railroad was documented in 1858 when the Sacramento Union reported that 50 Chinese workers were hired for the construction fo the California Central Railroad and continued through the “Golden Spike” ceremony and beyond. For detailed timeline of Chinese participation, please see our Timeline page.

How many Chinese worked on the first transcontinental railroad?

The precise number of Chinese who worked on the railroad from 1864 to 1869 is not clear; records are incomplete and inexact. 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 shortly after 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 import large numbers of Chinese workers directly from China. By July 1865, the Chinese workforce 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 may be even higher.

Did Chinese form labor contracting companies?

According to payroll records, Chinese who were sometimes identified as, say, Hung Wah Company, were often middlemen. They receive lump sums of wages and then divvied it up among the workers who sometimes numbered into 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 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. In most cases, the small amount of capital that the contractors accumulated was minuscule compared to that which the bosses and probably white foremen amassed.

When were they hired to work on the railroad?

Chinese worked on shorter railroad lines before construction of the transcontinental, such as the San Francisco and San Jose Railroad Company (now known as CalTrain) completed in 1863. Some Chinese began working on the Central Pacific as early as January 1864, and Director Charles Crocker and Construction Superintendent James Strobridge were convinced in January 1865 to hire large numbers of Chinese laborers for the workforce. Soon after, the Central Pacific Railroad arranged with labor contractors to recruit large numbers of workers directly from China, and ships regularly brought additional workers throughout the construction.

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 extreme poverty and civil unrest, and the area was close to Hong Kong as a point of departure. Desperate for work, workers from this part of Guangdong boarded ships for California and other parts to support their families.

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

Chinese workers were initially paid $24 to $31 per month, although 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. Their pay eventually rose to $35 per day, which was roughly the same as for workers of European descent. However, Chinese workers worked longer hours and had to pay their headmen or contractors for their own lodging and food and even for their tools; on the other hand, the Central Pacific and Union Pacific provided white workers accommodations, food, and tools without additional cost. Alexander Saxton, in “The Army of Canton in the High Sierra,” calculates that Chinese labor cost the railroad companies two thirds of what was paid to white workers.

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 from Sacramento, was 800 feet long and 63 feet 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. In January 1864, the Central Pacific hired a crew of 21 Chinese workers and hired more during that year, with at least some working at Bloomer Cut. A larger number worked there by the time Bloomer Cut was completed in March 1865.

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 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 cliffs 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. Historians agree that the most difficult tunnel was No. 6, the Summit Tunnel, cut through solid granite, 1,695 feet long and 124 feet below the surface. Progress was very slow, with many kegs of black powder used each day, but to little effect in the hard rock. Nitroglycerine was mixed on site by a chemist, but it was too unstable, causing many accidental explosions, and its use was abandoned. Workers built a vertical shaft halfway between the two tunnel openings, and in shifts around the clock they dug four faces simultaneously, from both exterior sides and from inside out. Work continued through two of the worst winters on record. Snow from fierce blizzards often blocked tunnel entrances, and avalanches would sweep away camps of Chinese workers, carrying many to their death. The Summit Tunnel was completed, graded and track laid on November 30, 1867. Because of the severe winter storms, the Central Pacific built 37 miles 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 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 4000 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 teamwork that went into laying ten miles plus of track in one day was tremendous.  It was like a choreographer orchestrating a complex dance sequence.  Everyone moved with a rhythm. The accomplishment has not been matched even in modern times.

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 were forgotten so they remain nameless.

For more information on key sites and events during the progress of construction, visit our virtual reconstruction page.

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. Some historians estimate from engineering reports, newspaper articles and other sources that between 50 to 150 Chinese were killed as a result of snow slides, landslides, explosions, falls and other accidents. Chinese practice was to bury the deceased temporarily and at a later date collect the remains in a box in a ritual fashion. The bones would then be shipped back to China to be reburied in the worker’s home village. 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 article published on the same day in the Sacramento Union stated that only the bones of about 50 Chinese were on the train. Others believe that some Chinese must have also died in a smallpox outbreak among railroad workers, although there are no records if any of the dead were Chinese. In addition, there were reports of Chinese workers being killed in Nevada as the result of Indian raids. Charles Crocker, testifying before Congress after the line was completed, acknowledged that a great many men were lost during construction – and most of those workers were Chinese.

What happened in the 1867 strike?

On June 25, 1867 Chinese workers went on strike. Five thousand workers grading along the eastern slope of the Sierra between Cisco and Strong’s Canyon and digging tunnels put their tools down and returned to their camps. When Chinese workers were first hired in 1864 they earned $25 per day, but then wages were raised again. In Spring 1867 Charles Crocker raised their wages from $31 to $35 per month; but the workers demanded $40 per month, reduced workdays 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 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.”

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.” Despite their non-violent tactic, 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 considered taking 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 cut off food and other supplies. After eight days of increasing privation, Crocker confronted the starving workers, along with James Strobridge, the local Sherriff and a contingent of deputized white men, insisting that he would make no concessions and threatened violence to anyone preventing workers from returning to the job. Facing starvation and coercion, the workers ended the strike. Charles Crocker became convinced that the labor action was a plot by the Union Pacific, which aimed to sabotage the Central Pacific’s forward progress in their race to gain more miles for subsidies. He never considered that the Chinese workers were capable of asserting their own interests.

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

Debate has been furious among railroad enthusiasts and historians on the use of baskets at Cape Horn. 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 was 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. The image has been powerful of Chinese workers hanging from baskets to do such hazardous work, and the depiction of workers in baskets along cliffs has appeared in many graphic images and literary representations, as well as histories.

However, 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 use of baskets is an exaggeration, a legend that has expanded over time with each new version of the story. An 1869 article in The Overland Monthly based on witnesses 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. The slope 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 point out, however, 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 workers, therefore, would have had no problem hanging by ropes and baskets during construction, so it’s plausible that some baskets could have been employed. 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.

Were the workers literate, and did they send letters back to China?

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 – a number may, in fact, have been literate. Evidence suggests, however, that at least some of the workers were educated; certainly, the headmen and agents for labor contractors could speak English and tally accounts, and at least one labor contractor had apparently passed the lower level of the mandarin civil service exams. 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.

Why has no letter or journal from a worker been found yet?

Guangdong suffered from rebellions, civil conflict, bandits and warlords in the mid-nineteenth century, so if letters or documents were sent to families back home they may have been destroyed in the chaos. Also, families may not have regarded the letters as important, since their fathers and sons were merely lowly laborers. As well, the families may not have been able to preserve them in the subsequent 150 years of invasions, famine and social unrest. Finally, no exhaustive search for such primary documents has been conducted until now, so there may yet be possible discoveries.

Why do we not know many of their names?

Chinese naming practices required three names. First was the family name for a male, followed by a middle name that indicates the person’s village and generation, and lastly the given name, often with symbolic or aspirational meaning. 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.” Consequently, we have very few actual names, making it very difficult to track down the actual workers. We have been collecting names from oral history interviews of descendants and other sources, and we hope to obtain more.

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 with occasional wine and 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, 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 they 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. In addition, Chinese in their contracts insisted that a Chinese physician be in the vicinity.

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, 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 upgrading the hasty construction, such as filling in land to remove a trestle. 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.