Research publications and accessible resources provided by the Chinese Railroad Workers in North America Project at Stanford

Publications in Print

The Chinese and the Iron Road: Building the Transcontinental Railroad

Gordon H. Chang and Shelley Fisher Fishkin, editors., with Hilton Obenzinger and Roland Hsu
Stanford University Press, Spring 2019 release date

The Chinese and the Iron Road is the first book to present a comprehensive history of Chinese who helped complete America’s first transcontinental railroad.

The Chinese and the Iron Road recovers the neglected history of Chinese workers who made up about ninety percent of the workforce that constructed the Central Pacific Railroad. The history of the Chinese railroad workers has traditionally been folded into a national history of the culmination of “manifest destiny” linking the two coasts of North America when in 1869 the Golden Spike connected the Central Pacific to the Union Pacific at Promontory Summit, Utah.

This book reveals the Chinese workers through transnational perspectives, and engages readers interested in a range of disciplines to explore our heretofore-unanswered questions: Who were the Chinese who built the railroad? How did they travel across the Pacific? Where were their homes in China, and how did they experience life in the American West? What was their daily life on the line? How did they perform such arduous work? What were their spiritual beliefs? What did they do after the railroad was completed? What did they send back to China? What is their place in our cultural memory?

This book documents and interprets the history of the Chinese railroad workers and contributes to our knowledge of core subjects of immigration across the Pacific, Asian American history, the history of the railroad, and the development of the American West.


Ghosts of Gold Mountain: The Epic Story of the Chinese Who Built the Transcontinental Railroad

Gordon H. Chang
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, Spring 2019 release date

A groundbreaking, breathtaking history of the Chinese workers who built the Transcontinental Railroad, helping to forge modern America only to disappear into the shadows of history until now.

From across the sea, they came by the thousands, escaping war and poverty in southern China to seek their fortunes in America. Converging on the enormous western worksite of the Transcontinental Railroad, the migrants spent years dynamiting tunnels through the snow-packed cliffs of the Sierra Nevada and laying tracks across the burning Utah desert. Their sweat and blood fueled the ascent of an interlinked, industrial United States. But those of them who survived this perilous effort would suffer a different kind of death—a historical one, as they were pushed first to the margins of American life and then to the fringes of public memory. 

In this groundbreaking account, award-winning scholar Gordon H. Chang draws on unprecedented research to recover the Chinese railroad workers’ stories and celebrate their role in remaking America. An invaluable correction of a great historical injustice, The Ghosts of Gold Mountain returns these “silent spikes” to their rightful place in our national saga.
[Chinese Railroad Workers in North America: Recovery and Representation], edited by Hsinya Huang [黃心雅] (Taipei: Bookman [台北:書林出版社], 2017).

Preface by Chinese Railroad Workers in North America Project co-directors Gordon H. Chang and Shelley Fisher Fishkin, contributions by scholars from Asia and North America who have been collaborating on Project for the last three years.

The book’s seventeen chapters—arranged in sections devoted to recovery, home, memory, labor, and representation—span disparate geographies, histories, and disciplines; texts and contexts; and archival research and field work in locals ranging from the sending villages in China to the Sierra Nevada Mountains. Together they help address the lack of attention that Chinese railroad workers in North America have received. Essays span a wide range of disciplines including history, literature, archaeology, architecture, political science, American Studies and East Asian Studies.

This interdisciplinary volume will interest scholars in the humanities, diaspora studies, American history and culture, ethnic studies, minority labor studies, and transnational studies.


Special Issue of Historical Archaeology

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 H. 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

Special issue for purchase:
Paperback ($25)  Ebook ($20)

Finding Hidden Voices of the Chinese Railroad Workers

Mary Maniery, Rebecca Allen, Sarah Christine Heffner
The Society for Historical Archaeology, 2016

Archaeologists and historians trace the steps of Chinese railroad workers, find evidence of their daily lives, and work to keep the knowledge of their achievements alive for future generations. Finding the Hidden Voices is a wonderful overview of the Chinese contribution to that effort.  The book is aimed at the widest audience, rather than an academic one, and to accomplish that it is done in a popular and attractive magazine-type layout style with, as the introduction says, a “vibrantly illustrated format” for the “diverse audience” it is aimed at. Prose is in short snippets. Every aspect of the Chinese working on the railroad is reported: the project in general, the crews, dress, food, the work, work camps, health and medicine, recreation, legacy, etc.  There is also some of the archeological work that developed a lot of the information and some of the archeology methods.

Book for purchase:
Hardcover ($65)


Publications Online

Digital Visualization
Geography of Chinese Workers Building the Transcontinental Railroad: A virtual reconstruction of the key historic sites
From the core project team, a “virtual visualization” of the Central Pacific Railroad line projected along the geographical contours of the Sierra Nevada, and with highlights of the achievements and challenges faced by the Chinese railroad workers.





From the core project team, this timeline of selected highlights of the Central Pacific Railroad and Chinese who helped build the line and the years that followed.

Web Exclusive Essays

Calvin Miaw (Stanford), “Three Interpretations of the Role of Chinese Railroad Workers in the Construction of the Central Pacific Railroad”
All the accounts of building the first transcontinental railroad interpret the role of the Chinese in its construction, and those interpretations are often highly contested, reflecting different assumptions and attitudes, as well as data.

Li Ju and Linda Ye, “A Photo Comparative Essay of the Central Pacific Railroad”
Over the course of five years, we conducted field visits using modern technology to trace the original railroad route, and pinpoint the geographical coordinates of the locations featured in historical photographs of the work on the railroad line. We compare historical photos with our contemporary images taken at the identical locations. We document new findings about the locations of the sites, the evolution of these sites over time, and the daily lives of the railroad construction workers.

Coming soon:

Jack Leong (University of Toronto): “The Hong Kong Connection for the Chinese Railroad Workers in North America”
Based on archives, historical records and personal testimonies about Hong Kong’s nineteenth-century, this essay illustrates the port city that migrants from Guangdong would have had encountered when they were there and en-route to North America.

Shelley Fisher Fishkin (Stanford): A New Look at Russell H. Conwell’s Why and How: Why the Chinese Emigrate and The Means They Adopt for Reaching America [1871]”

Shelley Fisher Fishkin (Stanford), brief explanatory text and extended notes (from “Beyond Promontory” essay in print book

Robert Weaver (Environmental History Company), Gary Weisz, James Bard (Ancient Artifact, Inc), and Kelly Dixon (University of Montana), “Stepping Lightly: Archaeological Sites Along the Northern Pacific Line in Idaho and Western Montana”

Christopher Merritt (Utah Division of State History), Kenneth Cannon (USU Archeological Services), Michael Polk (Commonwealth Heritage Group), “Chinese Workers at Central Pacific Railroad Section Station Camps, 1870-1900”

Pin-chia Feng (National Chiao Tung University), “Remembering the Railroad Grandfather in China Men