Three Interpretations of the Role of Chinese Railroad Workers in the Construction of the Central Pacific Railroad

Calvin Miaw

Stanford University

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. There’s a lot at stake: how one views the building of the transcontinental railroad, the role of U.S. expansion overall, and the place of Chinese (and other minorities) in both the railroad and U.S. development lead to different meanings extracted from that history. This paper evaluates three different interpretations of the experience of Chinese railroad workers: “The Army of Canton in the High Sierra” by Alexander Saxton; Nameless Builders of the Transcontinental Railroad by William F. Chew; and the Central Pacific Railroad Photographic History Museum, which is a website ( There is a particular challenge in developing a critical reading of the website, as it is the product of a large number of voluntary contributors with links to other websites with all kinds of interpretive approaches. My analysis in this case should be taken as applicable to particular writers rather than the site in toto.

Saxton, Chew, and the CPRR Museum all begin with an appreciation of the contribution of Chinese railroad workers who blasted, dug, and tunneled their way from Sacramento to Promontory for the Central Pacific Railroad Company. And yet, bitter polemics engulfed the discussion of Chew’s book on the CPRR Museum website; and even a cursory glance at the website would lead a visitor to imagine a similarly sharp debate between the CPRR Museum contributors and Saxton (Saxton’s article is much older, so perhaps that is why it is not targeted for debate by writers in the CPRR Museum website). In fact, despite agreement on the fact that Chinese workers were indispensable to the construction of the western section of the transcontinental railroad, the three accounts place this fact within widely divergent larger narratives. The CPRR Museum is committed to a kind of ‘great man’ account in which elites and leaders, as they are conventionally understood, are the principal agents of historical change. Saxton inverts this view; for him, the corporate executives in charge of the railroad project ruthlessly exploited the Chinese workers, and the workers’ experience is part of a larger saga of racial oppression. By contrast, Chew sees the railroad worker experience as one episode in the larger story of hard-working Chinese immigrants becoming productive members of American society. These larger narrative frameworks – I am tempted to use the old-fashioned word ‘ideologies’ to describe them – lead the various historians to rely on different kinds of primary sources and draw different conclusions about what the railroad workers’ experience means in the larger sweep of history.

I begin by examining Chew’s findings and methodology in some detail in order to better understand the stakes of the debate between Chew and CPRR Museum contributors, then move on to compare explanations offered by Chew and Saxton regarding working conditions on the railroad. Chew’s account is focused primarily on the scale and scope of the contribution of Chinese railroad workers. According to Chew’s interpretation of CPRR payroll records, a minimum of 23,004 Chinese worked on the railroad and that they were involved in work on Bloomer Cut, all of the CPRR tunnels, and the final record-breaking sprint towards Promontory. Although he does not name it as such, he uncovers evidence of pervasive wage discrimination against the Chinese workers. He also, based on secondary sources and newspaper articles, concludes that around 1,200 Chinese laborers died while working on the railroad.

The most controversial of Chew’s claims are the ones that establish the number of Chinese who worked and the number that died on the railroad. The objections found on the Central Pacific Railroad Photographic Museum website claim, by contrast, that a review of the payroll records demonstrate 9,000 Chinese were employed on the railroads, and that reports by engineers and conflicting newspaper accounts lead to 50 deaths as a more realistic number.

The objection to Chew’s calculation appears, to me, to be on solid ground, although the counterclaim of 9,000 workers (or the more conventional 10-12,000) seems to me unfounded. Chew’s claim that 23,004 is a minimum number does rely on the assumption that two different gang bosses or labor contractors working in two different months will have entirely different workforces. Thus, a worker would be double counted, if he worked under one labor contractor in 1865 and a different one in 1866, because the previous contractor quit, retired, died, or left. One could obtain a true minimum number of workers, I suppose, by tracking which months each labor contractor worked and assuming a maximum number of workers that hop from one to another as their own contractor disappears from the scene and a new one emerges. On the other hand, given that Chew’s calculation also would not count a new worker who replaces another under a labor contractor, and that Chew did not count any new workers for the many months for which there is no payroll data, it seems to me reasonable to conclude that the actual number of Chinese workers was much higher than the 10 – 12,000 conventionally described in the literature.

The controversy over the number of deaths is harder to adjudicate. In Nameless Builders of the Transcontinental Railroad, Chew claims there are at least 146 deaths documented in primary sources, which can be found in the secondary literature. This seems convincing evidence that there were numerous deaths not recorded by the engineers and supervisors that CPRR Museum’s rebuttal relies upon. However, G. J. “Chris” Graves, writing as a contributor to the CPRR website, does show a conflicting newspaper article published on the same day as the one that Chew and many other authors rely upon. The article Chew cites describes the recovery of 20,000 pounds of remains from along the railroad tracks after the project’s completion, while the article favored by Graves states that only 50 bodies were collected in the exhumation of graves alongside the railroads. While Chew believes that the 20,000 pounds recovered would translate into the bone mass of more than 1,000 dead individuals, Graves counters that Chew’s calculation is flawed because a single body might have only decomposed slightly before recovery. I am not sure why one might find one article more credible than the other or how one could ascertain the state of decomposition of the remains in order to assign an average weight per corpse.

Why did this rather technical debate become so bitter? From the CPRR Museum’s page on frequently asked questions, they describe the Museum’s approach:

We’ve tried to tell the story of the Pacific Railroad in human terms with lots of exhibits and first person accounts that visitors can relate to. It is true that the railroad was finished in 1869, long before the 1876 deadline set in the Pacific Railroad Act which Congress passed in 1862, but nobody thought it was going to be easy. Most “experts” in fact thought it was impossible. It was only by dint of the hard work of people like L.M. Clement and the determination of the men who risked all to finance it that it got done. It was a truly “American” story of accomplishment by a can do, free people in charge of their own destiny.

The key actors, in this account, are the executives and financiers without whom the transcontinental railroad would not have been constructed as quickly and impressively as it was. Indeed, these were the individuals that prove such a feat was possible at all. The cooks, blacksmiths, and other individuals driving spikes, laying rail, blasting tunnels, and shoveling rock in extreme conditions do not merit mention here.

Did they merit mention in the journals of engineers and foremen when they died while working on the railroad? Graves refutes Chew’s conclusion on the number of deaths based on the fact that engineers did not report more than a few dozen fatal incidents; he does not consider that the engineers may have had motives to not report all fatal incidents, or may have been indifferent to the fate of Chinese workers. And, as the back-and-forth between Chew and Graves over the possible outbreak of smallpox in the final years of the project makes clear, the CPRR website is concerned with defending the executives of the CPRR against the charge that they were cruel and indifferent towards the fate of their Chinese workers. The website goes so far as to reject the claim that the executives were robber barons with the following language: “The notion of the fictional ‘robber baron’ is not just erroneous, but the portrayal is also offensive because it expresses hatred and envy* instead of deserved gratitude towards men whose great achievements have enormously benefited us all.”

By contrast, Chew is interested in demonstrating the scale and scope of the Chinese contribution to the transcontinental railroad. Their contribution and sacrifice towards the goal of constructing the railroad stands, in his eyes, as testament to their larger contribution to the U.S. and therefore – as becomes clear in the epilogue – their standing as Americans. The numbers therefore allow him to powerfully ground the claim that the contribution and sacrifice of Chinese in the making of the United States is both significant and under-appreciated.

Considering how Saxton’s account differs from Chew is helpful in considering another interpretation of the railroad workers’ experience. Like Chew, Saxton is interested in documenting the contribution and sacrifice of Chinese workers; however, the conclusion of “The Army of Canton in the High Sierra” makes clear that this experience is properly understood in the context of the anti-Chinese movement that follows the completion of the railroad.

Saxton’s account hinges on two crucial factors that shaped the experience of Chinese railroad workers. The first is the decision-making of railroad executives. Saxton highlights the crucial economic incentives that pushed the CPRR into race with the Union Pacific to lay the most miles of track and to reach then valuable land in Utah . These pressures meant that the CPRR decided to continue pushing through the Sierras even during the winter. The results were both hard-won progress for the company, and numerous deaths in the avalanches that buried work camps. One is tempted here to read Saxton against the CPRR Museum’s defense of the ‘Big Four’s’ integrity: “Crocker believed he held a firm grip on the essential ingredient: knowledge of how to handle workingmen. ‘There was no need for sympathy for those men,’ he reminisced afterwards. ‘Why I used to go up and down that road in my car like a mad bull, stopping along the way wherever there was anything amiss and raising old Nick.’” (143).

The second factor is the semi-coerced nature of labor relations among the Chinese immigrants. Saxton adduces both primary and secondary sources to claim that a Chinese worker was “at the mercy of the Chinese merchants, the associations, agents, contractors, who had fetched him over from Canton . . . and determined when, or if he would ever return to his homeland” (151). Put together, the profit-driven decision to push forward with construction despite predictable human costs and the multiple constraints on the Chinese worker’s ability to leave the job resulted in real hardship and no small amount of tragedy. Saxton’s explanation can be read as a reply of sorts to Chew’s question: Were Chinese lives so expendable?

Chew himself has a curious comment on this:

Ironically, had they realized the dangers and sacrifices that would be demanded, they would have accepted these conditions regardless because, in their economic situation, they had no other choice. Personal danger was not a consideration. In their minds, it was non-existent. They were motivated by their aspiration of a better life through high work ethic that reflected well on the whole race. Did the American public really care? Were the Chinese workers so expendable? (101)

The assumptions and cultural generalizations supporting this passage are, I hope, obvious. But what is important is Chew’s assertion that the exploitative conditions of the railroad represented a relative improvement over their economic situation, presumably in China. In his account, what matters is less the fact of exploitation than the willingness of Chinese immigrants to accept terrible risks and the implicit appeal that we, the contemporary American public, acknowledge and care about those individuals.

Both Chew and Saxton mention that CPRR executives were driven by economic necessity to disregard the idea that Chinese were only fit for labor that did not involve prolonged and intense physical exertion. By the end, those executives describe the Chinese as ideal workers, overlooking both their own discrimination towards the Chinese and the occurrence of strikes. But in Saxton’s account, there is a further twist. At the event commemorating the project’s completion, given the breadth of the experience, Judge Nathaniel Bennet mentions all the European workers on the railroad as from “the four greatest nationalities”, but he neglects to mention the Chinese workers; making the Chinese invisible in this way is, for Saxton, a prelude to the era of formal exclusion and anti-Chinese violence. Despite my sympathy for this interpretation – which connects the experience of exploitation, violent oppression, and exclusion – it appears a bit too hasty. For, as Saxton himself would go on to document in future work, it was not the invisibility of the Chinese worker but their hyper-visibility that was linked in the social imaginary to racist tropes. Those tropes condensed and displaced ideas of class conflict both in the rhetoric of elites (“More prudent and economical, they are content with less wages” – Leland Stanford) and workers’ associations (“a bloated aristocracy has sent to China . . . for a cheap working slave” – Dennis Kearney).

The narrative frameworks employed by Saxton, Chew, and the CPRR Museum thus exert a great deal of pressure on their historical accounts. Both the sources they pay attention to and the claims they seek to make or refute are motivated by these frameworks rather than the historical archive. Still, this essay is also, at another level, an implicit argument for the benefits of taking all these accounts seriously despite their diverging and even contradictory frameworks. The ideology and bias of key CPRR Museum contributors, for instance, does not negate the validity of some of their criticisms of Chew, while Saxton’s righteous denunciation of labor exploitation does not mean we should connect the railroad workers’ experience to anti-Chinese violence in exactly the way he does. One hundred may be too many, but surely we cannot remain content with just one flower.

Calvin Miaw is a PhD student in the Modern Thought and Literature program, Stanford University