June 15, 1858: The Sacramento Union reports on the hiring of 50 Chinese workers for the California Central Railroad, which “bids fair to demonstrate that Chinese laborers can be profitably employed in grading railroads in California.”[1]

1860: Chinese workers are also used in the construction of the San Jose Railroad, according to an article in 1869 in the New York Tribune.[2]

November 1860: Sacramento merchant Collis P. Huntington agrees to invest in engineer Theodore Judah’s railroad project and brings in four other investors: Mark Hopkins, James Bailey, Charles Crocker, and Leland Stanford. Together, they formed the first board of directors for the Central Pacific Railroad Company.

July 1, 1862: Congress passes the Pacific Railroad Bill, approving the Central Pacific project building the line from California as well as chartering the Union Pacific Railroad Company to build westward from the Missouri River.

January 8, 1863: In the groundbreaking ceremony in Sacramento, California Governor Leland Stanford shovels the first load of dirt.

Summer 1863: Problems over financial and contractual issues arise among the Central Pacific board.

October 26, 1863: The Central Pacific Railroad begins work.

December 2, 1863: The Union Pacific Railroad breaks ground in Omaha, Nebraska.

January 1864: The first known Chinese workers for the Central Pacific Railroad Company arrive. Foreman Ah Toy and headman Hung Wah lead a crew of 21 men to work on clearing the Dutch Flat-Donner Lake Wagon Road. [3]

Spring 1864: Work on Bloomer Cut, a major point in the Central Pacific track, begins. There exist payroll records for Chinese workers during January, February, and April of 1864, and likely more.[4]

June 1864: The Dutch Flat-Donner Lake Road is complete. Many of the Chinese working on this project move to Bloomer Cut.[5]

July 1, 1864: Congress revises the Pacific Railroad Bill to increase land grants, cede natural resources to the railroads, and eliminate limitations on individual stock ownership.

November 1864: The excavation of Bloomer Cut is complete.[6]

Winter 1864: The Central Pacific Railroad Company faces serious financial troubles and decline in Caucasian employment.[7]

January 20, 1865: After the recommendation of his brother E.B. Crocker, contractor Charles Crocker convinces foreman James Harvey Strobridge to look to Chinese employment in order to enlarge the overall labor pool.

Spring 1865: Tracking of Bloomer Cut is essentially finished, likely in either late March or early April. The Sacramento Union reports that at the time of May 1, the company employed 2,000 men, two-thirds of whom were Chinese. However, payroll records indicate that the total Chinese employment for March, April, and May 1865 was 3,306. The labor contractor Hung Wah had the largest labor gang with 388 men in April. Headman Ah Wu was paid for a crew of three.[8]

Summer 1865: Track has been completed across Newcastle Gap and work begins on Clipper Gap, 43 miles from Sacramento, at the base of Cape Horn. This is another major section of the railroad and will take a year to grade and track.

July 1865: The Central Pacific Railroad imports the first major group of Chinese from China. [9]

July 10, 1865: The Union Pacific finally begins work.

Fall 1865: Work begins building 13 tunnels through the Sierra Nevada Mountains. Chinese laborers working in three shifts around the clock undertake Summit Tunnel Number 6. This tunnel would be the longest at 1,659 feet and 124 feet below surface.[10]

November 21, 1865: The Sacramento Union reports that approximately 4,000 men, “mostly Chinese,” are at work on the Central Pacific Railroad.[11]

Spring 1866: The Chinese carve the roadbed and lay three miles of track around Cape Horn, possibly through a kind of basket or rope, to lower the blasters down the slopes.

April 18, 1866: The Daily Alta reports of an explosion at Colfax at Camp 9, near Gold Hun, after a blast was set off and the seam blast was reloaded. Among the six men killed, three are Chinese.[12]

Summer 1866: Grizzly Hill and Emigrant Gap Tunnels (Tunnels 1 and 2) are in construction.

July 1866: The rail line to Dutch Flat, 69 miles from Sacramento, is completed. The Chinese work force is at approximately 3,933.[13]

August 1866: More work is done on the Donner granite in Tunnel 6.

August 9, 1866: The Daily Alta reports of difficulties in retaining Chinese workers at the south Yuba river. According to the paper, so many laborers quit that entire gangs were broken up.[14]

August 27, 1866: Workers begin clearing the shaft along the projected tunnel line of Tunnel 6. They make progress for 30 days until removing rubble becomes too difficult. To solve this problem, engineers drive the abandoned locomotive Sacramento to Gold Run, which at that point is as far as the Central Pacific extended. Its 12-ton steam engine is hauled up to Donner Pass and let down into Tunnel 6. The job takes 6 weeks.[15]

September 1, 1866: Work finishes on the Emigrant Gap Tunnel and crews are redistributed.

Winter 1866-1867: One of the harshest winters in history, featuring 44 storms and averaging 18 feet of snow at the summit. Despite this, the Chinese workers continued work on the tunnels. The Tunnel 6 labor force by this time is almost completely made up of Chinese. Avalanches pose particular danger, as demonstrated at Strong’s Canyon (Tunnels 11 and 12) known as Camp 4, which included 2 gangs of Chinese and a gang of culvert men.[16]

February 1867: The Chinese workforce was made up of approximately 8,000 men on the tunnels and 3,000 laying track east of Cisco, 92 miles of Sacramento.[17]

February 24-March 5, 1867: Rioters are tried in San Francisco for attacking Chinese laborers on the Potrero and Bay View Railroad, sacking and burning their quarters. They are fined $500 each and sentenced to 90 days in jail.[18]

May 5, 1867: The Daily Alta California reports that a Chinese laborer was killed on the Sacramento and Vallejo Railroad, working on excavating the road when the embankment collapsed. His body was brought back to San Francisco.[19]

June 1867: Several thousand Chinese go on strike to for an increase in pay from $35 to $40 per month and a reduced work day of 8 hours. On June 30, the Daily Alta California reports of the strike beginning the previous Tuesday (June 25). The Chinese strikers’ demands are reported in the San Francisco Dispatch, July 1, 1867, and the Boston Daily Evening Voice, August 5, 1867. The strike lasts about a week, during which management, headed by Crocker and Strobridge, cut off food trains to starve the workers out. In the end, the strike is not successful. On July 3, the Daily Alta relays Charles Crocker’s report that with the exception of 1 or 2 gangs, all Chinese have resumed working with no change in pay.[20]

August 1867: A year after the vertical shaft for the Summit Tunnel had been drilled, workers break through to complete the project. Tunnel 6 measures 1,659 feet in length, and 124 feet deep into the rock.[21]

October 31, 1867: The Daily Alta California reports that approximately 8,000 of the 50,000 Chinese in California are currently employed on the Pacific Railroad. [22]

February 12, 1868: The Daily Alta publishes an article about the newest town along the Pacific Railroad line, located on the Truckee River and called Bridgeport. Reportedly, many Chinese who live in huts work along Bridgeport to Lake’s Crossing, shoveling snow and grading the road. [23]

February 16, 1868: The Daily Alta reports that Chinese railroad workers reached the canyon at Truckee.[24]

May 1868: The rail line from Truckee to Reno is completed.[25]

May 1, 1868: The San Francisco Bulletin reports from the Portland Oregonian that Superintendent Hart of the Oregon Central Railroad and his contractors have employed 40 Chinese and expect in the next day or two to employ 25 or so more. The grading is progressing at a rate of 2 miles per week. [26]

December 15, 1868: A schooner lands in San Francisco with 39 boxes of the bones of Chinese who died, which would then be transported back to China. [27]

January 15, 1869: Leland Stanford writes to fellow Central Pacific Railroad “Associate” and Big Four member Mark Hopkins, complaining about the Central Pacific’s pace and saying that “our work from Ogden to Monument goes very slowly. Our contractors have many excuses… We must rely upon Strobridge’s forces to finish up the work and to have the grade ready for the track.” [28]

February 22, 1869: The Salt Lake Telegraph reports (and is re-published by the Sacramento Union) that the Sierras are facing a great snow storm that has caused a blockade for the railroads. The storm is the worst of the winter, but the Union Pacific and Central Pacific crews continue to move closer toward each other. Union Pacific Irish workers allegedly “shake the bland persistence of the Chinese by jeering and by tossing frozen clods at them. When those tactics had no restraining effect, they staged sudden raids with pick handles.” When the Chinese “fought back with unexpected vigor and accuracy,” the Irish also set off heavy powder charges “when the closest part of the C.P. grade was swarming with Chinese. As a result, several Chinese were critically hurt.” After the Central Pacific complains, the Union Pacific orders its men to stop. [29]

April 1869: Grenville Dodge and Collis Huntington finally decide on a meeting point for the Union Pacific and Central Pacific lines after much debate—Promontory Summit, Utah.

April 28, 1869: The Central Pacific with teams of Irish and mostly Chinese workers set a record for laying 10 miles and 56 feet of track in 12 hours at Rozel, Utah. The effort sparked from a competitive bet with the Union Pacific, whose men had once laid 7 miles of track in one stretch (but they had reportedly worked from four in the morning until midnight, beyond a regular day’s work). The San Francisco Bulletin called the feat “the greatest work in tracklaying ever accomplished or conceived by railroad men.” A top-ranking Army commander, who was watching the workers’ progress with his soldiers, said, “Mr. Crocker, I never saw such organization as that. It was just like an army marching over the ground and leaving the track built behind them.” [30]

May 5, 1869: A reporter for the Daily Alta California describes the scene in Rosebud, a neighboring town to Victory, where 557 Chinese of “the Grand Army of Civilisation” have arrived to be sent north to the Northern Pacific Railroad. In Salt Lake City, the Central Pacific railroad is said to be essentially complete save for two rails which would be laid at the final ceremony.[31]

May 8, 1869: The Daily Alta California reports on violent conflict erupting in the Chinese camp in Victory, between “rebels” and “Imperialists,” possibly a continuation of tensions of the Taiping Rebellion. The conflict was eventually resolved by Strobridge.[32]

May 10, 1869: The word “DONE” is telegraphed to Washington, D.C., and the Transcontinental Railroad is officially completed. Some Chinese workmen reportedly have to finish putting in the iron spikes that would pin the rails to the tie; promptly afterward the tie “was attacked by hundreds of jack-knives, and soon reduced to a mere stick.” Several Chinese from Victory, including the foreman Hung Wah, are invited by Superintendent Strobridge to a reception held in his private car, with press and officers of the 21st Regiment, where they “were his honored guests and were cheered as they entered.” Despite these singularities, the Chinese are largely kept absent from the publicized event, although Harper’s Monthly Magazine’s history of the transcontinental railroad claims that “coolies from San Francisco” were present. The workers move on to other projects, including other railroads in California, along the West Coast, and in the South, agriculture, and farming all over the country.[33]

Summer and Fall, 1869: The Daily Alta California writes multiple articles on plans to import Chinese workers to the South in an attempt to fill the labor gap left by freed African-Americans, a plan that apparently brings much excitement. In order to avoid merchant and Chinese labor organizations’ commissions and to pay wages lower than those of the Central Pacific Railroad Company, businessmen intend to send Chinese railroad workers in California back to China, and then bring them directly to the South.[34]

July 23, 1869: The Sacramento Union describes the town of Truckee as an active town with many connected to the Central Pacific Railroad. However, many have been discontent because of a three-month delay on the part of Central Pacific in paying the workers there, most of whom are Chinese. [35]

August 7, 1869: Chinese workmen on the Western Pacific Railroad reportedly have gone on strike after not having been paid by their bosses promptly, according to the Sacramento Union. This delayed work for one to two days. [36]

August 18, 1869: A Chinese miner in Idaho challenges state legislation requiring a head tax of $4 and later $5 on all Chinese living in mining areas (to and from which many Chinese railroad laborers came) in the famous case Ah Bow v. Britten. A majority of the Chinese refused to pay the head tax, much to the consternation of Democratic officials, as the Chinese, in the words of the Idaho Statesman, had been “a rich and defenceless bird to pluck at our convenience.” [37]

August 22, 1869: The Daily Alta California reports that all the Chinese laborers on the Virginia and Truckee Railroad quit work that night, in addition to many white men who were discharged. The cause of this was supposedly “the great stringency in the money market.” [38]

August 26, 1869: In response to a speech given by Senator Hendricks, the Daily Alta chimes into the debate over Chinese immigration in California and denounces fears of a so-called invasion. [39]

September 19, 1869: Robert Hart, Inspector General of Imperial Maritime Customs, writes an article in the Daily Alta about his perspective on relations with China. He is somewhat pessimistic and does not seem to think that China is on its way to “progress. Other newspapers respond to the article, including the New York Tribune, which critiques Hart’s opinions and is, in turn, criticized by the Daily Alta in response. [40]

November 10, 1869: The Houston and Texas Central Railroad’s agent John B. Walker signs a contract with San Francisco labor contractor Chew Ah Heang for 300 workers.

November 11, 1869: The Sacramento Reporter publishes a circular by Koopmanschap & Co., which is then republished by the Daily Alta. The circular announces that the business is now ready to accept orders from those wishing to employ Chinese laborers in the South and details terms of the contract and employment. Wages will be $15 per month for railroad hands, in contrast to the $25-30 on the Central Pacific. [41]

December 28, 1870: Approximately 250-300 Chinese from California arrive in St. Louis, Missouri, bound for Texas, according to the St. Louis Democrat on December 30. According to the Galveston Civilian, the Chinese were formerly workers on the Central Pacific Railroad and will go on to work on the Texas Railroad in a test run of the Southern plan. They left California by train and first arrived in Council Bluffs in Iowa before reaching St Louis. [42]

January 8, 1870: The 250-300 Chinese arrive in New Orleans in their journey to Texas. They are quartered in a warehouse and will be sent on the Opelousas Railroad to Berwick’s Bay, and then a steamer to Galveston.[43]

January 24, 1870: The Daily Alta reports that between 200-300 Chinese are employed on the California and Oregon Railroad in Marysville. [44]

April 30, 1870: Approximately 300 Chinese pass through Reno, Nevada, on their way to build a railroad for the state.[45]

June 22, 1870: The Central Pacific Railroad Company merges with Western Pacific Railroad.

Summer 1870: The Houston and Texas Central Railroad discharges most of the Chinese due to hostility from fellow Irish workers and financial constraints. The Calvert Enterprise, in a reversal, claim the workers have become “lazy and trifling” and in August that the “company would like to get rid of them.” Most of the Chinese laborers stay in Texas, some going to work on farms such as James Scott Hanna’s. [46]

June 1870: The Union Pacific begins to employ Chinese as section hands.[47]

Winter 1870: Between 600-700 Chinese are employed by the Alabama Chattanooga railroad.[48]

1872: By this time, roughly 1,500 at least Chinese workers are working on railways and telegraph lines in Oregon, such as the Northern Pacific Railway Company, which began recruiting Chinese in 1868, and the Oregon Railway and Navigation Company, which employed about 5,000 Chinese on a construction job linking the Northern Pacific with Wallula. According to the New Northwest, “near Lake Pend d’Oreille in northeast Washington, 1,800 Chinese and 900 white laborers worked together without tension or incidents.” They were also laborers on railroads in the Whitman, Spokane, and Stevens counties in Washington.[49]

1873: Entrepreneur Chin Gee-Hee buys interest in the Seattle merchant house Wah Chong Company and becomes involved in labor contracting, supplying workers for many railroad projects including the Great Northern Railway and the Seattle and Walla Walla Railroad Company. In 1904, he would go on to found the Sunning Railway Company to build a railroad in China, using $1.5 million raised in the United States; the railroad was completed in 1920.[50]

January 1873: Journalist Charles Nordhoff publishes his book California: For Health, Pleasure, and Residence, which includes a chapter on his observations from 1870 of the Chinese working on a Central Pacific Railroad job in Merced (with Strobridge as “contractor”). Nordhoff describes their wages, working conditions, and most particularly their food, imported from China and of which the Chinese “have a greater variety … than their white neighbors” and “live … far better.” [51]

February 15, 1879: A bill restricting Chinese immigration (to no more than 15 in a vessel, under penalty of a $100 fine) is passed in the Senate by a vote of 39 to 27, according to Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper, which also publishes several commentaries and critiques of the bill. President Rutherford B. Hayes vetoes the bill on March 1, and the House of Representatives fails to overrule the veto. However, the bill is representative of increasing tensions about Chinese in America and increasing anti-Chinese legislation. [52]

June 14, 1879: Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper reports that there are currently 6,000 Chinese laborers on the Texas Pacific Railroad.[53]

November 18, 1879: Approximately 30-40 Chinese workers are victims of an explosion in the Narrow-Gauge Tunnel (#3) in the Santa Cruz mountains, due to the volatile composition of the oil vein in the mountains. A person passing on the Southern Pacific Railroad later reported to have counted 32 graves of Chinese killed in the accident. The accident halted work for 2 months.[54]

May 1881: The Southern Pacific Railroad reaches El Paso, Texas, from Los Angeles. The majority of the Southern Pacific Railroad workforce is Chinese (about 2,600 out of roughly 3,000). Under their supervisor J. H. Strobridge, former superintendent for the Central Pacific Railroad, the Chinese are reportedly “treated more like slaves,” according to the San Antonio Light.[55]

June 2, 1884: The El Paso Daily Times reports that an Irish railroad worker, Paddy O’Rourke, killed a Chinese man. Judge Roy Bean ruled that “he’d be d—d if he could find any law against killing a Chinaman” (because the law in Texas came down on killing human beings, which according to Bean included whites, African-Americans, and Mexicans only) and dismissed the case.[56]

1885: The Central Pacific and the Southern Pacific formally merge into the Southern Pacific Railroad Company.

[1] “News of the Morning,” Sacramento Daily Union, 15 June, 1858, p.2.

[2] “The Chinese in California,” New York Tribune, 1 May, 1869, p.1.

[3] George Kraus, High Road to Promontory: Building the Central Pacific Across the High Sierra (Palo Alto: American West Publishing Company, 1969), 66.

[4] William F. Chew, Nameless Builders of the Transcontinental. (Victoria: Trafford, 2004), 81.

[5] Stephen E. Ambrose, Nothing Like It in the World: The Men Who Built the Transcontinental Railroad 1863-1869 (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2000), 122.

[6] Ibid, 124.

[7] Chew, 81.

[8] Ibid, 82. “City Intelligence.” Sacramento Daily Union, 1 May, 1865, p.3.

[9] Wesley S. Griswold, A Work of Giants: Building the First Transcontinental Railroad (New York: McGraw-Hill, 1962), 117.

[10] Ibid.

[11] “Prospects of the Pacific Railway,” Sacramento Union, 21 Nov., 1865, p.3.

[12] “By State Telegraph,” Daily Alta California, 18 Apr., 1866, p.1.

[13] Chew, 83, Krause, 126.

[14] “State Items,” Daily Alta California, 9 Aug., 1866, p.1.

[15] PBS.

[16] John R. Gillis, “Tunnels of the Pacific Railroad,” Van Nostrand’s Eclectic Engineering Magazine, 5 Jan., 1870, p. 418-423. Central Pacific Railroad Photographic History Museum. http://cprr.org/Museum/Tunnels.html.

[17] Ambrose, 237.

[18] Daily Alta California, 24, 27 Feb., 5 Mar., 1867.

[19] “City Items—Chinaman killed,” Daily Alta California, 5 May, 1867, p.1.

[20] Griswold, 196-7.  Daily Alta California, 30 June, 3 Jul., 1867.  David Montgomery, The Fall of the House of Labor: The Workplace, the State, and American Labor Activism, 1865-1925 (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1987), 68.

[21] Gillis.

[22] “California as a Home for Immigrants,” Daily Alta California, 31 Oct., 1867, p.1.

[23] “Nevada—A New Town,” Daily Alta California, 12 Feb., 1868, p.1.

[24] “Nevada,” Daily Alta California, 16 Feb., 1868, p.1.

[25] Chew, 84, Ambrose, 306.

[26] “Oregon,” San Francisco Bulletin, 1 May, 1868, p.3.

[27] “A Strange Consignment,” Daily Alta California, 15 Dec., 1868, p.1.

[28] Griswold, 297.

[29] “The Snow Blockade,” Sacramento Union, 2 Mar., 1869, p.2. Griswold, 298, 303.

[30] Ambrose, 240. “Telegraphic Dispatches—From the End of the Track,” San Francisco Bulletin, 29 Apr., 1869, p.3. Griswold, 311.

[31] “From the Railroad Front,” Daily Alta California, 5 May, 1869, p.1.

[32] “Second and Third Dispatch,” Daily Alta California, 8 May, 1869, p.1.

[33] Griswold, 329. San Francisco News Letter Supplement, 15 May, 1869. Chew, 90. Frank H. Spearman, “The First Transcontinental Railroad,” Harper’s Monthly Magazine, 109 June-Nov. 1904, p.720.Rhoades, Edward J.M. “The Chinese in Texas.” Southwestern Historical Quarterly. 81.1, 1977, 2, 7.

[34] See Daily Alta California, Jul. 13, Aug.1, 4, 1869. Sacramento Daily Union, 2 June, 1869.

[35] “Truckee Matters,” Sacramento Daily Union, 23 Jul., 1869, p.4.

[36] “City Intelligence,” Sacramento Daily Union, 7 Aug., 1869, p.5.

[37] Liping Zhu, “A Chinaman’s Chance: The Chinese on the Rocky Mountain Mining Frontier,” Montana: The Magazine of Western History, 45.4, 1995, 45. Janesville Gazette, 18 Aug., 1869, p.1.

[38] Pacific Coast Dispatches–From Virginia–Suspension of Work on Virginia and Truckee Railroad,” Daily Alta California, 22 Aug., 1869, p.1.

[39] “Editorial Notes,” Daily Alta California, 26 Aug., 1869, p.2.

[40] “The Chinese Question,” Daily Alta California, 19 Sept., 1869, p.3. “Editorial Notes,” Daily Alta California, 8 Oct., 1869, p.2.

[41] “Circular about Chinese Laborers,” Daily Alta California, 11 Nov., 1869, p.2

[42] “The Chinese at St. Louis,” Daily Alta California, 11 Jan., 1870, p.1.  Henry Shih-Shan Tsai, The Chinese Experience in America, (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1986), 19.

[43] “Miscellaneous–Arrival of Chinamen at New Orleans,” Daily Alta California, 9 Jan., 1870, p.1. “Sambo’s Successor: Arrival of Two Hundred and Fifty Chinamen at New Orleans–Queer Scenes and Incidents,” Daily Alta California, 30 Jan., 1870, p.4.

[44] “California—Marysville,” Daily Alta California, 24 Jan., 1870, p.1.

[45] “From Virginia, Nevada,” Sacramento Daily Union, 30 Apr., 1870, p.4.

[46] Edward J.M. Rhoades, “The Chinese in Texas,” Southwestern Historical Quarterly, 81.1, 1977, p.5-6.

[47] Tsai, 18.

[48] Ibid, 19.

[49] Ibid. Robert E. Wynne, “Reaction to the Chinese in the Pacific Northwest and British Columbia, 1850-1910,” Ph.D. dissertation, University of Washington, 1964, 84-85.

[50] William N. Prather, “Sui Sin Far’s Railroad Baron: A Chinese of the Future,” American Literary Realism, 29.1, 1996, 55. Willard G. Jue, “Chin Gee-Hee, Chinese Pioneer Entrepreneur in Seattle and Toishan,” The Annals of the Chinese Historical Society of the Pacific Northwest, 1, 1983, 32-34. Ruthanne Lum McCunn, Chinese American Portraits: Personal Histories 1828-1988 (San Francisco, CA: Chronicle Books, 1988), 55.

[51] Charles Nordhoff, California: For Health, Pleasure, and Residence (New York: Harper and Brothers, 1873), 189-190, 246.

[52] Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper, 15 Feb., 1879.

[53] “At Home and Abroad,” Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper, 14 Jun., 1879, p.243.

[54] “Death In A Tunnel–Terrible Catastrophe in the Narrow-Gauge Tunnel Through the Santa Cruz Mountains–Gas from the coal oil veins explodes–Forty-one Chinamen and 2 White Men Victims of Explosion,” Los Angeles Herald, 20 Nov., 1879, p.4. Santa Cruz Sentinel, Nov. 1879.

[55] Rhoades, 8, 10.

[56] C.L. Sonnichsen, Roy Bean: Law West of the Pecos (New York: Macmillan, 1943), 119, 121.