The Chinese Transcontinental Railroad

Coldstream Canyon from Tunnel 41. | Greg Zirbel

The construction of the Transcontinental Railroad was not only a feat but also a competition between two railroads, the western Central Pacific Railroad (CPRR) and eastern Union Pacific Railroad (UPRR). Thousands of Chinese laborers worked on the railroad and were the biggest workforce for the CPRR. The UPRR, knowing the tunneling feat through the Sierra Nevada Mountains, mocked the CPRR early in the process that they would be there before they could dig out of the Sierra.  

On June 22, historian Bill George will give a historical talk on the Chinese and their relevance to the construction of the Transcontinental Railroad at 7 p.m. at the Truckee Tahoe Airport Conference Room. | truckeehistory.org 

 Assisting with this task under the direction of tycoon Charles Crocker, one of the Big 4 investors  of the contracting firm of Sisson, Wallace & Company, employed 10,000 to 15,000 Chinese from Canton’s Guangzhou Providence as inexpensive labor as early as 1865. Crocker, along with his CPRR founders Leland Stanford, Mark Hopkins and Collis P. Huntington, provided financial capital to build the railroad in meeting the Congressional deadline.  

The Chinese contribution to the CPRR was immeasurable. For one, they were responsible for blasting and digging out 15 tunnels through solid granite. Sierra granite is dense rock and was glacier-covered with more than 20 feet of snow. Progress blasting through granite was made in inches per an 8-hour day. The tunnels were hit from the outside-in/inside-out, and Tunnel 6, the longest of all the tunnels, alone took two years to construct 

The Chinese workforce included unskilled labor, as well as skilled workers such as cooks, physicians and masons. The China Wall, a dry-laid coursed rubble constructed wall, was built by Chinese masons to support the railroad bed. Besides risking their lives for minimum wage, the Chinese workers endured blasting accidents, winter avalanches and intense racism. Derogatory slurs and cartoons of Chinese workers speak volumes, such as “Crocker’s pets,” or in Truckee, “Crocker’s pest. 

Catfish eating a beetle on Donner Summit. | Greg Zirbel

In perspective, the Chinese immigrants must have experienced a cultural and climatic shock coming to America, not to mention dietary, religious and language challenges. They acclimated well to their new surroundings by bonding to their brethren. They were known to regularly bathe in the Truckee River and drank boiled water for tea; therefore, suffered little disease compared to other cultural groups that worked on the railroad 

The 1866-67 winter was harsh and powerful to all who worked on the railroad. A Sacramento Union Record reporter commented, the Chinese “literally worked and lived under snow.” Living in their own camps near Cisco Grove, each railroad gang was responsible for paying their lead and camp cook. Food, along with tools, were not included in their pay. In 1867, Chinese for example were paid $35 per month, which excluded room and board and which was two-thirds less than their Irish-born coworkers; their pay was the equivalent today of approximately $594 per month. Any extra money saved went home to families via a courier or merchants in San Francisco that served as bankers. The money truly improved their native villages by building new schools, as well as providing protection from gang violence back home. 

On June 25, 1867, Chinese workers went on strike, demanding higher wages and a more moderate workday. They endured 10-hour days for general work and 8hour days in the tunnels. Superintendent James Strobridge of the Sisson, Wallace and Co. tried to intimidate the workers back to work; Crocker believed the strike was instigated by opium dealers. With food trains and supplies cutoff, the Chinese were hungry and received verbal threats from Crocker that included fines or not being paid. The Chinese returned peacefully to work without their demands being met and it is unknown what really transpired in the short week strike  

“China Wall of the Sierra” and historic plaque. | Courtesy Corri Jimenez.

With the strike lifted, the CPRR worked on sections over the Sierra Nevada as tunneling continued. In May 1868, the CPRR worked on creating a railroad between Truckee and Reno, which was completed on June l5, 1868. It further connected the lumber industry in Truckee to the silver mines in Virginia City’s Comstock Mining District in the 1870s. The CPRR eventually met the UPRR at Promontory Point, Utah, on May 10, 1869, with Truckee becoming one of the main hubs on its line between Sacramento and Ogden. 

The Chinese workers contribution to the CPRR is best summarized by Leland Stanford who said, “without the Chinese, it would have been impossible to complete the Western portion of this great national highway.”   

This praise, however, has never really been doted on the Chinese because it was quickly eclipsed by the anti-Chinese movement that grasped California in the 1880s into the 20th century with exclusion acts. Since this praise was overshadowed by negativity, let us pause on this 150th anniversary of the railroad and reflect on the Chinese and how they contributed to American history because without the railroad, the coasts would not have been connected, freight would not get to its destinations and so much more. 

Train Tunnel 6 center hole. | Greg Zirbel

For a list of summer activities that celebrate the sesquicentennial of the Transcontinental Railroad, visit goldspike.org or Donner Summit-Truckee Golden Spike Celebration on Facebook. 

By Corri Jimenez 

Corri Jimenez is an architectural historian and historic preservation professional working in the Tahoe area.