Chinese workers rescue Transcontinental Railroad

Leland Stanford atop bucker plow, circa 1867. | Southern Pacific History Museum

In 1862, against stiff resistance from his Cabinet, President Abraham Lincoln determined that his administration could fight a costly war against pro-slavery Southern states, while simultaneously building the nation’s First Transcontinental Railroad, setting nearly 2,000 miles of train track across the rugged hinterlands from frontier Iowa to distant California.

Lincoln had always been a railroad man. In the 1850s he worked as a lobbyist and attorney for Illinois Central Railroad. Lincoln was a member of the Whig Party whose political platform supported industry and national development of infrastructure to promote economic growth.

In the Illinois State Supreme Court, Lincoln argued that government land grants were necessary to spur railroad investment. He strongly urged counties to exempt train lines from taxation and successfully defended railroad company rights to build bridges over navigable rivers — against vigorous protests by established steamship companies — all of which set legal precedent that accelerated the development of America’s western railroad system.

Central Pacific recognized the work ethic and impressive productivity of its Chinese corps, but not enough to pay them the same wage as European Americans.

During the early years of the California Gold Rush, William Tecumseh Sherman, a California banker and General of State Militia during San Francisco’s 1856 vigilante movement, explored the Sierra Nevada range on horseback searching for a possible rail route. Sherman had graduated near the top of his class at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point where students are trained in engineering, as well as other practical skills. He concluded a line over the mountains was impossible, saying that if it is ever done, “it will take the work of giants.” Those titans would turn out to be an army of Chinese men, many only 5 feet tall.

One hundred and sixty years ago, in 1863, during the tragic, bloody days of the American Civil War, California-based Central Pacific Railroad Company (CPRR) began construction of the western portion of the transcontinental railroad, east from Sacramento. The enterprise immediately ran into financial, political and engineering headwinds, although each would be solved in turn. Initially, CPRR’s workforce, like its competitor Union Pacific Railroad, which was working west from Council Bluffs, Iowa, were of European descent, mostly Irish. It wasn’t long, however, before the Irish laborers in California abandoned the backbreaking toil of shovel grading and laying track to seek their fortunes in the mines of Nevada and elsewhere.

The executive directors of CPRR, President Leland Stanford and his “associates,” Collis Huntington, Charles Crocker and Mark Hopkins, were facing a critical labor crisis with less than 50 miles of track completed. The federal government was subsidizing the colossal project with generous cash payments and land grants, but if the job was not completed by the contractual deadline, the transcontinental railroad would be taken over by the feds. In that case, Union Pacific and Central Pacific would lose everything. It was a massive gamble.

At the time there were 50,000 to 60,000 male Chinese nationals living in California, many of whom had arrived a decade before to strike it rich in the Gold Rush. Over time they worked as farmers, fishermen, merchants, masons, druggists, cooks, loggers, laundrymen and household domestics for Americans who could afford them. CPRR management was against the use of the Chinese workforce. Crocker wrote, “All our people were prejudiced against Chinese labor, there was a disposition not to employ them.”

The railroad’s construction supervisor, James Strobridge, was also against hiring them, having the bigoted belief that the Chinese did not have the physical or intellectual capacity to do the strenuous work. He also feared that whites would not work alongside them. Later, when he heard that CPRR was going to hire a crew of 50 to test their abilities and endurance, Strobridge remarked, “Good God! Celestials? They can’t handle a pick and shovel, let alone lift one.”

In 1861, Stanford had been elected California’s first Republican governor, running on a hate-filled campaign against Chinese immigration. As a group Stanford denounced them as “the dregs” of Asia. He would change his tune when his company began to hire them by the thousands. By early 1865, CPRR was advertising in China through local merchants its need for contract laborers to build America’s great railroad. For many it was a rare economic opportunity.

Stanford’s opinion of the Asians miraculously transformed. During the six-year undertaking, CPRR hired an estimated 15,000 to 20,000 Chinese workers.

The railroad Chinese workers advanced the line up the western Sierra grade, reaching Clipper Gap in June 1865 and then Colfax on Sept. 4. As the terrain grew more challenging, crews became specialized in grading, tunneling and in the use of explosives. Others were skilled in stone masonry and their expert workmanship is still on display at retaining walls built for the railroad such as the remarkable remarkable structure known as China Wall above the west end of Donner Lake.

CPRR’s chief engineer Samuel S. Montague clearly admired his Chinese workers. He reported, “Many of them are becoming very expert in drilling, blasting, and other departments of rock work … the most difficult ever yet surmounted by any railroad in the United States, if not Europe. Heavy rock excavations that should have taken 18 months to complete have been pushed through in four to five months because of the great vigor of the effort.”

Central Pacific recognized the work ethic and impressive productivity of its Chinese corps, but not enough to pay them the same wage as European Americans. When the Chinese went on strike to protest the financial disparity, Crocker cut off their food supplies and broke the revolt. But the railroad workers disciplined collective action gained grudging respect from Crocker who pledged to not dock pay for the walkout and there is evidence that wages went up for the Chinese workforce.

In the fall of 1866, the railhead reached the Sierra snowbelt. Much like this year, the winter of 1867 opened with powerful atmospheric-river weather events that hit the mountains early and hard. By Jan. 31, 1867, nearly 24 inches of rain had soaked San Francisco, the seventh wettest such period on record. In contrast, headline-making 2022-23 ranks 13th for the same timeframe.

In the alpine environment the daily risks of injury or death from construction accidents or explosive mishaps were magnified by lethal avalanches and bone-chilling cold.

Supervisor Strobridge described how Chinese laborers lived and worked in dark, frigid tunnels dug underneath the deep snowpack. These subterranean camps were sometimes swept away by snowslides, while other men froze to death in their sleep.

Stay tuned for Part II in the next edition; also available at

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