Chinese American Labor on the Transcontinental Railroad

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  • Topic: Union Pacific Railroad, First Transcontinental Railroad, Central Pacific Railroad
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How vital were the Chinese laborers in opening up the West for America through the completion of the Transcontinental Railroad? Elizabeth Chen
8290673
Word Count: 1887

How vital were the Chinese laborers in opening up the West for America through the completion of the Transcontinental Railroad?

A. Plan of Investigation
This investigation evaluates the importance of Chinese immigrants who labored to complete the transcontinental railroad, and how their role opened the settlement of the West for America. To assess this, this case will study the characteristics of the Chinese, also compared to other European workers, the principles that made them become prominent figures in the railroad construction despite discrimination, and the how the Central Pacific Railroad could have never been completed without the effort of the Chinese. The sources used are books written by historians, quotes from important figures, and articles written in the time period. The two chief sources used were Nothing Like It in the World: The Men Who Built the Transcontinental Railroad 1863-1869 written by Stephen Ambrose and Empire Express: Building the First Transcontinental Railroad by David Haward Bain. These two sources will be evaluated for their perspectives and value.

B. Summary of Evidence
Beginning in 1830 the transcontinental railroad had been advocated for and desired by the American people. The people wanted a modern form of transportation that connected to two great oceans. Abraham Lincoln promoted the railroad, and by 1853 Congress ordered the routing of the new transcontinental railroad. Starting from Sacramento, California, the Central Pacific Railroad Company built east while the Union Pacific Railroad Company built west from Omaha, Iowa.

The key figures in the Central Pacific Railroad Company, were known as the ‘Big Four’. These men were Leland Stanford, Collis Huntington, Charles Crocker, and Mark Hopkins. Also, head of construction was James Harvey Strobridge. It was Strobridge who grudgingly admitted that the company needed to hire the Chinese due to their shortage of workers. He was originally against this because of strong prejudices against the Chinese.

In the 1860’s, there were about 60,000 Chinese in California, nearly all of which were adult males. The Chinese were heavily discriminated against: not allowed to vote, testify in court, and denied citizenship. They were often called ‘coolies’, a Hindu term that meant unskilled laborers. Leland Stanford even called the Chinese the “dregs of Asia” in his campaign for Governor of California. In 1858, California law officially outlawed Chinese from immigrating into America. Although poorly enforced, this law was not formally repealed until 1943.

Strobridge was hesitant to accept Chinese workers, because he feared his employed white workers would quit from outrage of having to work with the Chinese. Instead, once the Irishmen, rebelling for higher wages, heard of the Chinese workers, they abandoned their strike and went back to work. Strobridge agreed that the Chinese could push his men to work for fear of competition. The Chinese proved to work diligently. They were described as working in a “steady, rhythmic cadence”. They were dedicated, and worked endlessly.

The Chinese customs were found to be much different than the workers of European descent. Their extensive palate of dried oysters, bamboo sprouts, fresh pork, poultry, and much more was strange, as opposed to the red meat and whiskey of the white workers. Stranger even, the Chinese did not drink whiskey like the Irishmen. Everyday the Chinese boiled water for tea throughout the day.

The biggest accomplishment of the Chinese workers was completion of the Summit Tunnel. It was at the elevation of 7,000 feet and built cutting through 1750 feet of solid granite. The Chinese workers labored through the winter in non-stop three round shifts. Fearless Chinese volunteered to blast through the tunnel with...
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