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The Transcontinental Railroad

The history of the construction of the railroad was not pretty. Irish and Chinese immigrant labor was largely used. Three thousand Irish immigrants worked on the Union Pacific line going East to West. In 1866, 3,000 Chinese were hired and soon made up 75% of the Central Pacific (West to East) workforce of 10,000 to 12,000 men. Thought incapable of hard work, Chinese laborers survived better that the Irish because they boiled their water for green tea and did not contract the dysentery that killed the Irish. The Irish lived in tents and succumbed to avalanches. The Irish got board but the Chinese had to strike for wages and in turn were starved into submission.

Union Pacific and Central Pacific rails meet. A one word telegraph was sent: ‘Done’. The six month continental journey is cut to six days.

Central Pacific reports 137 deaths during four years of construction. But in 1870, a journalist sees a train loaded with the bones of an estimated 1,200 Chinese bodies. Railway completion means 25,000 Chinese and Irish are now unemployed. Hatred of the Chinese results in the 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act ending their immigration. (It would be 1898 before Wong Kim Ark challenged this institutional racism, effectively creating the first Asian-Americans).

“If America was now a continental nation…it was the Chinese who had made it so…And instead of thanks what they got was the smell of their Chinatowns burning to the ground” Simon Schama

In California, the Chinese formed10% of the population. Violence is endemic.

“Stoned to death in the streets of San Francisco by a mob of half-grown boys and Christian school children.” 1869 obituary for a Chinese man, Wan Lee

But the transcontinental railroad triggers a mass migration to the Great Plains. The farmers and cowboys are the next wave to try to tame the wilderness either side of the rail-tracks.


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