Remembering Chinese Immigrants' Contribution To The Transcontinental Railroad

May 12, 2019
Originally published on May 12, 2019 10:41 am
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LULU GARCIA-NAVARRO, HOST:

Railroad tracks from the East Coast and the West Coast met for the first time in 1869 in northern Utah. That union was marked by a golden spike hammered into the tracks. It was a moment that boosters believed brought the country together both literally and figuratively after the Civil War. But the monumental feat might not have been possible without the manpower of Chinese immigrants. Rocio Hernandez from member station KUER reports that the story of the Chinese has been largely in the shadows until now.

ROCIO HERNANDEZ, BYLINE: This weekend, more than 10,000 people from across the world gathered at Promontory Summit, where the transcontinental railroad was completed 150 years ago. A traditional Chinese lion dance opened up the ceremony.

(SOUNDBITE OF DRUMMING)

HERNANDEZ: The event is significantly different from the one 50 years ago, when Chinese contributions were almost entirely ignored. Michael Kwan is the president of the Chinese Railroad Workers Descendants Association.

MICHAEL KWAN: The Chinese railroad workers are just emblematic of the story of immigrants from everywhere.

HERNANDEZ: At one point, the Chinese made up about 90% of the Central Pacific Railroad's workforce. Their portion of the line started in California, crossed into Nevada and met up with the Union Pacific Railroad line in Utah. The Chinese had some of the most difficult and dangerous jobs. But Kwan says all that didn't get them much respect from their bosses.

KWAN: They were thought of as, really, just another tool. And so they didn't really record the names of those who died and didn't even bother to collect their bodies or search for them. They were found when spring thaw came.

HERNANDEZ: After the railroad was done, the Chinese workers contributions were sometimes recognized and sometimes not. Fifty years ago, at the 100th anniversary, a representative of the Chinese Historical Society of America was invited to speak. But then the representative's time was inexplicably cut from the schedule. Max Chang is one of the organizers of this year's events.

MAX CHANG: And to add what I call, like, the great Salt Lake salt to the wound, John Volpe, the secretary of transportation, then gave a speech, which basically said, who but Americans could lay 10 miles of track in one day? Who but Americans could dig tunnels through the solid granite of the Sierras?

HERNANDEZ: And, Kwan says, it wasn't rich, American industrialists who did the hard work.

KWAN: You didn't see Charles Crocker, Leland Stanford, Mark Hopkins down in the railroad hammering away, setting black-powder explosives. It was the Chinese laborers who did it. And they were ignored.

HERNANDEZ: Not so at this year's celebration - one of the speakers was the current secretary of transportation, Elaine Chao. She's a Chinese American.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

ELAINE CHAO: Today, we pay tribute to the estimated 12,000 or more Chinese laborers and all the laborers who risked so much to make this great dream a reality.

HERNANDEZ: Organizers of this year's celebration say they worked hard to make these events the most inclusive ones yet.

(SOUNDBITE OF CHEERING)

HERNANDEZ: And judging from the excitement of the Chinese community members and a visiting Chinese delegation, they succeeded.

For NPR News, I'm Rocio Hernandez from Promontory Summit, Utah. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.