Chinese-Americans and the Transcontinental Railroad

East Meets West

Black and white image of three Chinese laborers working on a section of railroad
Thousands of Chinese immigrants were employed by the railroads to do the toughest work.

George Rinhart/Getty Images

The Transcontinental Railroad was a dream of a country set on the concept of Manifest Destiny. In 1869, the dream was made a reality at Promontory Point, Utah with the connection of two railway lines. The Union Pacific began construction of their rail in Omaha, Nebraska working toward the west. The Central Pacific began in Sacramento, California working toward the East. The Transcontinental Railroad was a vision of a country but was put into practice by the "Big Four": Collis P. Huntington, Charles Cocker, Leland Stanford, and Mark Hopkins.

Benefits of the Transcontinental Railroad

The benefits of this railroad were enormous for the country and the businesses involved. The railroad companies received between 16,000 and 48,000 per mile of track in land grants and subsidies. The nation gained a quick passage from east to west. A trek that used to take four to six months could be accomplished in six days. However, this great American accomplishment could not have been achieved without the extraordinary effort of Chinese-Americans. The Central Pacific realized the enormous task ahead of them in the construction of the railroad. They had to cross the Sierra Mountains with an incline of 7,000 feet over only a 100-mile span. The only solution to the daunting task was a great deal of manpower, which quickly turned out to be in short supply.

Chinese-Americans and the Building of the Railroad 

The Central Pacific turned to the Chinese-American community as a source of labor. In the beginning, many questioned the ability of these men that averaged 4' 10" and only weighed 120 lbs. to do the work necessary. However, their hard work and abilities quickly allayed any fears. In fact, at the time of completion, the vast majority of workers from the Central Pacific were Chinese. The Chinese worked under grueling and treacherous conditions for less money than their white counterparts. In fact, while the white workers were given their monthly salary (about $35) and food and shelter, the Chinese immigrants received only their salary (about $26-35). They had to provide their own food and tents. The railroad workers blasted and scraped their way through the Sierra Mountains at great risk to their lives. They used dynamite and hand tools while hanging over the sides of cliffs and mountains.

Unfortunately, the blasting was not the only detriment they had to overcome. The workers had to endure the extreme cold of the mountain and then the extreme heat of the desert. These men deserve a great deal of credit for accomplishing a task many believed impossible. They were recognized at the end of the arduous task with the honor of laying the last rail. However, this small token of esteem paled in comparison to the accomplishment and the future ills they were about to receive.

Prejudice Increased After the Completion of the Railroad

There had always been a great deal of prejudice towards the Chinese-Americans but after the completion of the Transcontinental Railroad, it only became worse. This prejudice came to a crescendo in the form of the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, which suspended immigration for ten years. Over the next decade, it was passed again and eventually, the Act was renewed indefinitely in 1902, thus suspending Chinese immigration. Furthermore, California enacted numerous discriminatory laws including special taxes and segregation. Praise for the Chinese-Americans is long overdue. The government over the last couple of decades is beginning to recognize the significant achievements of this important segment of the American population. These Chinese-Americans railroad workers helped to fulfill the dream of a nation and were integral in the improvement of America. Their skill and perseverance deserve to be recognized as an accomplishment that changed a nation.

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Kelly, Martin. "Chinese-Americans and the Transcontinental Railroad." ThoughtCo, Dec. 20, 2022, Kelly, Martin. (2022, December 20). Chinese-Americans and the Transcontinental Railroad. Retrieved from Kelly, Martin. "Chinese-Americans and the Transcontinental Railroad." ThoughtCo. (accessed June 7, 2023).