China comes to Sacramento to celebrate countrymen who built transcontinental railroad

California railroad construction relied on Chinese workers, seen moving granite near the opening of Summit Tunnel. When asked if Chinese could do the tough physical jobs, contractor Charles Crocker said, “They built the Great Wall of China, didn’t they?”
California railroad construction relied on Chinese workers, seen moving granite near the opening of Summit Tunnel. When asked if Chinese could do the tough physical jobs, contractor Charles Crocker said, “They built the Great Wall of China, didn’t they?” California History Room, California State Library

China came to Sacramento earlier this month for a gala celebrating the 150th anniversary of a feat that many said couldn’t be done – the building of the transcontinental railroad over the Sierra Nevada.

At the May 15 gathering at the California State Railroad Museum, several hundred of the region’s leading Chinese Americans joined Sacramento Mayor Kevin Johnson in welcoming a delegation from the Chinese consulate general in San Francisco to see an extensive photo display featuring murals, figurines and sculptures depicting Chinese railroad workers.

The exhibit – including 122 sequential photos depicting laborers, work camps, stores and tunnels blasted through the hardest granite – is open to the public for free at the Sacramento County Administration Center, 700 H St., Monday through Friday from 8 a.m to 5 p.m. through June 19.

More than 12,000 Chinese workers took on a challenge that other Americans workers wouldn’t, getting paid between $28 and $40 a month to work 12 to 14 hour days, often in blizzards and blazing heat on cliffs that had to be blasted.

Several hundred died laying the 690 miles of track from Sacramento through the Sierra Nevada to Utah’s Promontory Summit, a job that lasted from 1865 to 1869, when the last spike was driven linking the eastern and western tracks.

The engineering marvel’s anniversary has generated at least as much excitement in China – where there was a celebration in Beijing last week – as it has in California, home to 1.4 million Chinese Americans, about 57,000 of them in the Sacramento metropolitan area.

China’s Shandong TV spent 14 years making “The Silent Spike,” a two-hour documentary detailing how the Chinese workers – some of whom had experience excavating roads through China’s rugged Yangtze River gorges – played a central role in opening up the American West. The film, which has yet to be translated into English, relies on a broad range of sources, including Stanford University’s Chinese Railroad Workers in North America Project.

C.C. Yin, a Northern California businessman, helped fund the Chinese film project and directed the celebration earlier this month in Sacramento. “The Chinese workers were treated like slaves, but despite the harsh conditions, they got the job done,” he said. “All immigrants can draw hope and courage from their story.”

California State Librarian Greg Lucas said the Chinese immigrants played a key role in developing modern California. But in 1865, they faced a tremendous amount of racism, Lucas said, quoting from author Stephen Ambrose’s history of the railroad, “Nothing Like It in the World.”

By then, 60,000 Chinese had come to “Gold Mountain” in search of riches, “but California law discriminated against them in every way possible, and the state did all it could to degrade them and deny them a decent livelihood,” Ambrose wrote. They weren’t allowed to work in the gold fields, and to work on the tailings, or leftovers, they had to pay a miner’s tax, water tax, personal tax, hospital tax, school tax and property tax – even though they couldn’t attend public school, vote, testify in court or become citizens.

“Whites set on them, beat them, robbed them and sometimes killed them,” Lucas said.

The Chinese workers rescued a project that had taken decades to get off the ground, Lucas said. For years, the Central Pacific Railroad’s chief engineer, Theodore “Crazy” Judah, tried to persuade Congress to finance the transcontinental railroad, which many lawmakers viewed as infeasible. “You might as well build a railroad to the moon,” one congressman was quoted as saying.

Finally, in 1862, President Abraham Lincoln, a former railroad lawyer, signed the Pacific Railroad Bill authorizing up to $48,000 in government bonds per mile – and the race from each coast was on. California Gov. Leland Stanford picked up a shovel and broke ground in Sacramento.

But the project suffered from a labor shortage. By January 1865, only a few hundred workers, mostly Irish, had been rounded up to lay the track between Newcastle and Colfax. The Big Four who owned the Central Pacific Railroad –Stanford and California businessmen Mark Hopkins, Collis P. Huntington and Charles Crocker – were having a hard time finding the 5,000 men they needed.

Crocker – the job’s contractor and driving force – suggested they hire Chinese workers. Central Pacific foreman James Strobridge disparaged the idea, saying whites wouldn’t work with Chinese, Lucas said. “Strobridge said they couldn’t possibly do the work, they average 120 pounds and only a few were taller than 4-foot-10 inches.”

“They built the Great Wall of China, didn’t they?” was Crocker’s famous retort.

Today, a plaque sits outside a train tunnel in Truckee, declaring the granite retaining wall protecting the tracks the “China Wall of the Sierra.”

In the Central Pacific’s race with the Union Pacific Railroad to complete the job, the Chinese helped make the Big Four rich. The U.S. government paid them $16,000 a mile on level ground, $32,000 a mile through the foothills and $48,000 a mile through the mountains.

Bi Gang, China’s deputy consul general in San Francisco, told the crowd at the gala, “it gives me great pleasure to help honor the Chinese workers who accounted for 80 percent of those working in extremely hard conditions through the Sierra Nevada mountain range to help reshape the social, geographic and economic landscape of America.”

“Their resilience, diligence and hardworking spirit represent the finest traditions of the Chinese people,” Bi said, and as more people learn this history, “it will help foster mutual respect, and greatly enhance the friendship between China and the U.S.”

The Chinese workers endured tremendous hardship, and unlike their bosses, they didn’t get rich. But their accomplishment inspires pride in their descendants.

During the gala, one of the museum’s Chinese American docents, Ron Wong – who was raised in San Francisco’s Chinatown – began to tear up. “The fact that we were the ones who built the railroad is something nobody can take away from us,” he said.

Stephen Magagnini: (916) 321-1072, @StephenMagagnini Pete Basofin contributed to this report.