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There’s another large mural in downtown Sacramento. This one is trying to ‘correct history’

See the giant new mural celebrating railroad history on the side of the Elks Tower

Muralist Maren Conrad describes her new mural on the Elks Tower to celebrate the 150th anniversary of the transcontinental railroad and honor Chinese immigrants at a ceremony on Monday, May 13, 2019 in downtown Sacramento.
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Muralist Maren Conrad describes her new mural on the Elks Tower to celebrate the 150th anniversary of the transcontinental railroad and honor Chinese immigrants at a ceremony on Monday, May 13, 2019 in downtown Sacramento.

Sacramento’s newest downtown mural was created to celebrate the 150th anniversary of the Transcontinental Railroad, but also serves as a reminder that Sacramento “must do better,” Mayor Darrell Steinberg said.

“It’s a reminder of who did the work and what they overcame and what we still have to overcome in modern Sacramento in the United States of America in 2019,” Steinberg said Monday during a press conference introducing Maren Conrad’s new mural depicting Chinese railroad workers painted on the side of the Historic Elks Tower at 11th and J streets.

The Chinese railroad workers got paid on average 30 to 50 percent less than their white counterparts, were often exploited and had to strike because of terrible working conditions, Steinberg said.

Steinberg said the mural serves as a reminder for officials to ensure no race, ethnicity or demographic group is left behind in Sacramento’s renaissance. As the city embarks on big projects at the Old Sacramento waterfront and downtown railyard, it must also make sure there is enough affordable housing and that residents of disadvantaged neighborhoods have an equal opportunity to succeed, he said.

“The Transcontinental Railroad anniversary is a celebration, but it’s also a reminder that we can do better, that we must do better and that we will do better if we remember the past,” Steinberg said.

Chinese immigrants comprised about 90 percent of the railroad crews that built the railroad from Sacramento to Promontory, Utah, said Margaret Wong, co-founder of the US-China Railroad Friendship Association. Of the roughly 12,000 Chinese workers, between 500 and 1,000 died during the grueling seven month process, Wong said.

“The importance of this labor force has been minimized or even ignored in the past,” Wong said.

Conrad’s mural, which her crew painted in seven days, sought to give the workers the recognition they didn’t get at the time.

“The concept of the mural was a huge billboard to correct history,” Conrad said.

Conrad envisions kids for generations walking by the mural and growing up associating Chinese immigrants as the ones who built the railroad, she said.

The mural, which reads “Uniting a Nation,” will also feature an up to 4-foot-tall golden spike sticking out from the end of the railroad that people will be able to hang from, Conrad said.

“I think that element of play is really what creates a community,” said Conrad, who’s behind several other prominent Sacramento murals, including a Lady Bird painting at 16th and I streets. “It creates a community. It creates people not just wanting to come look at it, but people wanting to participate in it.”

Theresa Clift covers Sacramento City Hall. Before joining The Bee in 2018, she worked as a local government reporter for the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, the Daily Press in Virginia and the Wausau Daily Herald in Wisconsin. She grew up in Michigan and graduated from Central Michigan University.

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