A Sketch of Central Pacific Railroad in the Sierra Nevada Mountains by Joesph Becker, printed in Frank Leslie's Illustrated Newspaper, Vol. 29, February 6, 1870. [Image: Bancroft Library, University of California, Berkeley.]

California Recognizes Chinese Rail Workers


Almost 150 years after the completion of the Central Pacific Railroad, California recognized the Chinese laborers who worked on the project. Last month, the California State Assembly unanimously passed a resolution declaring May 10 as California Chinese Railroad Workers Memorial Day.

The Central Pacific Railroad — the western part of the first Transcontinental Railroad in North America between California and Utah — was completed on May 10, 1869, after six years of work. Chinese emigrant workers constituted approximately 80% of the entire work force. Contractors recruited Chinese workers, mostly from Guangdong Province in southern China, due to severe labor shortages. The workers were allocated to the western section, the toughest part, of the railroad.

Segregated into separate communities with different jobs, Chinese railroad workers faced poor treatment. They were at first restricted to the simple work of filling dump carts. After more than a year of proving their capabilities of hard physical work and confronting unsafe working conditions, Chinese laborers were finally recognized as a main workforce. Chinese workers were forced to work on tunnels in the High Sierras from sunrise to sunset, even during one of the harshest winters in history. Snow slides were frequent; nearly 1,200 Chinese workers died while constructing the railroad. Despite the difficult conditions, the workers set a world record by completing more than 10 miles of track in just one day.

Today, their work is regarded as one of the most remarkable engineering achievements of the 19th century. Federal lawmakers from New York and California reintroduced legislation on May 11 that calls on the US Postal Service to issue a stamp honoring the Chinese railroad workers.

There are more than 3.3 million Chinese Americans, comprising 1% of the total US population. Chinese constitute the largest ethnic group – 22 % – of Asian Americans. California is home to the largest population – 1.4 million – of Chinese-Americans in the United States.

Jaichung Lee is a Research Intern at the East-West Center in Washington and an Asan Washington Young Fellow with the Asan Academy in Seoul.