Who Built the Railroads?: The Trans-Siberian and Transcontinental Railroads
This series that I have entitled “Who Built the Railroads?” focuses on the workers, many of whom were immigrant laborers, who built the transcontinental railroad in the United States and the Trans-Siberian Railway in Russia. The first post is an introduction to the topic. This is the second historical series on the blog; the first was a 7-part series: “Alabama’s Anti-Miscegenation Statutes“
Who Built the Railroads?
Anonymous, despite the indelible imprint they left in the annals of history; such are the thousands who built the railroads that span six of the seven continents. Like millions of other laborers throughout the course of history, they left their mark, and in many instances their lives, in the work they accomplished. Those who built the first transcontinental railroad in the United States and the Trans-Siberian railway in Russia bear cultural commonalities in that in both cases, large numbers of immigrant laborers transported and laid the track. In both Russia and the United States the immigrants were primarily Chinese, but also other Asian and some European nationalities were represented. But as diverse as were the backgrounds of the immigrant laborers, the domestic labor forces were no less so.
While many similarities exist between the labor forces used by the Americans and Russians, the railroads were built with different intents. Though both the Transcontinental and Trans-Siberian railways began their projects with large volumes of domestic labor, each nation found the domestic sources to be insufficient, driving them eventually to import foreign labor. The builders of America’s transcontinental railroad did so for financial profit, while the Russian government immigrant laborers out of a lack of options. There simply were not enough domestic laborers to do the job. For Russia, finding foreign labor involved importing workers from neighboring countries. The largest portion of migrant labor used in the construction of the Trans-Siberian Railway was Asian, but many of the engineers and technicians came from southern Europe. The Americans also imported laborers from Asia but, due to proximity, at a much greater expense than did the Russians.
The Russians and Americans realized different outcomes in the productivity of the Asian workers under their charge. For the most part, the Americans supplied the Asian laborers roughly equivalent tools to their white counterparts, with which the Asians more productive than the domestic workers. Conversely, the Russians gave them inferior tools and saw lower productivity. Management in both countries paid Asians lower wages than their American and European counterparts.
Further comparison can establish that even the fundamental purposes behind the building of the railroads differed. The American Transcontinental Railroad was built largely by private industry, though not without government subsidies, for the purpose of financial gain. Strategic military consequences were only secondary in consideration, as America had no neighbors it considered threats. The Trans-Siberian, however, was unabashedly military in purpose. With the railway, Russia hoped to defend her expanding eastern empire with as much fervor as its European stronghold in the west. Not only did the railway supply the Russians in the Russo-Japanese War, it also served as the main supply route for the Soviet Pacific front in World War II. It would be negligent, though, to dismiss the notion that the Russians were also considering potential market expansion.
This article first appeared in the Vulcan Historical Review (2010) under the title: “Transcontinental: A Comparison of Labor Sources Used in the Construction of the First Transcontinental Railroads in the United States and Russia”.
 Edward Ames, “A Century of Russian Railroad Construction: 1837-1936,” American Slavic and East European Review 6 (December 1947), 65.
Photo by me.