Who Built the Railroads?: Chinese Workers Power the Central Pacific
This series that I have entitled “Who Built the Railroads?” focuses on the laborers who built the transcontinental railroad in the United States and the Trans-Siberian Railway in Russia. Part 1 was an introduction to the immigrant workers who comprised the majority of the labor force. Part 2 addressed the forces that gave rise to the need for a Trans-Siberian Railway. Part 3 picked up discussing the laborers who build Russia’s transcontinental railway. Part 4 looked into the laborers who built the Union Pacific’s section of the Transcontinental Railroad, extending from Omaha, Nebraska to Promontory Point, Utah. Part 5 notes who comprised the work force that built the Central Pacific railroad that began in California and drove eastward.
Chinese Workers Power the Central Pacific
After receiving its contract in 1862, the Central Pacific was set to begin construction by 1863. It immediately faced its most imposing and dangerous task, cutting a route through the Sierra Nevada. For the initial work, the railroad needed 5,000 workers. It posted advertisements for jobs with high wages in post offices throughout California, but only 800 men responded. Because most able-bodied men were hoping to strike gold or silver in mines, few were willing to take presumably lower, albeit certain, wages than their aspirations had led them to believe were possible.
James Strobridge, who was in charge of labor for the Central Pacific, described those men who did sign on as “unsteady men, unreliable. Some of them would stay a few days, and some would not go to work at all. Some would stay until payday, get a little money, get drunk, and get out.” The railroad was able to employ a number of Irish, Germans, and other European immigrants to clear land and lay track in Nevada and Utah. In an effort to find a solution to the labor shortage, the Central Pacific considered asking the War Department for 5,000 Confederate prisoners of war, but the Civil War ended before the plan could be enacted. 
The Central Pacific found a solution for the railroad’s labor shortage in the hiring of Chinese laborers. Many, especially Strobridge who claimed that he would not “boss a Chinaman,” were opposed to the Chinese labor. However, the idea had merit and proved successful. Initially, only fifty Chinese were hired and were put to light work, as Strobridge was afraid they were too delicate. Foremen were not certain that the Chinese, with their small stature, could handle the workload of the white men. Whites threatened to strike after learning about the hiring of the Chinese laborers, but Strobridge informed them that he would fire all the white workers and replace them with Chinese. This tactic temporarily quieted their grumbling. As the Chinese proved capable of the same work as white men and even increased productivity, ever increasing numbers of Chinese were hired. At peak employment, as many as 10,000 Chinese worked for the Central Pacific Railway. “The Chinaman, socially ostracized by the nickname of ‘coolie,’ became the Pacific Coast’s substitute for the Indian and Negro slave. Construction of the Central Pacific Railroad was his cross and his crown.”
California outlawed the importation of Chinese people in 1858, but the rarely enforced fine of $400-$600 did little to inhibit ship captains from bringing in the Asian laborers. By the start of the Civil War, 42,000 Chinese were living and working in northern California. Most were sons of fishermen, laborers, and small farmers. Many came over as indentured servants who received $4-8 per month. An estimated 28,000 more Chinese, ninety percent of whom were young men, entered the state over the next five years.
Newly immigrated Chinese were brought by riverboat to Sacramento from San Francisco, their port of entry into the United States. From Sacramento they were transported by train to the end of the rail line, where they would pick up construction. Once there, they provided their own housing. Most of the time, they worked seven days per week, from dawn to dusk. The Chinese agreed to receive $35 per month for their labor as well as providing their own cooking; the Central Pacific had to provide only the essential supplies. Whites, on the other hand, were demanding at least $2 per day, plus board. The railroad allowed the Chinese workers to have their own priests and joss houses, which were traditional places of worship of Chinese deities and saints.
Although the Chinese largely stayed away from the prostitution and alcoholic beverages of their white counterparts, they were not without vice. The Chinese often had “a supply of opium, a rack of pipes and ‘yen she grow’ scraper tools,” though these were not strictly permitted. The Chinese bathed more frequently and generally had better hygiene than white workers. Partially because of these differences, sickness that was so prevalent in white camps was less so in the Chinese camps. Because the Chinese drank boiled tea rather than sharing drinks out of a dipper, they were also less subject to dysentery. The Chinese employed their own cooks and ate more balanced meals than whites, whose daily intake consisted of salted beef, bread, potatoes, and coffee.
The years 1866 and 1867 were extremely difficult for Chinese immigrants in general, and specifically the laborers on the Central Pacific line. Climactically, those were two of the worst years in American history. Snow slides buried hundreds of workers in the Sierra Nevada. Several hundred more were lost to avalanches and blizzards between Cisco and Truckee, California.
Inclement weather was not the extent of adversity the Chinese immigrants faced. The Anti-Coolie Labor Association was established in March 1867 and led riots in San Francisco that same year. Participants threw “rocks and filth” at the Chinese they encountered. They also burned stores and factories owned and operated by Chinese immigrants. Regarding Chinese-white relations, former railroad worker Lee Chew commented that Chinese were “persecuted not for their vices but for their virtues. No one would hire an Irishman, German, Englishman, or Italian when he could get a Chinese, because our countrymen are so much more honest, industrious, steady, sober and painstaking.”
The turbulence did not inhibit the immigration of other Chinese to the American West. More than 100,000 Chinese were in California by 1867. In 1868, the Central Pacific sent recruiters to the Guandong province of China to retrieve workers. Due to the political influence exerted by the railroad, the United States government was working to make Chinese immigration easier. In the same year, the United States gave China most-favored-nation status in order to improve relations to this effect. The Transcontinental Railroad was completed within a year of this agreement. As a result, Chinese immigration slowed due to a lack of work. Assimilation came neither quickly nor easily for the more than 100,000 Chinese in California.
Part 5: Chinese Workers Power the Central Pacific
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”.
 Chang, 55.
David Howard Bain, Empire Express: Building the First Transcontinental Railroad (New York: Viking Press, 1999) 208; Chang, 58.
 Chang, 56-57.
 Howard, 226-227.
 Howard, 225-227; Chang, 55.
 Chang, 56; Howard, 226-229; Shorter Oxford English Dictionary, Volume 1, 2002 ed., s.v. “Joss-house.”
 Howard, 231.
 Chang, 57, 60.
 Chang, 61; Howard, 234.
 Howard, 235.
Photo by me.