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 noted who comprised the work force that built the Central Pacific railroad that began in California and drove eastward. And Part 6 is the series wrap-up.
A Wrap-Up of the Transcontinental Railways Series
A great number of similarities exist between the labor forces used to build Russia’s Siberian and America’s Transcontinental Railways. The administrators of both found it necessary, against their wishes, to use a large number of foreign laborers, specifically Asians. Neither the United States nor Russia was able to establish large or consistent sources of domestic workers. Foreign workers received wages inferior to their domestic counterparts. In Russia, however, this might have been somewhat justifiable as the Asian workers were less productive than the Russian workers. To some degree, Asian workers on both continents experienced discrimination, if not outright persecution.
Although both transcontinental railroads faced topographical obstacles, those faced by the Central Pacific were significantly more difficult than any presented by the Russian landscape. The Trans-Siberian railway also differed from the Transcontinental in that the Trans-Siberian was a product of the government rather than private enterprise, which allowed Russian problem-solving to be streamlined rather than having to go through multiple channels. Another difference was in the motives of those responsible for the railroads. Russia’s railway was established primarily for military reasons, while the Transcontinental was built in the interests of commerce and transportation.
With the decline of the railway industry, which culminated in the 1950s due to the advent of other forms of mass transit, the completion of the Trans-Siberian Railway was the last great accomplishment for the railroad industry. Only Australia has laid a significant amount of track since that time, but it is yet to complete its transcontinental railway though the rail system has been in the works for more than ninety years.
Part 6: A Wrap-Up of the Transcontinental Railways
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”.