Chinese Immigration and the Building of the Transcontinental Railroad

Custom Student Mr. Teacher ENG 1001-04 21 November 2016

Chinese Immigration and the Building of the Transcontinental Railroad

Long ago, people needed to get across the country. They didn’t have cars and plains, so they used trains. Before the trains, they had wagon trails, which were slow to use. In the 1800’s, workers in the USA started building a train from Nebraska to the west while California built a railroad toward the east. The work building the railroad was hard. Since not enough men in the area wanted this hard construction work, the railroad companies hired Chinese Immigrants. Some people called them “China men.” They earned 30 dollars each month for working on the railroad. The Chinese workers didn’t quit the job because in China (at the time) it was hard to find a job and they didn’t have much money. There were also some Irish men that wanted to help build the railroad, because of a food shortage in Ireland, but these Irish workers were only about 10% of the total number of construction workers.

The first 100 Chinese construction workers were already living in Chinatowns of California at the time of the railroad construction. They had been working on farms and restaurants, and agreed to the new railroad jobs because the pay was higher. Once trained, since their railroad work was very good, the railroad companies wanted more Chinese construction workers. This was the time that workers from China came to the U.S. in ships.

The Chinese workers organized themselves into work crews. They brought their own food, tea tents, and chefs. They worked 12 hours/day. They built from 1-4 miles per day of railroad track, depending on weather conditions and terrain. All of their tools were hand-tools, like sledge hammers and hand-drills. They didn’t have power tools.

They went through many lands and mountains to get the two ends of the railroad to meet. They went through snow, forests, deserts, mountains, and water. They didn’t build the railroad too carefully, either. In fact, some sections either broke or became disconnected, and had to be rebuilt later. Placing the rails wasn’t as easy as 1, 2, 3 … The workers had to learn and practice in order to become good at building.

When they built sections of the railroads, they did get paid. President Abraham Lincoln made a law that they were to be paid $16,000 per mile on flat land, $48,000 per mile for the Rocky Mountains and Sierra Nevada Mountains, and $32,000 per mile between the two mountain ranges. With that much money per mile, they had enough to make the railroads.

When building the railroad, they went through an area called Cape Horn. Cape Horn was a cool area. It was a big steep hill within the Sierra Nevada Mountains. It had beautiful landscape and a river in a valley below. They were building the railroad on the side of this mountain’s cliff edge. The cliff face wasn’t straight enough for the train to come by. Chinese workers were lowered over the cliff’s edge with safety ropes. Some historians wrote that these workers were lowered over the cliff’s edges in hand-woven baskets. With this hanging-worker set-up, they could blast away rocks with gun powder, creating space for a rail line.

Some people think the Chinese workers used these baskets at Cape Horn. Other historians point out that we don’t have enough information on that basket topic. It is possible that the Chinese workers at Cape Horn were using safety belts tied around their waists, but were not actually inside of baskets. There weren’t any journalists witnessing this railroad labor in the Sierra Mountains at that time; we only have a little bit of information from letters that were hand-written by one or two railroad engineers. Other writers later on, such as writers of tourism books, might have exaggerated. But, the baskets for lowering construction workers over mountain edges were used at some point in time by the Chinese construction workers; we just don’t know exactly when they started doing this.

One of the most exciting days in railroad history was “The 10 Mile Day”. Before 1869, the record for fastest railroad building was seven miles in one day. The Central Pacific Railroad Company placed a bet for $10,000 that their workers could build 10 miles of railroad track in just one day. And, in April of 1869, they did! This happened in Utah, just north of the Great Salt Lake. To celebrate at the end of this ten-mile day, they used two spikes of gold to connect the two (east and west segments) railroads. Immediately after these two golden spikes were placed, Chinese workers removed them and replaced them with iron spikes. They did that so that no one could steal the golden spikes.

Once they were done building, many Chinese workers stayed in the U.S. instead of returning to China. It was hard for many of them at first, because there didn’t seem to be enough jobs and they were not yet considered U.S. citizens. Eventually though, the Chinese people still living in the U.S. were allowed to become full U.S. citizens. Their culture, food, and many traditions contribute to the diverse culture that we all enjoy here in the U.S.A. In fact, I am very happy to be a citizen in this country where all races have equal rights!


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  • University/College: University of Chicago

  • Type of paper: Thesis/Dissertation Chapter

  • Date: 21 November 2016

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