Why was the transcontinental railroad important?

Chinese railroad workers greet a train on a snowy day.

Why was the transcontinental railroad important? Just as it opened the markets of the west coast and Asia to the east. Moreover, construction of the railroad brought products of eastern industry to the growing populace beyond the Mississippi. The railroad ensured a production boom, as industry mined the vast resources of the middle and western continent for use in production.

North America’s first transcontinental railroad (known originally as the “Pacific Railroad” and later as the “Overland Route”). Was a 1,911-mile (3,075 km) continuous railroad line constructed between 1863 and 1869.

Title page of Dr. Hartwell Carver’s 1847 Pacific Railroad proposal to Congress from Lake Michigan to the West Coast

It connected the existing eastern U.S. rail network at Council Bluffs, Iowa with the Pacific coast at the Oakland Long Wharf on San Francisco Bay.

The rail line was built by three private companies over public lands provided by extensive US land grants.

Construction was financed by both state and US government subsidy bonds. As well as by company issued mortgage bonds.

Furthermore, it helped secure America’s Manifest Destiny!

Manifest Destiny, a phrase coined in 1845, is the idea that the United States is destined—by God. To expand its presence and spread democracy and capitalism across the entire North American physical continent.

Dale Creek Bridge

But the story of building that railroad is not a shinning part of American history.

Chinese Immigrant Labor On the Transcontinental Railroad

The sound of pickaxes clinking on hard rock echoed through the valley as the sun beat relentlessly on you. The people working with you are your countrymen, yet this was not your country. Thousands of miles away from home and turmoil, you make a living building an iron road for white men on this unknown continent. You never had much thought on the labor, because labor was labor, it was the same no matter who did it. What does bother you, however, is the way these natives treat you.

Central Pacific Railroad at Cape Horn c. 1880

Today you just learned that another countryman died in an accident last week, and they didn’t even bother to bury him. Do the natives even care about you and your countrymen? But then again does it matter? This life was a better life than before, and you are pursuing your dreams of seeing the world. Suddenly, someone yells at you for taking a break, so you swing your pickaxe and continue to eat away at this hill with a gang of mixed laborers.

During the construction period of the First and Second Transcontinental Railroads, Chinese immigrant labor was heavily relied on. However, despite their contributions, the history of these immigrant workers was one of mistreatments. In the following paragraphs, I will try to both introduce and support this argument with evidence from reliable sources.

Introduction to where workers come from 

In the mid 19th century, as political turmoil such as the Opium War and the Taiping rebellion caused poverty in China, the news of gold in California also spread to China (Carson, 82.) As a result of these push pull factors, poor, young workers seeked opportunities across the Pacific. Specifically, most of these immigrant workers came from the Xinning county in Guangdong, China, which was the province that was hit by poverty the hardest. “Xinning produced so little rice—enough to feed the region for only half of the year—that farmers grew peanuts and sweet potatoes on the hillsides”(The Filth of Progress, 153.)

The poorer workers received financial assistance from the Six Companies, which along with contractors and shippers, may have inflated the Central Pacific Railroad company’s worker population by supporting more immigrant workers to come to America (Carson, 86.) After the gold fields diminished, the most attractive opportunity became work on the First Transcontinental Railroad, and later the Second Transcontinental Railroad. This was the period in which Chinese immigration saw a huge surge. 

Introduction to the Challenges that faced the Central Pacific Railroad 

The Jupiter, which carried Leland Stanford (one of the “Big Four” owners of the Central Pacific) and other railway officials to the Last Spike Ceremony

The First Transcontinental Railroad was a result of two railroad companies. Whilst the Union Pacific Railroad slowly inched towards the west. The Central Pacific Railroad was at a disadvantage on many fronts. First, there were the towering Sierra Nevada mountains; and second, the Central Pacific Railroad lacked reliable laborers (Civil Engineering, 40-41.) Not only were the Sierra Mountains a formidable physical obstacle, workers would also commonly sign up for work. And abandon once they got to Sierra Nevada to instead look for gold after getting a

free ride. And unlike the Union Pacific Railroad company, which could depend on European immigrant labor, most of whom were Civil War veterans, the Central Pacific Railroad had a shortage of reliable labor. According to The Filth of Progress, Charles Crocker, the Construction Superintendent of the Central Pacific Railroad, said that their labor force before hiring Chinese workers never went above 800 men (157.) He also said that most of those Irish immigrants were “unsteady”, and “unreliable.”

For this reason, the Central Pacific Railroad looked towards the massive amounts of Chinese immigrant workers. 

Introduction to Work Conditions 

The Last Spike by Thomas Hill (1881)

Working on the Transcontinental Railroad was dangerous work. One example from The Filth of Progress describes, “The immigrants were lowered by ropes and chains from the top of the cliff. While suspended in midair, they not only hammered and drilled at the cliff’s granite face but also tamped powder into drilled holes and lit explosives to blast the wall.” Sometimes the difficulty of work became worsened after grueling weather conditions like snowstorms.

For example, as described in The Filth of Progress, “Christmas Day in 1866 brought more casualties on the Central Pacific, as “the snow fell to such a depth” that a “gang of Chinamen . . . were covered up by a snow slide and four or five died before they could be exhumed”.” Sheds and tunnels collapsing, landslides, freezing conditions, explosives, even poor diet, these were all threats to the safety of railroad workers.

But as the examples in The Filth of Progress suggests, Chinamen suffered more casualties than any other group of workers. As a matter of fact, it is estimated that over 1000 Chinese workers died during the construction of the Second Transcontinental Railroad, the Northern Pacific Railroad, just between 1879 and 1883 (Christopher, 675.) In addition, hundreds more died while constructing the Central Pacific Railroad just within the first five years (The Filth of Progress, 166.) 

The ceremony for the driving of the golden spike at Promontory Summit, Utah on May 10, 1869; completion of the First Transcontinental Railroad. At center left, Samuel S. Montague, Central Pacific Railroad, shakes hands with Grenville M. Dodge, Union Pacific Railroad (center right).

Demand Side Learning and Prejudice Against Chinamen 

From the beginning, Natives held a prejudiced view towards Chinamen. This resulted in demand side learning among employers. Although there was a plethora of Chinese immigrants mid 19th century. The Central Pacific Railroad was hesitant to hire them at first. The Filth of Progress provides a particularly detailed description of the slow incorporation of Chinese laborers into the labor force of the Central Pacific Railroad.

According to the book, the general perception of Chinese people was one of extreme prejudice:

“Newspapers and popular periodicals referred to the Chinese as yellow-skinned, almond-eyed and pig-tailed, or simply as the yellow peril” (152.) Interestingly enough, the cultural differences resulted in the Chinese being seen as effeminate, weak, men. For example, instead of drinking alcohol, which white men generally regarded as masculine, the Chinese would drink tea.

Theodore Judah, architect of the transcontinental railroad and first chief engineer of the Central Pacific

And while the Chinese had hot baths for basic hygiene, to the Irish, Chinamen were “soaking themselves in flower water like women” (The Filth of Progress, 171.) It took people like Charles Crocker to lead the company, and perception of Chinamen, forward by experimenting with Chinese labor. At first, Crocker hired only fifty Chinese workers to “frighten” the Irish workers, but these workers impressed him. Soon, he began working with the Six companies to hire more Chinese workers. “….In time, Chinese laborers were found to be at least as effective as their native or European counterparts….”(Carson, 98.) By the end of the 1860’s, Chinese immigrants made up 90% of the

Central Pacific Railroad’s labor force (Carson, 83.) That being said, even after being employed, Chinese workers were being treated worse than native workers in employment. 

The Unfair Employment of Chinamen 

If all hard-laborers suffered equally under the Gilded Age (most do suffer,) one could hardly say the Chinese are being mistreated. However, Chinese workers were put on the most dangerous jobs while being paid less. This topic was detailedly analyzed in Carson’s paper. As Carson describes, there were four main types of jobs on the First Transcontinental Railroad:

Skilled workers, Regular laborers, Foremen, and Support.

Laborers, and support likely included all the dangerous construction labor. As well as other manual labor such as resource gathering and cooking. On the other hand, foremen and skilled labor likely included managing positions, or engineers and technicians (Weebly source.) According to Carson’s paper, consistently over 70% of Chinamen were employed as laborers. Support labor was distributed at 21 percent for CPRR and 7.9 percent for UPRR.

Foremen and Skilled labor were non existent or in single digits. For a fair consideration, the paper took into account the difference in literacy, skill, and age. Important conclusions were twofold. Firstly, the insignificance of the literacy factor in determining occupations on the CPRR suggests that agents were directing workers based on nativity instead of human capital factors. Secondly, for skilled labor, for the same work, the Chinamen workers were given lower wages (95-96.) In other words, Chinamen were more likely to be put on as Support and Laborers than Americans, and for the same work, they were being paid less. This was confirmed in The Filth of Progress, which mentioned that Chinese were being paid without board the same wages that Europeans were being paid with board (163.) Also mentioned was

that the labor force on most daunting and labor intensive Tunnel No.6 was almost exclusively composed of Chinamen, with the exception of a few Irish workers. 

Segregation In the Workplace 

Profile of the Pacific Railroad from Council Bluffs/Omaha to San Francisco. Harper’s Weekly December 7, 1867

In addition to unfair employment, there were clear signs of segregation at the workplace. This was particularly discussed in Christopher’s paper, which largely involved the Second Transcontinental Railroad. In Christopher’s paper, anthropological evidence from the labor camps of workers was used to justify the existence of segregation among laborers.

The paper concludes that analysis of various camps along the railroad revealed that “culture signals”, or paraphernalia indicative of the ethnicity of residents of a camp, were clearly split along ethnic lines (Christopher, 677.) For example, on the Clark Fork River, camps were split topographically into the Euro-American west camp, and the Chinese east camp, with the Chinese camps more topographically difficult and mosquito rich (Christopher, 681.) That being said, we must concede that the living styles of Chinese and the natives are extremely dissonant. According to Christopher’s paper, opium related paraphernalia were quite common in Chinese camps. This could be a negative proponent of the perception of Chinese by Euro-Americans. 

Discrimination of Chinamen 

1864 advertisement for the opening of the Dutch Flat Wagon Road

Since the very beginning of Chinese presence in America, anti-Chinese sentiment and discrimination has also been going on in the United States. As the various examples of prejudice and discrimination show in The Filth of Progress, the natives, and even European immigrants, were not too fond of the “Celestials.” Thus, when railroad companies employed Chinese against

European workers on strike, the Euro-American workers were not too happy. According to Carson’s paper, “By 1885, labor relations in Rock Springs between European Americans and Chinese deteriorated and 28 Chinese workers were killed and their property destroyed.” Additionally, under the pressure of workers and native citizens, anti-Chinese laws were passed. These included the 1857 Act to Discourage the Immigration to this State who can not Be- come Citizens Thereof and the 1858 Act to Prevent the Further Immigration of Chinese or Mongolians to This State

Conclusions and accomplishments of Chinese workers 

CPRR snow galleries allowed construction to continue in heavy snow (1868)

The Chinese were hard working laborers. Their accomplishments and diligence while building the railroad cannot be easily dismissed and are sprinkled throughout The Filth of Progress. During the tunneling of the Sierra Nevada’s summit, Gillis noted that the Chinese worked day and night in three shifts of eight hours each. Later, when a smallpox outbreak demoralized numerous Irish workers, the Chinese were unwavering. The Chinese were also highly efficient in construction, building not only snow sheds in the winter, but walls to support railroad grading in ravines. Some of their greatest achievements include building ten miles of track in a single day (Carson, 669.)

That being said, Under the assumption that the First and Second Transcontinental Railroad had similar conditions for their workers, it seems fair to conclude that with the currently existing evidence, Chinese workers were mistreated as workers under the employment of the Transcontinental Railroads. Despite their contributions and cheap, reliable labor, the Chinese were actually ostracized from the story of the Transcontinental Railroad. In the speech given by Judge Bennett upon the completion of the railroad, the Chinese, whose labor paralleled that of the Euro-Americans, were ignored (The Filth of Progress, 177.) Soon after the completion of the Transcontinental Railroad, opinion makers were quick to jump back on Chinese and argued that they posed an economic and cultural threat.

Fall Of Afghanistan w/ US Army Intelligence Officer & Middle East Expert Michael Pregent

Works Cited 

Carson, Scott Alan. “Chinese Sojourn Labor and the American Transcontinental Railroad.(Author Abstract).” Journal of Institutional & Theoretical Economics 161.1 (2005): 80–102. Web. 

Merritt, Christopher, Weisz, Gary, and Dixon, Kelly. “‘Verily the Road Was Built with Chinaman’s Bones’: An Archaeology of Chinese Line Camps in Montana.” International Journal of Historical Archaeology 16.4 (2012): 666–695. Web. 

Brown, Jeff. “Uniting the States: The First Transcontinental Railroad.” Civil Engineering (08857024), vol. 82, no. 7/8, July 2012, pp. 40–42. EBSCOhost


“‘The Greatest Monument of Human Labor’: CHINESE IMMIGRANTS, THE LANDSCAPE OF PROGRESS, AND THE WORK OF BUILDING AND CELEBRATING THE TRANSCONTINENTAL RAILROAD.” The Filth of Progress: Immigrants, Americans, and the Building of Canals and Railroads in the West. Oakland, California: University of California Press, 2015. Print. 

Bracci, Jack, and Azariah Williams. “Jobs on the Transcontinental Railroad.” The Transcontinental Railroads, Weebly.com, 


Why was the transcontinental railroad important?