Though many of the migrants were literate, none of their writing has survived. Gordon H. Chang ’70’s Ghosts of Gold Mountain: The Epic Story of the Chinese Who Built the Transcontinental Railroad (HoughtonMifflinHarcourt) tells their stories through meticulous research, using ship manifests, payroll records, archeological findings, and all manner of archival material to celebrate the unsung builders whose labor helped bolster America's emergence as a world power.
The author: Gordon H. Chang ’70 is a professor of humanities and history at Stanford University, where he also serves co-director of the Chinese Railroad Workers in North America Project. Chang is the author of Fateful Ties and editor of four other books.Opening lines: Hung Wah stepped up into the private train car of James Strobridge, the field construction boss of the Central Pacific Railroad Company (CPRR). The wagon's well-appointed interior must have seemed a dark, cool oasis for the seasoned Chinese worker, offering a bit of welcome relief from both the blistering afternoon heat in the Utah desert and the bleak, monotonous scenery.
Hung Wah and Strobridge had come to know each other well over the previous five years during the construction of the Pacific Railway, or the Transcontinental Railroad, as it was popularly known. Two competing railroad companies had led the project: the CPRR, which began its work in Sacramento, California, and built eastward, and the Union Pacific (UP), which started in Omaha, Nebraska, and built westward. Their completed work, linked to already established rail lines in the East, forged a continuous road of iron across the entire country, making possible travel unprecedented in scale and speed. Now the two men were coming together at Promontory Summit, Utah, where a grand celebration had just concluded to mark the formal end of work. The date—May 10, 1869—has been immortalized by one of the most famous photographs of nineteenth-century America: two massive steam engines, representing the CPRR and UP, meet head-to-head in "East and West Shaking Hands." The photographer, Andrew J. Russell, wanted to highlight the train's bonding of vast geographic space. Others at the time saw the rail connection as transformative not just for the nation but for civilization itself. Only Christopher Columbus's discovery of the New World, an energetic observer declared, surpassed the completion of the rail line in historic importance.
After the camera shots and public events, Strobridge gathered journalists, military officers, and other notables to mark the occasion in a quieter way over drinks and food in his personal railroad car. In what must have seemed a magnanimous gesture at the time, he invited Hung Wah, who brought several other Chinese with him to share the special moment, representing the thousands of Chinese who had toiled for the CPRR and made possible what many had once claimed was an insurmountable construction challenge.
Upwards of twenty thousand Chinese, 90 percent of the CPRR construction labor force, had built almost the entire western half of the Pacific Railway. The UP relied largely on Irish and other European immigrants and both black and white Civil War veterans for its labor force. While the CPRR's leg of the railway ran to a little over half the length of the Union Pacific's portion — 690 miles compared to 1,086 — building the western section posed a considerably greater challenge. The majority of the Union Pacific's line extended over relatively open, even countryside, beginning in Omaha, where the country's existing rail network ended. The CPRR, by contrast, faced a shorter but much more arduous journey. Beginning in Sacramento, roughly at sea level, it ascended almost immediately into the foothills of the Sierra Nevada mountain range, climbing higher and higher until it reached elevations of over seven thousand feet. To reach those heights, the workers of the CPRR had to blast and dig their way through expanses of solid granite and brave some of the most dangerous working conditions imaginable. Chinese workers did what was widely considered at the time to be impossible. They endured scorching summer heat in the high altitudes, dirt and choking dust, smoke, and fumes from the constant use of explosives. They survived isolation, desiccating winds and thin air, winter blizzards and freezing temperatures, as well as the ever-present dangers of accidental explosions, falling trees, snowslides, avalanches, cave-ins, illness, broken limbs, and plain exhaustion — all to realize the federal government's great ambition of uniting the American continent with a central artery. These workers, in no short order, helped solidify the westward future of the United States.
As a reflection of this herculean feat, the engravings on the legendary and ceremonial "Golden Spike" that symbolically united the rails of the Central Pacific and Union Pacific railroads, hailed the Transcontinental for bridging the Atlantic and Pacific oceans — reducing to one week what had been a perilous three-to-six-month journey — and healing the wounded nation. The Civil War had ended four years earlier, practically to the day, leaving a trail of destruction and a fractured Union in its wake. “May God continue the unity of our Country,” read the engraving on one side of the Golden Spike, “as this Railroad unites the two great Oceans of the world.” The Chinese had played a heroic and indispensable role in this achievement — and Strobridge, who had played a leading role of his own in the project, now honored them for their enormous contribution.
Strobridge had come far — not just in distance from Sacramento, where the CPRR's work began, but in his attitudes as well. Five years earlier he had strenuously opposed the proposal to hire Chinese workers. He argued with his boss, Charles Crocker, one of the so-called "Big Four," along with Leland Stanford, Collis Huntington, and Mark Hopkins, who served as directors of the CPRR, that the Chinese were not fit physically or temperamentally for the demanding work. Strobridge eventually relented, and Chinese, a few at first and then by the thousands, joined the construction effort. Proving themselves not just entirely capable but vital, in time they caused Strobridge to correct his error and drop his prejudice.
Hung Wah, for his part, had begun working for the CPRR in January 1864 after traveling to America from thousands of miles away in southern China. At Promontory he was in his mid-thirties, slightly older than most of the other Chinese, who were in their teens and twenties during construction, prime working ages for physical labor. He had received some education before coming to the United States and had a head for business, not to mention ambition: before Chinese were hired on to the CPRR, he was a prominent figure in Auburn, a town in the heart of the California gold country in the Sierra Nevada foothills. Agents of the CPRR turned to him to recruit workers, and he eventually became the leading Chinese "headman" over hundreds, and possibly thousands, of his compatriots working for the railroad. He handled their pay, living arrangements, and relations with the company. He had also survived years of personal difficulty and dangerous work, all the way through to the end.
Strobridge's invitation to Hung Wah at Promontory suggests they had developed a mutually respectful relationship — but it had not been easily forged. Strobridge was a demanding and intimidating supervisor who had earned a reputation for being especially tough on Chinese. He was as ferocious in appearance as in temperament: an errant explosion early in the construction effort had taken out one of his eyes, and an ominous black eye patch now covered an ugly scar. The Chinese railroad workers, in their lingo, called him "one-eyed bossy man."
Now Hung Wah and several other Chinese workers — possibly Ging Cui, Wong Fook, and Lee Shao, who had been part of the crew that had laid the last ties and length of track earlier in the day — found themselves not only inside Strobridge's personal car but also, probably for the first time in their lives, in close proximity to important white men. Perhaps Strobridge hoped that including the Chinese in his private event would make up for their absence in the public activities. Chinese had not been invited to attend the official proceedings, pose for Russell's historic photograph, or join the elite reception in the train car of Leland Stanford, the CPRR president.
The Chinese were weathered workmen. They were slight of build, sinewy after laboring for years clearing the land, cutting through dense stands of forest, putting down the roadbed, shoveling snow, blasting tunnels through granite, and laying track over the Sierra Nevada mountains in winter and across the vast deserts and plateaus of Nevada and Utah in the summer. They were dark brown in complexion, their skin leathered from living and working in recent months under the relentless desert sun. Their clothes, if they had not been able to change after work, would have been tattered, patched, and threadbare. We can see their shabby attire in other photos taken earlier that day. Their cotton tunics and baggy pants were blousy and designed for demanding physical labor in oven-like heat. Heavy American-made leather boots protected their feet. They wore soft, wide-brimmed cotton hats, not the woven-palm headgear from China they used elsewhere in other work. They dressed uniformly, like soldiers in an army.
Strobridge introduced Hung Wall and his co-workers to his other guests and brought Hung Wah to the head of the dining table. Standing, Strobridge warmly praised the contributions of the Chinese and expressed his appreciation for the essential role they had played in the project. The assembled all then also stood and gave three rousing cheers to the workers—no doubt the first time that these Chinese laborers had been toasted by a crowd of white people. This moment was the symbolic high point in acknowledging and honoring their contribution to completing the rail line.
The news article about the gathering nicely captured its significance for the Chinese, who were so often publicly disrespected, when it offered simply in a heading: "Chinese Laborers at Table." On no other occasion had the Chinese railroad workers personally received as sincere and spirited an appreciation of their long, dangerous toil.
The journalist who recorded the event does not mention whether Hung Wah responded to Strobridge's compliments or uttered any remarks at all. We do not know if he spoke. The news report rendered him mute, emblematic of the way Chinese in America were commonly presented then: Chinese railroad workers were acknowledged as ubiquitous and indispensable, but they were accorded no voice, literally or figuratively. We cannot hear what they said, thought, or felt. They were "silent spikes" or "nameless builders," evocative terms recently coined by scholars seeking to recover the experiences and identities of those Chinese who built the Transcontinental.
As with the news reports of the day, written history in the years afterward gives no voice or identity to the many thousands of these workers. In all of the many pages of serious writing about the construction of the Transcontinental Railroad, authors might describe the enormous efforts of the Chinese. They name but a few, however, let alone tell us something about them as living beings. The identities of Chinese in nineteenth-century America were elusive, and trying to recover them poses daunting challenges. The absence of documentation, mainstream unfamiliarity with Chinese life in America, and depreciation of their presence in the history of the country have rendered these workers all but invisible.
While the dearth of extant documentation from the Chinese workers can explain their shadowy presence in written history to a certain degree, prejudice through the years has relegated them to the margins of American life and memory in a more elemental way. Chinese were not deemed sufficiently important or interesting to include in sweeping narratives about the rise of the nation. In fact, in some instances, Chinese are written out of the story altogether. At the 1969 centennial commemoration of the events at Promontory Summit, for example, Secretary of the Interior John Volpe extolled the Transcontinental as a monumental construction achievement of epic importance to the country. Only the vigor of “Americans” made it possible, he boasted. "Who else but Americans could drill tunnels in mountains 30 feet deep in snow?" Nowhere did he mention the Chinese, prohibited from becoming citizens by federal law and assuredly not embraced by his myopic vision of America. Nationalist celebration made no room for the alien Chinese, no matter how pivotal their role in the history of the nation itself.
Reviews: In this ambitious saga, Chang ... burrows deep into the margins of history, attempting to reveal the experiences of the Chinese men who labored on the Central Pacific Railroad. He follows them from China’s Pearl River Delta to California, through the treacherous Sierra Nevada Mountains and into Nevada and Utah, pausing to examine the workers’ strike of 1867, brothels, violence against the Chinese, and other aspects of their lives. A lack of primary sources detailing the lives of the men who built one half of the transcontinental railroad—not a single diary and only a few letters—means Chang is forced to rely on payroll documents, inventory lists, folk songs, and other such sources to piece together his story. His writing is vibrant and passionate; he has searched as widely as he can to try to render his subjects as “vital, living, and feeling human beings who made history,” and this account clarifies that the Chinese railroad workers had far more agency than popularly believed. But the sparseness of the historical record means that he has to spend far too long on extrapolation. Readers hoping for a well-sourced account of what it was like to work on the railroads won’t find one here, though Chang’s history does shed more light on this facet of American history. — Publishers Weekly