Transcontinental Railroad: Impacts on Minorities

“It was definitely one of the darker points in American history. What happened to the Chinese. What happened to the Plains Indians. What it says about human nature.” [1]

-Michael Liu, Stanford University

Behind the stunning headlines, glamorous photographs, and inspirational tales of success lays a darker story behind the first transcontinental railroad. Fueled by greed, corruption and prejudice, the transcontinental railroad was an engineering feat unrivaled in the nineteenth century in both grandeur and unethical practices. Each year, over 10 billion dollars in supplies cross the Continent on the iron rails laid down by exploited Chinese immigrants.[2] Simultaneously, cities across the Midwest flourish on lands coercively seized from Native Americans. As businessmen, politicians and four star generals pocketed their tainted cash and were hailed as national heroes, immigrants, Native Americans and other minorities paid the price. The railroad sent Antebellum America into a golden age of economic and social prosperity, at the expense of the dignity, culture and lives of American minorities.

The railroad was first inspired by a multitude of both problems and opportunities. During the first half of the nineteenth century, pioneers and prospectors alike experienced firsthand the hardships of crossing the continent. With the absence of a railroad, it cost over $1000 and took six months for travelers to risk their lives crossing the continent by wagon train in harsh, uninhabited terrain.[3] Additionally, the isolation of the Western States alarmed Congress, especially after California’s secessionist movement began gaining momentum. Currently paying the price for the Civil War, Congress realized the importance of maintaining a tight grip on the Union. [4] However, besides fixing problems, the railroad had its own benefits. Congress realized the vast economic potential of a railroad connecting the industrial east and resource rich west.[5] Engineers and politicians alike envisioned a railroad uniting America and saw the railroad as a chance to build a highway of trade between Europe and Asia. In their fantasy, the railroad would place America at the center of the world. [6]

Initially, there was division in Congress over the railroads route. Southern officials wanted the railroad to run through the south increasing Southern influence and aiding the spread of slavery, while the North wanted a railroad running through the north promoting industry and increasing the North’s power. In 1861, when many Southern States seceded from the Union, Congress saw an opportunity to act. Taking advantage of the absence of Southern delegates, Congress chartered a route running favorably through the North. On July 1st 1862, President Lincoln signed the Pacific Railway Act.[7] The bill gave two companies the right to begin construction of the railroad: the Central Pacific Railroad Company starting in Sacramento, California and the Union Pacific Railroad Company starting in Omaha, Nebraska. [8]

At the onset of the railroads construction, the directors of the Central Pacific faced a major problem: labor. When they advertised for 5,000 railroad jobs, only 200 workers arrived.[9] Even then, many proved unreliable and often deserted to mine for gold in the mountains.[10] In response, construction boss Charles Crocker suggested hiring Chinese laborers. Despite being ridiculed and mocked for this move, Crocker hired 50 Chinese immigrants as an experiment, famously retorting “Did they not build the Chinese wall, the greatest piece of masonry in the world?”. [11] Crocker’s experiment was a success; the Chinese laborers worked harder and more effectively than their European counterparts. In addition, the Chinese were also paid with lower wages. Impressed by their efficiency, and enticed by their profitability, Crocker hired Chinese immigrants by the thousands to work on the railroad. Eventually there were over 10,000 Chinese laborers working on the railroad, forming over 80% of the Central Pacific’s work force.[12]

A Chinese laborer was the ideal railroad worker. Having come to America to escape poverty, war, and famine in the motherland, a Chinese Laborer was easily exploited and could bring in huge profits.[13] Chinese workers were satisfied with fewer accommodations, lower wages and longer hours compared to white workers. One Chinese-English phrase book contains:


Can you get me a good boy? He wants $8 a month? He ought to be satisfied with $6… Come in at 7 every morning. Go home at 8 every night. Light the fire. Sweep the room. Wash the clothes. Wash the windows. Sweep the stairs. Trim the lamps. I want to cut his wages [14]

In addition to tolerating lower wages and working longer hours, Chinese workers had other benefits. Chinese workers consistently maintained good physical health, largely due to their diet and hygiene. They also rarely came down with dysentery like their Irish counterparts. [15] Moreover, Chinese workers were also willing to do more dangerous and exhausting work, such as planting explosives and working thousands of feet above sea level.[16] Despite these limitations, Chinese workers quite impressively were able to save large portions of their salaries and later started small businesses or supported families back in China.

The route of the railroad called for a passage straight through the Sierra Nevada Mountain Range. Covering over 28,000 square miles and rising as high as 14,000 feet, the Sierra Nevada’s were the biggest obstacle in the construction of the railroad. Wielding hammers, chisels, and black powder, the Chinese laborers set to work. However, the workers were contesting with 100 million year old solid granite, and as time passed, progress slowed to inches per day. It soon became clear that raw manpower wasn’t going to be enough to best the Sierras.[17]

Faced with the possibility of losing vast amounts of capital and land, the directors of the Central Pacific decided they needed to step up the pace. Taking a calculated risk, the Central Pacific began using nitroglycerin, an explosive chemical over 13 times more powerful than black powder they were currently using.[18] Irish crews refused to handle the chemical, so planting it was left to the Chinese.[19] The workers carefully planted the nitroglycerin and lit the fuse. While some escaped the following explosions, others were not so lucky. Over 1,500 Chinese died in explosions and rockslides.[20] Margret Cho, an Asian-American describes:


The transcontinental railroad was built by Chinese workers brought over specifically to work on the railroad and they were considered and they were considered somewhere between human and animal. They were not expected to survive, they were expected to come here and work and die [21]

While the Central Pacific struggled with the natural barriers of the Sierras, the Union Pacific clashed with the indigenous population of the Plains: the Native Americans. Knowing their ways of life were threatened by the railroad, Native American tribes across the Plains united to resist the railroad’s advances. The three most belligerent tribes, the Sioux, Cheyenne, and Arapaho, began launching guerrilla attacks to sabotage the railroad. During these attacks, the Natives damaged track, derailed cars, and scalped workers.[22] At one attack, the Plum Creek Massacre, twelve railroad workers were killed. The Cheyenne warrior, Porcupine, recalled:


We said among ourselves, now the white people have taken all we had, we are to do something… The railroad is death to us, when the people hear the sound of the bell of the iron horse they mourn; it is the signal that the life they have known is over. [23]

Disgusted by the killings, Union Pacific Chief Engineer Grenville Dodge began a campaign against the Native Americans. Dodge implemented new security measures ordering workers to carry guns 24/7. Dodge also requested military assistance from the government, and received support from one of the most ruthless generals in the nation: William Tecumseh Sherman. The infamous Sherman was best known for his use of total war during his campaign against the Confederacy. During his march through Confederate cities and countryside, Sherman ravaged buildings, razed cities, destroyed supply lines, and slaughtered anyone who stood in his path.[24]

Although initially hesitant to join the struggle against the Native Americans, Sherman later accepted the position after hearing of the Bozeman Trail Massacre, where Native American decoys led a small regiment of American troops into an ambush and all 80 soldiers were killed. An infuriated Sherman addressed the growing “Indian Menace”:[25]


The more we can kill this year the less will have to be killed the next year, for the more I see of these Indians the more convinced I am that they all have to be killed or be maintained as a species of paupers… we must act with vindictive earnestness against the Sioux and the Cheyenne even to the point of their very extermination; men, women and children [26]

When he arrived at the railroad, Sherman ruthlessly began employing annihilation tactics against the Natives. Sherman hunted down the Natives responsible for several attacks and slaughtered them. Throughout the final years of the railroad’s construction, Sherman and the Natives would engage in small scale skirmishes. Despite early successes, the Native American resistance soon proved futile, and as time passed, the railroad pushed forward.

Back at the Central Pacific, trouble was stirring in the Sierras. The Chinese laborers finally fed up with their inferior salaries, substandard conditions, and hazardous tasks, went on strike. The workers demanded $40 monthly salaries instead of their current $35, a 10 instead of 14 hour work day, and safer working conditions.[27] During the strike, the Chinese workers employed non-violent protesting tactics. Crocker would later recall “If there had been that number of white laborers... it would have been impossible to control them, but this strike of the Chinese was just like Sunday all along the work. These men stayed in their camps. That is, they would come out and walk around, but not a word was said. No violence was perpetrated along the whole line." [28] In response to the strike, Crocker made it clear the he would refuse to even consider the workers demands. Instead of negotiating, Crocker cut off all food supplies to the Chinese. Starved into submission, most of the Chinese resumed work one week later.[29]

After the strike, the Central Pacific would have one final obstacle in the Sierras: Donner Summit.Donner Summit was a wall of 1600 feet of solid granite 7,000 feet above sea level. [30] Harsh snowstorms slowed work, and hundreds of workers died in avalanches. Others succumbed to the weather and lost their lives to pneumonia. [31] The workers pushed through the mountain for over fifteen months, until finally, light shown from the end of the tunnel.The Central Pacific had broken through the Sierras. [32]

With the end approaching, both companies raced towards the finish line. On May 10th 1869 the two railroads joined at Promontory Summit, Utah.[33] Across the nation cannons fired and bells rang in celebration of the railroads completion. The day would mark the beginning of Americas transition from the post war era to the industrial powerhouse she would become in the twentieth century.

Following the completion of the railroad, America entered a golden period of prosperity. With the railroad complete, it took only 7 days and $65 to travel across the continent.[34] Waves of settlers flooded into the previously isolated Midwest from the temptations of free land. Agriculture boomed in the Great Plains, and soon, the U.S. was producing over 50 million tons of wheat annually. For the first time America could feed herself. [35]

Duringthe remainder of the nineteenth century, five more transcontinental railroads were built. By the turn of the century, the United States had over 200,000 miles of track: more than the rest of the world combined.[36] The railroads became the single largest employer in the country, and standard time was developed to coordinate train schedules. With the railroads connecting the country, previously isolated settlements, which had to be self sufficient, could now conveniently ship in goods and products. Professor, H.W. Brands described “The railroads laid the basis for the single largest market in the world economy, and this made it possible for the United States to become the global economic power that it did by the end of the 19th century”. [37]

However, the railroad was a zero-sum enterprise. Problems of depressed wages and rising unemployment emerged in certain western states, and Chinese immigrants became scapegoats of these problems.[38] Anti-Chinese sentiment spread rapidly among politicians and blue collar Americans alike: the country had fallen victim to Yellow Peril. [39] In the following years, race riots erupted, including the infamous Massacre of 1871 where 500 white men assaulted and robbed Chinese in the Los Angles area leaving 84 dead, and hundreds injured. [40]

To appease the public, Congress passed a series of discriminatory laws against Chinese immigrants. The Chinese Exclusion Acts barred nearly all Chinese immigrants from the United States for a period of ten years, later extended to an indefinite amount of time. [41] In addition, Chinese Americans lived in constant fear of deportation, often adopting false identities and aliases to remain in the States. With a sudden halt in Chinese immigration, Chinese communities in America found it increasingly difficult to grow and assimilate like other ethnic minority communities.[42]

Native Americans suffered equally with the completion of the Railroad. When the government ordered them to leave their lands to make way for settlers and more railroads, the outraged Natives refused. In response, the government sent troops to enforce the order. Although initially able to resist the advance of the troops, the Natives soon found themselves outnumbered and outgunned. On several occasions, peaceful Native Americans were massacred. One infamous instance occurred at the Wounded Knee Massacre. During a Native American surrender, a firearm accidentally went off. In the chaos that ensued, hundreds of Native Americans were slaughtered within minutes.[43] The Sioux survivor, Black Elk, described “When I look back now, I can still see the butchered women and children lying scattered as plain as when I was still young and I see something else died there. A peoples dream died there. It was a beautiful dream.” [44]

After the massacre, most resistance crumbled. The Natives Americans were split up and forced onto small government reservations.[45] Settlers who moved into the lands would later renounce the Natives who had preceded them. In the city of Cheyenne, the first mayor spoke to an approving audience "Here is the City of Cheyenne, may she ever prosper, and the tribe of Indians after whom she is named be completely exterminated".[46]

Over the next 150 years, the mistreatment of minorities continued. Chinese immigrants remained unjustly barred from the nation for half a century, severing diplomatic potential between the United States and China. Native Americans were forced to either assimilate or die out. They slowly lost their culture, and their way of life. Discrimination against minorities persisted, shifting from one group to another. The railroad left America more powerful, but divided.

While an apparent commercial success, the railroad was also an ethical failure. Historical records portray the railroad as a technological wonder that revolutionized transportation and propelled America into a golden age of economic prosperity. However, the railroad also promoted corporate exploitation and triggered a cultural genocide. Minorities were segregated, massacred and denied fundamental liberties. The railway gave the nation new life, while destroying its old life. America was forever transformed by the first transcontinental railroad, for better, and for worse.

Endnotes

[1] Liu, Michael. Phone interview. 4 Jan. 2012.

[2] “The Transcontinental Railroad.” Modern Marvels. History Channel. 12 Mar. 2007. Television.

[3] “National Expansion and Reform.” Traveling Overland Trails. Library of Congress, n.d. Web. 5 Feb. 2012. <http://www.loc.gov/‌teachers/‌classroommaterials/‌ presentationsandactivities/‌presentations/‌timeline/‌expref/‌oregtral/>.

[4] “Transcontinental Railroad.” History Channel. N.p., 1996. Web. 5 Feb. 2012. <http://www.history.com/‌topics/‌transcontinental-railroad>.

[5] “New York as a Commercial Center.” Harper’s Weekly 27 June 1867: n. pag. Print.

[6] Raghuraman, Anand, Tian Kisch, and Raluca Ifrim. The Transcontinental Railroad: Uniting the States of America. Youtube. N.p., 29 Oct. 2010. Web. 5 Feb. 2012. <http://www.youtube.com/‌watch?v=ftKu6N3ETuk>.

[7] “The Pacific Railway Act” Archives of the West. PBS, 6 Jan. 2001. Web. 5 Feb. 2012. <http://www.pbs.org/‌weta/‌thewest/‌resources/‌archives/‌five/‌railact.>.

[8] “The Transcontinental Railroad.” Modern Marvels. History Channel. 12 Mar. 2007. Television.

[9] “Workers of the Central Pacific Railroad.” American Experience. PBS, 1996. Web. 15 Feb. 2012. <http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/americanexperience/features/general-article/tcrr-cprr/>.

[10] “The Transcontinental Railway.” Seven Wonders of the Industrial World. BBC. 11 Oct. 2009. Television.

[11] “Heartland.” America the Story of Us. History Channel. 16 May 2010. Television.

[12]“Program Transcript.” Transcontinental Railroad. PBS, 10 July 2009. Web. 5 Feb. 2012. <http://www.pbs.org/‌wgbh/‌americanexperience/‌features/‌transcript/‌tcrr-transcript/>.

[13] “Workers of the Central Pacific Railroad.” American Experience. PBS, 1996. Web. 15 Feb. 2012. <http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/americanexperience/features/general-article/tcrr-cprr/>

[14] Mintz, S. “Building the Transcontinental Railroad.” Digital History. N.p., 2007. Web. 5 Feb. 2012. <http://www.digitalhistory.uh.edu/‌database/‌article_display.cfm?HHID=177>.

[15]“Heartland.” America the Story of Us. History Channel. 16 May 2010. Television.

[16] “The Transcontinental Railway.” Seven Wonders of the Industrial World. BBC. 11 Oct. 2009. Television.

[17] Bain, David Hayward. Empire Express: Building the First Transcontinental Railroad. New York: Penguin Putnam Inc., 1999. Print.

[18] Nitroglycerin.” American Experience. PBS, 9 Aug. 2009. Web. 5 Feb. 2012. <http://www.pbs.org/‌wgbh/‌americanexperience/‌features/‌general-article/‌tcrr-nitro/>.

[19] “Workers of the Central Pacific Railroad.” American Experience. PBS, 1996. Web. 15 Feb. 2012. <http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/americanexperience/features/general-article/tcrr-cprr/>.

[20] -. “Chinese Immigrants and the Building of the Transcontinental Railroad.” Digital History.University ofHouston, 5 Feb. 2012. Web. 5 Feb. 2012. <http://www.digitalhistory.uh.edu/‌historyonline/‌china1.cfm>.

[21] “Heartland.” America the Story of Us. History Channel. 16 May 2010. Television

[22] The Indian War.” Harper’s Weekly 22 June 1867: n. pag. Print.

[23] “The Transcontinental Railway.” Seven Wonders of the Industrial World. BBC. 11 Oct. 2009. Television.

[24] “Heartland.” America the Story of Us. History Channel. 16 May 2010. Television

[25] “Native Americans and the Transcontinental Railroad.” Transcontinental Railroad. PBS, 1996. Web. 5 Feb. 2012. <http://www.pbs.org/‌wgbh/‌americanexperience/‌features/‌general-article/‌tcrr-tribes/>.

[26] Mintz, S. “Building the Transcontinental Railroad.” Digital History. N.p., 2007. Web. 5 Feb. 2012. <http://www.digitalhistory.uh.edu/‌database/‌article_display.cfm?HHID=177>.

[27] “Workers of the Central Pacific Railroad.” American Experience. PBS, 1996. Web. 15 Feb. 2012. <http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/americanexperience/features/general-article/tcrr-cprr/>.

[28] Ambrose, Stephen E. Nothing Like It in the World: The Men who built the First Transcontinental Railroad.New York: Simon and Schuster, 2000. Print.

[29] “The Chinese Workers Strike.” PBS. N.p., 1996. Web. 5 Feb. 2012. <http://www.pbs.org/‌wgbh/‌americanexperience/‌features/‌general-article/‌tcrr-strike/>.

[30] “Tunneling in the Sierra Nevada.” Transcontinental Railroad. PBS, 12 Apr. 2009. Web. 5 Feb. 2012. <http://www.pbs.org/‌wgbh/‌americanexperience/‌features/‌general-article/‌tcrr-tunnels/>.

[31] “The Transcontinental Railway.” Seven Wonders of the Industrial World. BBC. 11 Oct. 2009. Television.

[32] “Heartland.” America the Story of Us. History Channel. 16 May 2010. Television.

[33] “The Transcontinental Railroad.” Modern Marvels. History Channel. 12 Mar. 2007. Television.

[34] Smith, William. “Pacific Railroad Traveler’s Letter.” Central Pacific Railroad Museum. N.p., 1 Jan.

2012. Web. 5 Feb. 2012. <http://cprr.org/‌Museum/‌Ephemera/‌Travel_Letter_1875.html>.

[35] Newman, John J. “Railroads and Industry.” United States History: Preparing for the Advanced Placement Exam.New York: Amisco Publications, 1998. 325-326. Print.

[36] “The Transcontinental Railroad.” Modern Marvels. History Channel. 12 Mar. 2007. Television.

[37] “Heartland.” America the Story of Us. History Channel. 16 May 2010. Television.

[38] “Workers of the Central Pacific Railroad.” American Experience. PBS, 1996. Web. 15 Feb. 2012.

[39] “Industrialization, Class, and Race; Chinese and the Anti-Chinese Movement in the Late 19th-Century Northwest.” Center for study of the Pacific Northwest.University ofWashington, 1990. Web. 15 Feb. 2012. <http://www.washington.edu/‌uwired/‌outreach/‌cspn/‌Website/‌Classroom%20Materials/‌Pacific%20Northwest%20History/‌Lessons/‌Lesson%2015/‌15.html>.

[40] Ambrose, Stephen E. Nothing Like It in the World: The Men who built the First Transcontinental Railroad.New York: Simon and Schuster, 2000. Print.

[41] “Chinese Exclusion Acts.” Digital History.University ofHouston, n.d. Web. 5 Feb. 2012. <http://www.digitalhistory.uh.edu/‌database/‌article_display.cfm?HHID=419>.

[42] “Industrialization, Class, and Race; Chinese and the Anti-Chinese Movement in the Late 19th-Century Northwest.” Center for study of the Pacific Northwest.University ofWashington, 1990. Web. 15 Feb. 2012. <http://www.washington.edu/‌uwired/‌outreach/‌cspn/‌Website/‌Classroom%20Materials/‌Pacific%20Northwest%20History/‌Lessons/‌Lesson%2015/‌15.html>.

[43] Wicks, Michael. “AIM and Wounded Knee Documents.” Native American History.MichiganStateUniversity, 13 Jan. 2010. Web. 15 Feb. 2012. <http://www.aics.org/‌WK/‌index.html>.

[44] “Heartland.” America the Story of Us. History Channel. 16 May 2010. Television.

[45] “Native Americans and the Transcontinental Railroad.” Transcontinental Railroad. PBS, 1996. Web. 5 Feb. 2012. <http://www.pbs.org/‌wgbh/‌americanexperience/‌features/‌general-article/‌tcrr-tribes/>.

[46] “The Transcontinental Railroad.” Modern Marvels. History Channel. 12 Mar. 2007. Television.

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tom 4 years ago

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Beautifully written and well-researched.


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