Nearly every nationality in the world participated in the Westward Expansion movement on the North American continent. This diversity was also reflected in the work crews employed by the Central Pacific and Union Pacific Railroads in their race to link the continent following the Civil War. The Central Pacific, which had the more difficult task of cutting eastward through the formidable Sierra Nevadas, found that maintaining a stable workforce was even more challenging than blasting tunnels through granite mountains. Recruitment efforts fell far short of the numbers needed, and those who did sign up deserted in droves after a collecting a paycheck or two, lured by the more appealing mines of Nevada.
There was one segment of California’s population, however, which was willing and able to work the rails, but was considered unsuitable racially – the Chinese. James Harvey Strobridge, Charles Crocker’s chief of staff for the C.P., resisted hiring the “celestials” until threatened with strikes by the Irish, and the ire of his boss. The crews proved to be so efficient and hard-working that after emptying the Chinatowns of California, he began importing Cantonese from their drought-stricken homeland.
The massive contributions of the 5,000 to 15,000 Chinese workers (depending upon which source you use) is more often than not regarded as a colorful sidebar to the history of the West. Ray Allen Billington’s 1949 scholarly Westward Expansion devotes exactly two sentences of its 760 pages to these Chinese “coolies”. [The 1963 12-volume Life History of the United States does somewhat better, devoting an entire paragraph, mostly outlining their peculiar personal habits.]
Yet, according to Stan Steiner in Fusang: The Chinese Who Built America, “Men of China not only built the western half of the first transcontinental railroad, they built the whole or part of nearly every railroad line in the West. In spite of that, or perhaps because of it, their labors were belittled and their heroism disparaged for a century afterward”.
Leland Stanford himself (one of the “Big Four” who owned the CP, and by then governor of California) wrote on October 10, 1865, to President Andrew Johnson and Secretary of Interior James Haran, “without [the Chinese] it would be impossible to complete the western portion of this great national enterprise within the time required by the Acts of Congress”.
The monetary stakes for the transcontinental railroad were high. Indeed, upon its completion, Harper’s Weekly could barely contain its enthusiasm:
What if the Chinese had not been available to build America’s trans-continental railroad?