The Chinese in America by Lynna Banning

9780373297474.inddHave you ever taken a train through the High Sierras? Through mile-long tunnels and along tracks that cling to mountainsides overlooking deep canyons?

The most spectacular and dangerous routes were hacked out solid rock by hand by small (110 lb), tough, energetic Chinese laborers who hauled off the earth and rock in tiny loads and, as winter approached, worked 3-shift, 24-hour days and slept in tent cities at night.

Back in 1865 these strange little men with their dishpan straw hats, pigtails, and floppy blue pajamas proved themselves the equal of burly Irish immigrants also hired to work on the railroads. At first, the railroad bosses judged the Chinese too frail and unmechanical for such work. [Had they known history, of course, they might have recognized the tremendous grit and cleverness of the Chinese, exhibited in the building of the Great Wall (also hacked by hand out of mountainsides) and the invention of clocks, gunpowder, paper, ceramic glaze, etc.]

The little Chinese men actually farm boys from Canton came to California originally to rework tailings of gold mines left by the 49ers. Finally formed into railroad crews of from 12 to 20 men with their own cook and Chinese headman, the men proved quick to learn, slow to complain, and unfailingly punctual! (Irish workers were said to be a headache promoting strikes, drinking up their earnings, and brawling.)

The Chinese amazed everyone: they didn’t strike; they didn’t get drunk; they bathed every day and drank boiled tea instead of the dirty water that sickened everyone else. They did gamble and occasionally had fights among themselves, but overall they were looked on as disciplined, efficient, reliable working machines. They were called Celestials. (The Irish were called Terrestrials.)

Clearing the path for the laying of railroad track encouraged competition among crews. Fifty-seven miles from Sacramento the Central Pacific Chinese crew ran into a shale mass in the flank of the Sierra, 200 feet above the gorge of the American River. Track would have to be laid along a ledge with no footholds, 1400 feet above the raging river below.

carolyn_(2)_2The Irish took one look and began protesting because it was so dangerous. The Chinese took over and triumphed. Lowered down the face of the cliffs in wicker baskets, the Chinese crews pounded holes in the rock, stuffed them with black powder, and set fuses. They were then hauled out of danger, and when the smoke cleared the hunks of rocky mountainsides had come tumbling down. The Chinese crews lost not a single man during this dangerous enterprise; they were paid $35 per month and that didn=t include food or lodging. They lived in on-site wind-whipped huts or dank caves and ate Chinese delicacies shipped from San Francisco and prepared by the Chinese camp cook.

Blizzards in the winter of 1866-67 all but stopped progress, but the Chinese continued to bore tunnels through solid rock, even though the men were often cut off by snow and had to eat stockpiled food while dodging avalanches. Tunnels were cut under the snow for access from lodging to work site.

The Great Track-Laying Race occurred after this bitter winter when both sides, the Union Pacific and the Central Pacific, were to connect in the desert. By this time, the Central Pacific crews included Irish men. For a time the Irish and the Chinese crews competed in clearing grading, with neither side warning the other of impending explosive blasts.

The Great Race between the Union Pacific and the Central Pacific began when each railroad owner wanted to beat the other to the connecting. Guess who won?

The Central Pacific=s combined Irish-Chinese crews managed to lay 10 miles of track in 12 hours and thus proved their superiority. The burly Irishmen would lug the iron track sections and drop them in position, and the Chinese would hammer them in place, by which time there would be another section of track waiting.

Thus was America built.

Source: The Railroaders [The Old West]; Time-Life Books, New York.

8 thoughts on “The Chinese in America by Lynna Banning

  1. the railroad bosses could hardly consider the history of China because if they did, they’d have to admit the Chinese were far superior to Europeans or Americans.

    They were useful, obedient laborers, but it didn’t earn them any respect. There was a great deal of prejudice against the Chinese as being too alien from Christian Americans. They weren’t allowed to bring their families with them, nor could they bring women in later to marry. And once the railroad was built, the government conveniently passed a law in 1882 which prohibited all Chinese immigrants from entering the country. It wasn’t repealed until 1943.

    They had a great deal to do with opening the country but have never really been given their due.

  2. Have you read China Men by Maxine Hong Kingston? If you haven’t here’s a link

    It is a must read. All too often we have certain beliefs on how this country was discovered and built, but in historical texts we find such a brilliant yet sad America. America is far more beautiful than some of our romantic notions of the West being discovered through white men building railroads. There were freed slaves, the Chinese, Irish, and so many other people who sacrificiced so much to build the railways, to build connections with each other. I’m very pleased that the Chinese contribution is getting recognized here! Also, as an undergraduate I got to help dig up a China Town out at Butte, MT. Very amazing site!

  3. Lynna, I’ve read a couple of books about the building of the railroads and wish those who did the actual work got more credit. It was amazing work, and sometimes, near miraculous, especially for their time.
    Thanks for an interesting post.
    Best of luck on sales.

  4. Terrific, informative post! I did a lot of research on the Union Pacific for my first book, Darlin’ Irish, but never dug into the history of the Central Pacific. Fascinating how much the Chinese contributed to the building of the railroad. They deserve our gratitude.

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