Although the Central Pacific Railroad was dreamed up, planned out, and financed by a small group of wealthy, white men whose names are well known to history, it was built by the Chinese. The actual physical tracks—mile after mile of them—were laid by thousands of Chinese workers whose individual backgrounds and experiences are among the great untold stories of the American West. Few of their letters or journals survive to help us learn about the men themselves, but considering the experience of the group as a whole can give us some important insights into race and labor in the late nineteenth century.
Much like California's white population, Chinese immigrants had come to the territory in the 1850s hoping to find fortune in the gold and silver mines. What they found instead was legal and extralegal discrimination that made it almost impossible for them to make a decent living. They couldn't vote, couldn't go to public schools, couldn't become citizens, and couldn't testify in court. Yet they paid a foreign miner's "permission tax," a water tax, a hospital tax, a school tax, and a property tax. They often found work as domestics and, by nearly all accounts, performed admirably in most any capacity. But as a group, the Chinese remained a target of unrelenting discrimination among the general population of California and received particular scorn from the state's politicians. The Central Pacific's Leland Stanford campaigned successfully for governor, in part because of his vehement hatred for the Chinese, whom he famously dubbed "the dregs of Asia."19
But popular prejudice and political posturing turned out to be at odds with the logic of economic necessity and the urgent need to get the Central Pacific built. By the mid-1860s, the CP had enough construction work to fully employ several thousand laborers, but Charles Crocker and his foremen were lucky to keep 800 on the job at any given time. The railroad recruited constantly, but it turned out that the largely Irish workforce that flocked to the line was mostly interested in making just enough cash to skip off to the mines when they got to the railhead in the Sierra Nevada. For thousands of young white men, a quick stint of work on the CP was just a means to the greater end of striking it rich in the gold and silver fields.
This posed the CP and its construction bosses with a frustrating problem: Where were they going to find thousands of men to work—and keep working—on a project that was going to take years to complete? In 1865, Charles Crocker saw a possible answer in the approximately 60,000 Chinese who had come to California looking for work.
The first Chinese crews were brought on largely with the idea that their presence might help to keep the Irishmen in line and on the job. If the Irish wouldn't work, the threat implied, they would be replaced by the Chinese. CP managers were pleased when the plan seemed to have some success, and against the considerable prejudice of foreman James H. Strobridge, Crocker brought Chinese workers in larger and larger numbers. In one famous story, Crocker countered Strobridge's refusal to manage Chinese workers with the retort that "they built the Great Wall of China, didn't they?"20
By the end of 1865, ranks of Chinese laborers on the CP line had swelled to about 6,000; for the duration of the project, they would constitute around 80% of the total workforce. Initially valued by management for their work ethic, sobriety, cleanliness, and perceived docility, the Chinese proved themselves indispensable when it came to the monstrous task of tunneling through the granite monoliths of the Sierra Nevada. In a process where success was measured by the foot and progress depended on the skillful use of hand-powered drills and thousands of barrels of blasting powder, the Chinese demonstrated an expertise worth considerably more than the $30 monthly wage they were generally paid.
All the while, the Irish counterparts were earning $35 a month plus board, which is to say that while some discrimination was held in check by the demand for labor, wage discrepancies remained an integral part of the experience of the Chinese "coolie" (slang borrowed from British India referring to a manual laborer; it has since evolved into an ethnic slur). Additionally, they were grouped in gangs always supervised by white bosses, and in the rare instance that they did strike for better pay and working conditions in 1867, Crocker countered their demands by cutting off the workers' food supply and bringing an armed posse into the mountains to enforce his order. Interestingly, Crocker's fellow CP executive, Mark Hopkins, considered asking the Freedmen's Bureau to bring a crew of former slaves to play against the Chinese the way the CP had initially played the Chinese against the Irish.
After a week of malnutrition, most of the Chinese dropped their demands and went back to the business of getting the Central Pacific built. By 1868, there were about 12,000 Chinese men working on the line; it is no exaggeration to say that they built the Central Pacific, and it's difficult to imagine the project being completed without them. Charles Crocker realized this at the time, but he was one of few.
The sad irony of Chinese fortunes in the late nineteenth century is that while the CP brought them aboard to compete with whites for jobs, ultimately, that sort of competition only strengthened anti-Chinese sentiment in the long term. Widespread racism and resentment resulted in Congress passing the first Chinese Exclusion Act—which banned all further immigration of Chinese laborers—in 1882. The Act would be renewed in 1892 and then again in 1904, proving definitively for anyone who cared to notice that turn-of-the-century America had not warmed up to the Chinese, despite the decisive role they played in constructing the transcontinental railroad.
Looking west from the Missouri River in the early 1860s, surveyors for the Union Pacific line wouldn't see much that they recognized as civilization. At that time, the Great Plains still belonged to the Native American tribes, collectively referred to as Plains Indians. But all of that was rapidly changing.
When the Union Pacific began building west from Omaha, Nebraska in 1865, the Plains Indian culture was already several centuries old. Oddly enough, the seed of that culture had been unwittingly sown by white men hundreds of years earlier when the horses of European explorers went wild and began to spread across North America. The horse made the tribes of the Great Plains much more effective hunters of buffalo and came to occupy a central place in their nomadic cultures. The next "horse" to be introduced by white men, however, would be an iron one, the locomotive; with it would come the demise of the Plains societies.
The passage of the Homestead Act in 1862 gave the settlement of the West a boost, but migration was still proceeding at a relative trickle when the Union Pacific began its incursion. The railroad's ability to transport armies of workers and settlers and to seemingly grow boomtowns overnight would mean real, lasting, and pervasive settlement. That threat quickly led to a deterioration of U.S.-Native relations that had long been tense. Violence erupted at Sand Creek Colorado Territory in autumn of 1864, when cavalrymen under by Col. John Chivington attacked a group of Cheyenne who had been invited to spend the winter in the area by the U.S. Army. Chivington's men slaughtered more than 150 people. Many of the dead were women and children; some were mutilated by the soldiers. Violence brought more violence. A group of Sioux, Cheyenne, and Arapaho took revenge on the town of Julesburg 39 days later, killing soldiers and civilians, cutting telegraph wires, and burning the town to the ground.
A war for the Plains had commenced, but it was one that the Native Americans were certain to lose. The Union Pacific's chief engineer, by General Grenville Dodge, had been an Indian fighter himself and was eventually able to persuade the famed General William Tecumseh Sherman to throw the weight and protection of the U.S. Army behind the UP line. The drive to get the Union Pacific built quickly contributed to the turning of U.S. Indian policy away from anything resembling diplomacy and down the path of forcible removal and extermination. As Sherman wrote: "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 paupers21
The Plains people's way of life was crumbling, but that didn't stop them from inflicting a considerable amount of harassment on the Union Pacific. Many work crews lived in constant fear of Indian attacks, and several UP surveyors, the railroad's advance men in the West, were caught unaware and killed on the Plains. Railroad livestock—the company's pack animals and beasts of burden—was frequently raided and the line itself was sabotaged more than once. But in the big picture, this was all of relatively little consequence. The U.S. Army was winning the Indian Wars, by attrition, if necessary, and the railroad was advancing daily. And as the railroad advanced, the buffalo population on which the Plains societies depended was being decimated by white railroad men and soldiers strategically attacking the foundation of the Plains culture. Increasingly, the choice facing Native Americans was clear: assimilate or die.
In 1866, Union Pacific impresario Thomas "Doc" Durant organized a grand publicity event for the line. The 100th Meridian Excursion, as it has been called, was meant to showcase the progress and the potential of the UP for visiting dignitaries, and Durant, who knew how to stage an event, went all out. One evening, he had a friendly group of Pawnee Indians stage a mock raid on the line, much to the excitement of the Excursion's attendees. Although the Indian Wars were far from over in 1866, Durant was already memorializing the UP's struggle, and the Plains Indians were on their way to becoming a novelty in their own homeland.
The transcontinental railroad was, and still is, celebrated for drawing together the vast territory claimed by the United States, for giving substance to the ideal of Manifest Destiny. But if the railroad lent itself to the territorial and cultural unity of white America, it must be remembered that such unity came at the price of the culture that had preceded it. The men who built the Union Pacific reached into the American West and remade it. In the process, they consigned the old West, the West of the Cheyenne and Sioux, to history, memory, and the bleakness of the reservation system.