The Chinese and the Iron Road
Building the Transcontinental Railroad
Edited by Gordon H. Chang and Shelley Fisher Fishkin




The Chinese railroad workers who built America’s first transcontinental railroad and then went on to help build scores of other railroads in North America have been largely invisible on both sides of the Pacific. In The Chinese and the Iron Road, scholars based in North America and Asia who are part of Stanford’s Chinese Railroad Workers in North America Project deploy transnational perspectives drawn from a wide range of disciplines to explore the many unanswered questions that we have: Who were these workers? Why did they come? What did they experience? How did they live? What were their spiritual beliefs? What did they do after the railroad was completed? What is their place in cultural memory? The Chinese and the Iron Road aims to recover this neglected chapter of the past more fully than ever before.

In 1862 with the passage of the Pacific Railway Act, the Central Pacific Railroad Company (CPRR) was chartered to build the western portion of what became known as the first transcontinental railroad, east from Sacramento. Work began in the fall of 1863. The eastern portion of the line, built by the Union Pacific Railroad Company (UPRR), required laying tracks across vast flat expanses of prairie, but the western portion of the line required cutting through the Sierra Nevada—chipping and blasting deep rock cuts, dumping tons of rocks for fills, carving fifteen separate tunnels through long stretches of solid granite, and constructing trestles across deep canyons. At first, most of the workers on both lines were of European descent, especially Irish. But by the middle of 1864 white workers on the CPRR were abandoning the backbreaking work of railroad building in droves to seek their fortunes elsewhere, including the silver mines of the Comstock Lode. The Central Pacific’s president, Leland Stanford, and his fellow owners—Collis Huntington, Charles Crocker, and Mark Hopkins (they called themselves the “Associates” but are often referred to as the Big Four)—faced a crisis: work had stalled with less than fifty miles of the railroad completed. Many at the time thought that the CPRR would not get through the Sierra Nevada, let alone out of California. The dire manpower shortage jeopardized the entire enterprise.

In early 1864 the Central Pacific had decided to try a few dozen Chinese workers from nearby mining communities. By late 1865 Chinese workers composed the vast majority of the labor force on the Central Pacific and numbered in the thousands. As Leland Stanford reported in a letter to US President Andrew Johnson that year, “Without them it would be impossible to complete the western portion of this great national enterprise, within the time required by the Acts of Congress.”1

Despite their superlative efficiency, endurance, intelligence, and dependability, the Chinese worked longer hours for less pay than their white peers. Historians estimate that they cost the company between one-half and two-thirds of what white workers cost.2 The line was completed on May 10, 1869, at Promontory Summit, Utah, when Stanford swung his mallet to drive the famous golden spike, setting off a message on the telegraph that went coast to coast: “DONE.” The telegraph message launched festivities in cities throughout the country, making the railroad’s completion the first national mass media event.3

The labor of Chinese workers, who eventually numbered between ten thousand and fifteen thousand at the highest point (and perhaps up to twenty thousand in total over time) made it possible to cross the country in a matter of days instead of months, paved the way for new waves of settlers to come out west, and provided a much less costly way to transport goods across the continent. Their work helped speed America’s entry onto the world scene as a modern nation that connected the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans. Their labor also created vast wealth for the CPRR’s four principals, including the fortune with which Leland Stanford would found Stanford University some two decades after the railroad’s completion. But despite the importance of their work, the Chinese workers themselves are a shadowy presence in much of the written history of the transcontinental railroad.

That many Chinese workers labored on the rail line across the United States is part of American lore, but other than a sentence or paragraph or two in many accounts, little can be found about their actual experiences in either popular writing or academic scholarship. They are given no personality and are presented largely as interchangeable objects acted upon by forces beyond their control. They are not agents of history. The given interpretation of the construction and completion of the transcontinental line is therefore immensely deficient and one-sided. It is usually told as a story of national triumph and achievement, and as the culmination of “manifest destiny,” linking the two coasts of North America. It is hailed as a great step in healing the divisive wounds of the Civil War. But the contributions of the Chinese railroad workers, if noted at all, tend to be overshadowed by attention to the Big Four, and are often omitted altogether. These lacunae are in large part a result of the long neglect of the historical role of racial minorities in American history. Yet they also reflect the fact that the recovery of the history of Chinese railroad workers is an immense challenge: there is no extant letter, diary, memoir, or even oral history that tells us something about their lived experience from their point of view. To this day, not one piece of textual evidence from them offering even a glimpse into their experiences has been located. With few exceptions, received histories carry not a single name of a Chinese railroad worker. Given historians’ reliance on the written document, it is no wonder that the Chinese railroad workers have remained largely indistinct, a shadowy mass of figures hovering around the edges of our histories but never at the center of the story themselves.4

The Chinese Railroad Workers in North America Project at Stanford, from which this book originates, began in 2012 to address this void in historical understanding. It was the first comprehensive effort to recover and interpret the work of the Chinese railroad workers and became the largest effort to study any aspect of nineteenth-century Chinese American history generally. The project’s objective was to try to recover as much as possible the history of the lived experience of the Chinese workers themselves. Eventually, more than one hundred scholars in North America and Asia from a wide variety of disciplines, including American studies, anthropology, archaeology, cultural and literary studies, heritage studies, and history, collaborated to locate and study as much primary material as possible. We hoped to locate new textual evidence, in English, Chinese, and other languages, but we understood early in the project that creative intellectual methodologies would be necessary to advance our understanding of the lives of these workers. Given that many other able and dedicated researchers had tried and failed for many decades before us to uncover a hidden cache of textual material, we could not assume that mighty efforts and good fortune would lead us to such a trove.

Doing the research has been challenging. Business records, including those from the Central Pacific archives, are incomplete, scattered in different locations, disorganized, and difficult to decipher. The fragmentary payroll sheets that are extant most often list only the “head men,” or labor contractors who provided the actual workers, and not the names of the thousands of workers themselves; and the names that are present are in abbreviated form, not rendered fully or properly. Family oral histories are memories without textual documentation, though some families retain wonderful objects and occasional photographs handed down through the generations from their railroad ancestors.

The lack of textual evidence has been frustrating. Why is there nothing extant? Traditional explanations emphasize the illiteracy of the workers, but we now believe that many were literate, at least at a basic level, that many did send letters and remittances to China, and that many likely kept records and other documentation of their experiences. A writer in Harper’s Bazaar in 1869 noted that “the Superintendent of the Central Pacific Railroad, after having employed thirteen thousand Chinese, said that he never heard of one who could not read and write in his own language.” And in a letter to the Little Rock, Arkansas, Morning Republican in September 1869, another writer asserted, “The large number of Chinamen now in the Pacific states, who all or very nearly all read and write, have sent to China, in private letters, a vast amount of information concerning those states and the United States generally.”5

So why do we not have a single letter from one of these workers? Violence and destruction, rather than their lack of schooling, may be better explanations for why we have nothing from them today: the home areas of the workers in China suffered extensive devastation due to social conflict and war in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, and every Chinese community in America in the mid- to late nineteenth century suffered arson, looting, and other forms of obliteration. These factors are much more likely to be the reason for the lack of documentation. With the absence of reliable and abundant evidence, silence, myth, and lore have become attached to railroad history. The railroad, romanticized and demonized, elicits much emotion and controversy. We have made an effort to distinguish truth from fiction, even as we honor myth and storytelling as important to understanding the meaning of the Chinese railroad worker experience.

The Chinese Railroad Workers in North America Project has benefited from the digital revolution, which has greatly facilitated our research. An enormous amount of material, including hundreds of newspapers from the nineteenth century, has been digitized, giving us access to an array of sources that previous scholars did not have. Most importantly, the project’s interdisciplinary, international, and collaborative approach involving dozens of scholars has produced results far beyond what previous individual efforts were able to yield. The ability to share images, text, comments, and questions electronically greatly facilitated collaboration. The project also benefited from a change in atmosphere: interest in and support for efforts to recover the history of marginalized people have grown significantly.

Archaeologists have over many years collected an enormous amount of material culture that Chinese railroad workers left behind. The Archaeology Network of the Chinese Railroad Workers in North America Project, under the leadership of Stanford archaeologist Barbara Voss, brought scores of scholars together to engage in unprecedented collaboration and in dialogue with scholars from other disciplines. They made fascinating, original contributions that add substantially to what we understand about the daily lives of the workers.

Scholars from other disciplines also made important contributions. Some in the project focused on the literary and cultural production about the workers over the years, visual images and representations, and the stories of workers’ descendants in America and China as handed down through families. The project completed almost fifty oral histories with descendants to understand some of the legacies of the railroad workers and what their lives have meant for Chinese Americans. We continue to search for new evidence and materials.

Our effort, however, goes far beyond supplementing the existing narrative, as important as that is. Focusing on the Chinese workers raises basic new scholarly challenges. For one, placing the Chinese in the foreground of the narrative requires us to rethink important contexts and vantage points long dominant in the telling of American history, in particular of the American West. We have stretched the frame of investigation to consider new references, boundaries, and questions. The story of the Chinese railroad workers is necessarily a story of transpacific connections and of the intertwined social, economic, and political histories of nineteenth-century China and the United States. It is a story of the immense Chinese diaspora and of the overseas Chinese. It is also a story of ethnic America and a foundational experience in Asian American history. These different narratives and interpretive contexts all had to be considered to construct a fuller, richer, and more comprehensive understanding of the history. Consequently, our hope is that the project engages and speaks to many important bodies of knowledge beyond those of “the railroad” alone.

It is important to note that the history of these workers has been neglected not only in American scholarship but in Chinese-language historiography as well. Until recently Chinese scholars have not deeply engaged in what is called in the United States “social history.” Their focus, rather, has been political history. Imperial and official documents form the vast majority of available currently collected archival material in China. The story of “overseas Chinese” occupied a largely marginal position in the national historical narrative. When told, the bitter experience of laborers who ventured overseas was offered mainly as further evidence of the oppression of the Chinese nation during the long “century of humiliation.” Histories of the railroad workers, even those published most recently, draw almost exclusively on American sources used in English-language studies. Our effort has therefore been pioneering in bringing scholars together from the United States, Canada, and Asia to locate new materials and engage in scholarly conversation and collaboration.6

The volume in hand is the product of more than six years of concerted individual and collective efforts. Earlier versions of many of the essays included here were first presented in meetings held at Stanford University, Sun Yat-sen University in Guangzhou, and Academia Sinica in Taipei. In addition to this collection of essays, the project is producing digital publications, curricula, exhibitions for the general public, and an open-access digital materials repository hosted by Stanford University Libraries. Although our primary focus is the Chinese workers who built the Central Pacific Railroad, our research expanded to include late nineteenth-century rail lines built in the United States and Canada by the Chinese; in many cases, workers on these later lines were veterans of the Central Pacific.7


1. Leland Stanford, Statement Made to the President of the United States, and Secretary of the Interior, of Progress of the Work (Sacramento: H. S. Crocker & Co., 1865).

2. Alexander Saxton, “The Army of Canton in the High Sierra,” Pacific Historical Review 35, no. 2 (May 1996): 149; David R. Roediger and Elizabeth D. Esch, The Production of Difference: Race and the Management of Labor in U.S. History (New York: Oxford University Press, 2014), 77.

3. The National Park Service has produced the most thorough study of the Golden Spike site and ceremony: Robert L. Spude, with the assistance of Todd Del-yea, Promontory Summit, May 10, 1869 (US National Park Service, Intermountain Region, Cultural Resources Management, 2005). See also J. N. Bowman, “Driving the Last Spike at Promontory 1869,” Utah Historical Quarterly 37 (Winter 1969): 76.

4. Histories of building the first transcontinental line across the United States abound: Wesley Griswold, A Work of Giants: Building the First Transcontinental Railroad (New York: McGraw-Hill, 1962); George Kraus, High Road to Promontory: Building the Central Pacific across the High Sierra (Palo Alto, CA: American West, 1969); John Hoyt Williams, A Great and Shining Road: The Epic Story of the Transcontinental Railroad (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1988); David Haward Bain, Empire Express: Building the First Transcontinental Railroad (New York: Viking/Penguin, 1999); Stephen Ambrose, Nothing Like It in the World: The Men Who Built the Transcontinental Railroad, 1863–1869 (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2000) are among the best known. There are accounts of the management of the railroad, such as the classic by Oscar Lewis, The Big Four: The Story of Huntington, Stanford, Hopkins, and Crocker, and of the Building of the Central Pacific (New York: Knopf, 1938); of the economic effects of the transcontinental railroads, notably Richard White, Railroaded: The Transcontinentals and the Making of Modern America (New York: Norton, 2012); and of California history in William Deverell, Railroad Crossing: Californians and the Railroad, 1850–1910 (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1994). Close attention was paid to the Chinese railroad workers in Thomas W. Chinn, H. Mark Lai, and Philip P. Choy, eds., A History of the Chinese in California: A Syllabus (San Francisco: Chinese Historical Society of America, 1969), 43–47; Alexander Saxton, The Indispensable Enemy: Labor and the Anti-Chinese Movement in California (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1975); and George Kraus, “Chinese Laborers and the Construction of the Central Pacific,” Utah Historical Quarterly 37, no. 1 (1969): 41–57. Chinese American writers on the railroad worker experience include Lisa See, On Gold Mountain: The One-Hundred-Year Odyssey of My Chinese American Family (New York: St. Martin’s, 1995); and Iris Chang, The Chinese in America: A Narrative History (New York: Penguin, 2004). An excellent work on the experience of Chinese railroad workers on the Central Pacific is William F. Chew, Nameless Builders of the Transcontinental Railroad: The Chinese Workers of the Central Pacific Railroad (Bloomington, IN: Trafford, 2003). Chinese American writers who have produced memoir, fiction, drama, and historical narrative on the railroad worker experience include Frank Chin, Chinaman Pacific & Frisco RR Co. (Minneapolis: Coffee House, 1988) and Donald Duk (Minneapolis: Coffee House, 1991); David Henry Hwang, The Dance and the Railroad and Family Devotions: Two Plays (New York: Dramatists Play Service, 1983); Maxine Hong Kingston, China Men (New York: Vintage, 1989); Shawn Wong, Homebase (New York: Plume, 1991); and Laurence Yep, Dragon’s Gate (New York: Harper Trophy, 1993).

5. “Sayings and Doings,” Harper’s Bazaar, October 16, 1869, 663; “The Chinese Question,” Morning Republican (Little Rock, AR), September 11, 1869.

6. Studies in China include Annian Huang, ed., The Silent Spikes: Chinese Laborers and the Construction of North American Railroads, trans. Zhang Juguo (Beijing: China Intercontinental Press, 2006); Annian Huang, “The Construction of the Central Pacific Railroad by Chinese Workers and the Rise of the United States,” Issues in History Teaching 6 (2007): 39–41; Chen Hansheng 陈翰笙编, ed., Huagong chuguo shiliao huibian 华工出国史料汇编 [Collection of the Historical Materials about the Overseas Chinese Laborers], vol. 7 (Beijing: Zhonghua shuju 中华书局, 1984); and Sheng Jianhong, 美国中央太平洋铁路建设中的华工 [Chinese Builders of the US Central Pacific Railroad], 中西书局 (Shanghai: Zhong xi shu ju, 2015). These works rely almost exclusively on materials in the United States used by American writers.

7. In some cases, there are primary materials extant from workers on these later lines. See, for example, Andrew Griego, “Rebuilding the California Southern Railroad: The Personal Account of a Chinese Labor Contractor, 1884,” San Diego Historical Society Quarterly 25, no. 4 (Fall 1979),