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History: The Chinese heroes of the Transcontinental Railroad

Jerry Blackwill
Special to the Sierra Sun
Once the transcontinental railroad was completed, some of the Chinese workers moved to Truckee, Winnemucca, Elko and other towns along the Central Pacific Railway. Others took their skills and built more railroads.
Photo courtesy Truckee-Donner Historical Society
A lot of new information is coming to light about the Chinese workers who built the transcontinental railroad. While the railroad helped build the community of Truckee, the Chinese played a key role in building the railroad itself.
Photo courtesy Truckee-Donner Historical Society

A lot of new information is coming to light about the Chinese workers who built the transcontinental railroad. While the railroad helped build the community of Truckee, the Chinese played a key role in building the railroad itself.

Our appreciation of the Chinese workers is being increased through a couple of events. First, the US-China Railroad Friendship Association is considering the placement of a statue depicting these workers at the Dutch Flat rest area. And secondly, the Chinese Railroad Workers in North America Project at Stanford University was recently completed.

Now we know more about why they were hired, where they came from, how they lived and worked, and what happened to them after the transcontinental railroad was completed.



In 1865 the Big Four – Stanford, Huntington, Crocker and Hopkins — had a problem. They couldn’t hire and keep enough workman to construct the Central Pacific Railroad. New hires would leave for the Virginia City silver mines shortly after they were hired.

Crocker’s solution was to try former Chinese gold miners to see if they would stay and do the work. The experiment was a success and the railroad began hiring all the available Chinese workers in California. After that, Crocker asked a labor contractor to employ laborers from the Chinese mainland.



The contractor recruited poor farmers from Guangzhou province, near present-day Hong Kong. For the potential workers, China was in the throes of European incursions and new vistas were opening. The farmers imaginations were fired by tales of California’s Gold Mountain.

As the laborers were hired, they agreed to pay off the Pacific passage by working for the railroad. A further part of the agreement was that if they died working for the railroad, their bones would be transported back to China.

The Central Pacific was able to hire over 12,000 Chinese using this process. Theirs was the workforce that built the railroad through the forests and tunnels of the Sierras. Then, they toiled across Nevada to meet up with the westbound Union Pacific north of the Great Salt Lake.

Crocker organized them into gangs of 20 with both a European-American and an English-speaking Chinaman as supervisors. Part of their pay was used to buy healthy dried seafood, rice and vegetables.

In the tunnels, they worked eight-hour shifts. At the beginning of each shift, they cleared rubble from the previous crew, then they “drilled” holes for the explosives using a long chisel held by one man while others took turns pounding it. Finally, black powder or nitroglycerin were put in the hole, fuses were lit, and the shift’s work ended with a bang.

Once the railroad was completed, some of the workers moved to Truckee, Winnemucca, Elko and other towns along the Central Pacific Railway. Others took their skills and built more railroads. The Canadian Pacific, Western Pacific, and the Virginia and Truckee railroads all benefited from the trained workforce. Unfortunately, the passage of the Chinese Restriction Act in 1882 brought most of this useful labor to a halt.

Jerry Blackwill is the President of the Truckee Donner Railroad Society and the Museum of Truckee History. He is a fulltime resident in Tahoe Donner.


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