Utah tracks Chinese might

Travel | George Hobica 27 Mar 2019

You can fly from California to New York in as few as four hours. Before the completion of the Transcontinental Railroad 150 years ago, the journey could take four months.

The fastest and safest route was by sea, not land, or a combination of sea-land-sea by crossing the malaria-infested Panama isthmus. Many died in the attempt.

But after the Union Pacific Railroad connected with the Central Pacific Railroad in Utah on May 10, 1869, the journey by rail took just four days.

Some describe the building of the Transcontinental as the 19th century's moonshot. It was without question that century's most audacious venture. In May, the state of Utah and Spike150, the sesquicentennial's official organizing committee, will celebrate by recognizing as never before the contribution made by thousands of Chinese immigrants, most in their teens and 20s, without whom the project would have been stillborn.

Over 60,000 Chinese, almost all of them men, lived in mid-19th century California. Before crossing the Pacific, most had worked on small farms, and, once settled in America, many worked in menial jobs such as servants, houseboys, and laundrymen.

So, when the men behind the Central Pacific searched for workers to realize their dream, they avoided hiring these young foreigners, partly out of prejudice and partly because their compact anatomies were judged ill-suited for hard manual labor, according to author Stephen Ambrose, whose Nothing Like It In the World is the definitive history of the Transcontinental.

They paid enormous sums to bring workers from the east, but the Irish, Scots, English, German and other European newcomers they recruited were more interested in mining for gold and silver, and once in California, they found better opportunities in the mines.

The railroad placed ads in a Sacramento newspaper (5,000 men wanted!). And although 2,000 responded, Ambrose writes, only a few remained a week later.

Desperate, in 1865 the Central Pacific "auditioned" a small group of Chinese laborers. Its superintendent was opposed: his white workers, what few remained, would revolt, and what did the Chinese know about building railroads? - ironic, in retrospect, considering that China operates the largest high-speed rail network in the world, today over 29,000 kiolometers long.

"They built the Great Wall of China, didn't they?" his boss replied. "Who said that laborers had to be white to build a railroad?"

One newspaper editor called the Chinese "half-men," but also begrudged that they "toiled without ceasing, and saved every penny.

"No white man could ever surpass their industry."

Once thousands of these "half men" had been hired, one of the CP's investors, Mark Hopkins, wrote that "without them, it would be impossible to go on with the work."

By far, the hardest and most dangerous part of the work was blasting over a dozen tunnels under the Sierra Nevada mountain range, with the only explosive then available: black powder. One day a Chinese foreman approached a supervisor and volunteered his crew to work on the tunnels. What did the Chinese know about black powder? They invented it centuries ago.

Try to imagine how the descendants of these men felt witnessing the railroad's centenary celebration on May 10, 1969, when US Secretary of Transportation John Volpe asked: "Who but Americans could build 10 miles [16 kilometers] in a single day or blast through these tunnels?"

He was referring to the "race to the finish," a contest the two railroads held during the last hours of the project as they sped to Promontory Point, where Stanford would insert the famous golden spike.

But it was the Central Pacific's Chinese crew that laid down those 10 miles in one day, not the Union Pacific's, which mostly consisted of Irish and other European immigrants.

It was the Chinese who blasted through the tunnels. But they were not Americans. Most of them would never be allowed to become Americans.

"And on that day 50 years ago," Spike150 board member Max Chang recalls, "Philip Choy, the president of the Chinese Historical Society of America, was scheduled to present a plaque honoring the Chinese workers' contribution. But he was removed from the program without warning or explanation."

Try to imagine what it was like for a boy of 17 or 18, from a farming village in China, to sail thousands of kilometers in the hold of a ship, after paying a small fortune to a labor jobber, and land in a country where he didn't speak a word of English and knew no one?

Can you imagine a boy who had never seen snow or mountains, who would later die in an avalanche so deep that his remains would remain frozen until spring, or who would die in an explosion while blasting a tunnel through solid granite? A new musical, Gold Mountain, which will be performed in Salt Lake City on May 9 and 10, and in Ogden, Utah, on May 11 and 12, dramatizes the life of such a boy.

It's part of Spike150's unprecedented acknowledgment of the workforce that made the railroad possible.

And although Utah is celebrating the railroad's sesquicentennial in many ways, this year it will pay tribute to the 10,000 to 14,000 Chinese - no one knows the exact number - with an emphasis on cultural events.

Besides Gold Mountain, the Salt Lake Acting Company will perform The Dance and the Railroad, by Tony Award-winning playwright David Henry Hwang; the Utah Symphony will present the world premiere of an orchestral work by Grammy-nominated composer Zhou Tian; and actor and playwright Richard Chang will read excerpts from his Citizen Wong, based on the life of Wong Chin Foo, the Chinese-American writer and activist.

Dozens of other events, exhibits and lectures will take place throughout 2019. A conference sponsored by the Chinese Railroad Workers Descendants Association from May 8-11 will feature speakers and a visit to Promontory Point, where the two railroads met.

Tribune News Service

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