Chinese Immigrants and the Building of the Transcontinental Railroad



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Chinese Immigrants and the Building of the Transcontinental Railroad

In 1862, in the midst of the Civil War, Congress authorized the most ambitious project that the country had ever contemplated: construction of a transcontinental railroad. The price tag was immense: $136 million, more than twice the federal budget in 1861. The challenge was enormous; 1,800 miles across arid plains and desert and the rugged granite walls of the Sierra Nevada and Rocky Mountains.

Two companies undertook the actual construction in return for land grants and financial subsidies worth from $16,000 to $48,000 a mile. The Union Pacific began laying track westward from Omaha, Nebraska. The Central Pacific lay track eastward from Sacramento, California. Whichever company laid the most track would receive the largest federal subsidy.

The Union Pacific's task was easier; two-thirds of its track was laid across plains. The Central Pacific, in contrast, had to carve out a rail bed across the Sierra Nevadas. The first year, it lay 31 miles of track; after two years, it had only put down 50 miles.

The Central Pacific also faced an acute labor shortage. In the winter of 1864, the company had only 600 laborers at work, a small fraction of the 5,000 for which it had advertised. And these workers were unreliable: "Some would stay until pay day, get a little money, get drunk and clear out," a superintendent said.

In February, 1865, the Central Pacific decided to try a new labor pool. Charles Crocker, chief of construction persuaded his company to employ Chinese immigrants, arguing that the people who build the Great Wall of China and invented gunpowder could certainly build a railroad.

Beginning in the mid-nineteenth century, civil turmoil and poverty had led many Chinese to emigrate to California, the "Golden Mountain." As early as 1852, there were 25,000 Chinese immigrants in California. Most came from China's southeastern coast. The overwhelming majority were married men who planned to return to China. In California, the immigrants established support networks, based on family ties and place of origin, and found work in agriculture, mines, domestic service, and increasingly in railroad construction.

The Central Pacific's Chinese immigrant workers received just $26-$35 a month for a 12-hour day, 6-day work week and had to provide their own food and tents. White workers received about $35 a month and were furnished with food and shelter. Incredibly, the Chinese immigrant workers saved as much as $20 a month which many eventually used to buy land. These workers quickly earned a reputation as tireless and extraordinarily reliable workers--"quiet, peaceable, patient, industrious, and economical." Within two years, 12,000 of the Central Pacific railroad's 13,500 employees were Chinese immigrants.

The work was grueling, performed almost entirely by hand. With pickaxes, hammers, and crowbars, workers chipped out railbeds. Dirt and rock were carried away in baskets and carts. Tree stumps had to be rooted out, tracks laid, spikes driven, and aqua ducts and tunnels constructed.

To carve out a rail bed from ridges that jutted up 2,000 feet over the valley below, Chinese immigrants were lowered in baskets to hammer at solid shale and granite and insert dynamite. During the winter of 1865-1866, when the railroad carved passages through the summit of the Sierra Nevadas, 3,000 lived and worked in tunnels dug beneath 40-foot snowdrifts. Accidents, avalanches, and explosions left as estimated 1,200 Chinese immigrant workers dead.

Despite their heroic labors, California's Chinese immigrants became the objects of discriminatory laws and racial violence. California barred these immigrants from appearing as witnesses in court, prohibited them from voting or becoming naturalized citizens, and placed their children in segregated school. The state imposed special taxes on "foreign" miners and Chinese fishermen.


  1. What is the central theme of this essay?




  1. What were some of the challenges faced by the Central Pacific Railroad?


  1. According to the passage, Chinese workers were characterized as being…


  1. What conclusions can be made passage from reading this passage?


Chinese Exclusion Act

Period: 1880-1920




From 1882 until 1943, most Chinese immigrants were barred from entering the United States. The Chinese Exclusion Act was the nation's first law to ban immigration by race or nationality. All Chinese people--except travelers, merchants, teachers, students, and those born in the United States--were barred from entering the country. Federal law prohibited Chinese residents, no matter how long they had legally worked in the United States, from becoming naturalized citizens.

From 1850 to 1865, political and religious rebellions within China left 30 million dead and the country's economy in a state of collapse. Meanwhile, the canning, timber, mining, and railroad industries on the United States's West Coast needed workers. Chinese business owners also wanted immigrants to staff their laundries, restaurants, and small factories.

Smugglers transported people from southern China to Hong Kong, where they were transferred onto passenger steamers bound for Victoria, British Columbia. From Victoria, many immigrants crossed into the United States in small boats at night. Others crossed by land.

The Geary Act, passed in 1892, required Chinese aliens to carry a residence certificate with them at all times upon penalty of deportation. Immigration officials and police officers conducted spot checks in canneries, mines, and lodging houses and demanded that every Chinese person show these residence certificates.



Due to intense anti-Chinese discrimination, many merchants' families remained in China while husbands and fathers worked in the United States. Since Federal law allowed merchants who returned to China to register two children to come to the United States, men who were legally in the United States might sell their testimony so that an unrelated child could be sponsored for entry. To pass official interrogations, immigrants were forced to memorize coaching books which contained very specific pieces of information, such as how many water buffalo there were in a particular village. So intense was the fear of being deported that many "paper sons" kept their false names all their lives. The U.S. government only gave amnesty to these "paper families" in the 1950s.

  1. What does the passage state about conditions in China from 1850-1865?



  1. Create four possible answers to the following question. Only one can be correct. “The main purpose of this passage is to….”












  1. According to the passage, what did Chinese immigrants do to avoid being sent back to China?



  1. Create four possible answers to the following question. Only one can be correct. “The passage most strongly supports which of the following conclusions about Chinese immigrants?”


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