Once erased from history, the Chinese who built America’s first transcontinental railroad are celebrated with songs and scholarship
In the spring of 1868, as the snow melted on the rugged peaks of the Sierra Nevada, local newspapers reported a chilling sight: the emergence of the frozen bodies of Chinese railroad workers, some with tools still in their hands.
This was not unusual. The winter prior, as temperatures hit 0 degrees Fahrenheit and winds swept 100 miles per hour, a workforce of up to 20,000 Chinese continued to blast tunnels and pound in the tracks of America’s first transcontinental railroad; sometimes, entire teams were swept away by avalanche.
In all, 90 percent of the 1,912-mile railroad’s treacherous western portion were laid by Cantonese laborers mostly from the county of Toisan, who were then decisively denied the right to American citizenship by the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, and left out of history. “Who else but Americans could drill tunnels in mountains 30-feet deep in snow?” US Secretary of Transportation John Volpe infamously demanded at the 1969 centennial celebration of the railroad’s completion.
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Tracks Across Time (Paywalled) is a story from our issue, “Tuning Up.” To read the entire issue, become a subscriber and receive the full magazine. Alternatively, you can purchase the digital version from the App Store.