Program & Events

Historical Photo Exhibition

May 15, 2015, California State Railroad Museum (during the Gala), Sacramento
May 18 - June 19, 2015, Sacramento County Administration Center
May 18 - June 19, 2015, Chinese Railroad Museum, Beijing, China

The Pacific Railway Act, signed into law by President Abraham Lincoln in 1862, provided Federal subsidies in land and loans for the construction of a transcontinental railroad across the United States. With the ceremonial driving of the "Last Spike" (later often called the "Golden Spike") at Promontory Summit, Utah, on May 10, 1869, the last track of the United States' first cross-country railroad was laid. This railroad was the beginning of a mechanized transportation network that revolutionized the settlement and economy of the American West, bringing western states and territories firmly and profitably into the "Union." People and goods were transported much faster and cheaper than ever before.

The Central Pacific Railroad (CPR) broke ground on January 8, 1863 in Sacramento, California. Beset with unreliable laborers in addition to a chronic shortage, which resulted in less than fifty miles of track laid, the CPR employed several dozen Chinese laborers in early 1865 in an attempt to solve its labor problems. The superintendent of the CPR objected, protesting that Chinese laborers would be unsatisfactory due to their small stature compared to white laborers. Prejudice also influenced his objections. But the Chinese laborers proved to be reliable and diligent, getting the work done properly and on time. Then more were hired, from a few hundred to a few thousand. Consequently, the CPR began earnestly to hire as many Chinese laborers as possible by posting advertisements offering employment throughout the American West and soon in Kwangtung (Guangdong) Province in Southeast China, the region from which the early immigrants came. The hiring was facilitated by Chinese labor contractors in the United States and China who would recruit eager laborers, provide for their transportation, and negotiate the terms of employment.

The Chinese in Kwangtung Province were suffering from abject poverty, compounded by internal strife, natural disasters, and the aftermath of the Taiping Rebellion that destroyed much of the countryside. Employment in America provided relief for besieged families who sent their men overseas to earn money to remit home, if not to bring home. Nearly all of the laborers planned to return home when the work was completed. The hard work to clear and level the land and to build railroad beds, bridges, and tunnels was done primarily by over twelve thousand Chinese laborers under the direction of non-Chinese supervisors. Initially, the Chinese received one dollar a day, rising to about one dollar thirty-five cents a day in later years. Working six days a week, they were paid about the same as unskilled white laborers. But the Chinese laborers provided for their own food and lodging while the CPR provided food and lodging for the white laborers. Interestingly, unskilled white laborers employed by the Union Pacific Railroad, the company building the railroad tracks from the east to the west, were paid less. A frugal Chinese laborer could save over twenty dollars a month after paying for food and lodging — a "fortune" by Chinese standards. A record of the employees in late 1865 noted about 3,000 Chinese and 1,700 whites working for the railroad. Many of the white employees were in supervisory or skilled positions, which earned them more money than the Chinese.

After the completion of the transcontinental railroad line, Chinese laborers continued to work for several decades on other railroad lines to interconnect the West. Without the reliable and diligent labor of the Chinese in building America's railroads, the development and progress of the country could have been delayed by years. Many risked their lives working in dangerous conditions in which deadly accidents were not uncommon, and hundreds perished in harsh winters of the high mountains. Present day Americans need to remember these early Chinese immigrants who laid the foundation for the West’s economic prosperity and America’s Manifest Destiny with their sweat and lives. Present day Chinese-Americans need to remember the contributions of their ancestors and to continue the effort to build a great country for everyone.

For the past 10 years, a photo exhibition crew from Shandong Media Group, China, traveled many times along the Central Pacific Railroad route to explore the Chinese laborers’ history, visit local museums and historical sites, and interview descendants of laborers as wells as historians. This exhibition aims to provide a pictorial tribute to these laborers who were the pioneers of global economic and cultural exchange. The spirit of Chinese railroad laborers lives on in their descendants and in the people of America and China.

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