A Walk in the Footsteps of Chinese Railroad Workers, George Garnett


Earlier this month, a group of more than 50 participants of the Asian & Pacific Islander Americans in Historic Preservation (APIAHiP), the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) and the U.S. Forest Service (USFS) departed on a journey to walk the footsteps of Chinese Railroad Workers. More than 150 years ago, these workers built the Transcontinental Railroad that opened up the American West. The group attended a convention and eight different forum sessions in the San Francisco Bay area, then traveled by bus to the California State Railroad Museum, then to Tahoe National Forest to see historical sites.

Chinese Railroad - Tour Group2Asian & Pacific Islander Americans in Historic Preservation is a national network of preservationists, historians, planners, and advocates focused on historic and cultural preservation of Asian & Pacific Islander American communities.​​​​ Many of Chinese ancestry living in California are descendants of Chinese immigrant railroad workers from the 19th century.

Chinese Railroad - BUSThe tour group consisted mostly of Chinese Americans. One member of the tour had relatives who worked on the Transcontinental Railroad project. The primary purpose of this trip was to learn what workers went through during that time. It is important we preserve these historic sites so people can learn and understand what the Chinese workers experienced and completed with their hands.

Chinese Railroad - Bloomers Cut2The First Transcontinental Railroad, known originally as the "Pacific Railroad" was completed in 1869 with the aid of Chinese laborers. Chinese immigrants originally came to California in large numbers during the California Gold Rush, to help with mining operations. In the 1860s, the Central Pacific Railroad recruited large numbers of Chinese to build its portion of the Transcontinental Railroad. The Chinese laborers; originally hired on a trial basis, were both steady and hard-working. With the exception of a few Irish workers, the laboring force was entirely composed of Chinese.

Chinese Railroad - Museum 15During construction of the railroad, Chinese workers were so successful in completing the first phase of the project that the Central Pacific expanded its efforts to hire more Chinese immigrants. Most came from Southern China looking for a better life; wishing to escape the high rate of poverty left after the Taiping Rebellion and they were willing to tolerate the living and working conditions of the railroad. More than 4,000 workers built the transcontinental railroad over the Sierras and into the interior plains, two thirds of these workers were Chinese.

RAILROAD TRAINWithout the efforts of the Chinese workers in building America's railroads, our development and progress as a nation would have been delayed by years. Chinese laborers toiled in severe weather and cruel working conditions for meager wages. They labored three shifts of 8 hours per day, and suffered racial discrimination from every level of society.

Chinese Railroad - Museum 5This project garnered quite a bit of interest from the Asian Pacific American community because of the contributions of Chinese American railroad workers to this monumental feat. Two symbols of this contribution are the Chinese Wall and the Summit Tunnel, both located on the Tahoe National Forest. The workers used black powder at high altitudes to tunnel through Donner Summit on the Tahoe National Forest. Using dynamite to make tunnels made working conditions extremely dangerous. Even though the USDA Forest Service was not fully created until 1905, the agency’s role is to preserve these historic sites so people can see the accomplishments of Chinese Americans.

Chinese Railroad - Tour Group4Masonry walls such as the "Chinese Wall" at Donner Summit were built across canyons to prevent avalanches from striking the side of the vulnerable wooden construction. A few concrete sheds, mostly at crossovers, are still in use today.

Chinese Railroad -Heritage2The tour had the opportunity to see and experience first-hand the accomplishments. Carrie Smith, U.S. Forest Service Archeologist, shared artifacts from the historic sites. Corey Wong, Public Service Officer for U.S. Forest Service said, “The participants were excited to see what the Chinese workers went through, and the examples of the work they did with the wall, and trestle, which is now gone.”

Chinese Railroad - Museum 3Per the 2010 United States Census, there are more than 3.3 million Chinese in the United States, about 1% of the total population.