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Legacy and the story of the Chinese railroad workers [VIDEO]

October 29, 2020


Photo of man in FS uniform
Legacy director and producer, Joe Flannery, public affairs officer, Tahoe National Forest. USDA Forest Service photo by Joe Flannery.

CALIFORNIA – The granite rocks were heavy and could only be moved by a coordinated effort of volunteers and Forest Service trail crew members. With rock bars, dusty gloves and grunts, we selected appropriate granite blocks from a scree field adjacent to the Pacific Crest Trail near Donner Summit on the Tahoe National Forest and moved them into place. Repairs to the trail were needed and giant rock check-steps were the solution. As we rolled and pivoted the rocks, drill holes and blast marks became visible. Someone had shaped these rocks before us. At lunch, in the shade, we wondered aloud who the rock shapers could have been.

Carrie Smith, our Cultural Heritage program manager, had the answer. Almost 150 years before, Chinese railroad workers blasted and chiseled their way through the rugged Sierra Nevada Mountain range while completing the Transcontinental Railroad. The next morning, following Carrie’s directions, we arrived at a nearby known as the China Wall—a fantastic work of towering, stacked granite blocks that had supported the original railroad alignment. Our work on the nearby recreation trail paled in comparison. We shook our heads in marvel at the herculean effort. I had never heard this before, had never been taught this in school. What a story this could be.

Eight years later, starting in 2019, I was in a unique vantage point as the Tahoe National Forest public affairs officer to watch this story unfold in its entirety. That year marked the 150th anniversary of the Golden Spike moment and the completion of the Transcontinental Railroad. As the country neared this celebration, a dominant narrative emerged in the national media—the contribution of Chinese Railroad Workers to this great endeavor. The rock shapers, overlooked and almost forgotten, finally received their recognition as shapers of American history.

Historic photo - Chinese worker
An unnamed Chinese Railroad Worker. Photo courtesy Stanford University, the Alfred A. Hart Photo Project Collection.
Rock wall
China Wall within the Tahoe National Forest. Photo courtesy of the Eastern Sierra Interpretive Association, photo taken by Kyle Lancaster.

That this story emerged at the appropriate time was no fluke. The Forest Service, grassroots organizations and individuals had been re-telling this story for years leading up to the 150th milestone. I learned this firsthand while directing and producing the short film Legacy, a Forest Service documentary film that chronicles the original contribution of the Chinese railroad workers and the various organizations and individuals who worked to retell their story.

The film started as a small project to document the 2019 Return to Gold Mountain Tours. In 2018 and 2019, the Pacific Southwest Region and the Tahoe National Forest, along with the 1882 Foundation and the US-China Railroad Friendship Association, jointly hosted these tours. These tours allow educators, members of the public and descendants of the original Chinese railroad workers to explore the associated cultural sites within the Tahoe National Forest. During these tours, we interviewed Karen Lew Biney-Amissah, a direct descendent of one of the original Chinese railroad workers, and watched her touch the same granite that her great great-grandfather had shaped while building our nation.

While coordinating the tour, I also met Hilda Kwan, a district hydrologist on the Mendocino National Forest. Hilda and other national Forest Service employees helped form the Asian Pacific American Heritage Collaborative. The collaborative consists of federal agencies, including the USDA Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management, nonprofits, universities and the APA community. The collaborative created to centralize historic information and facilitate the APA community to connect with their public lands.

Woman sitting on train seat. looking out window
A Chinese Railroad Worker descendent attending the Return to Gold Mountain Tour. Photo courtesy of the Eastern Sierra Interpretive Association, photo taken by Kyle Lancaster.
Group photo
USDA Forest Service employees attending at Outreach event at the Chinese New Year in San Francisco, California. Photo courtesy of the Eastern Sierra Interpretive Association, photo taken by Chad Leto.

Legacy also documents outreach events in San Francisco attended by Forest Service employees, especially members of the Asian Pacific American Employee Association—and of course Hilda was there too. Look for Hilda smiling in uniform just before the 13-minute mark of the film.

While crafting the Legacy story we also interviewed Sue Lee, from the Chinese Historical Society of America; Ted Gong, from the 1882 Foundation; and Phil Sexton, a local historian. Through these interviews, the magnitude of this story and those re-telling it became a powerful source of inspiration.

The 1882 Foundations has promoted Talk Story and other oral history projects produced by local and national organizations. The Chinese Historical Society of America has created museum exhibits and online resources to further the arduous exploits of Chinese laborers and their contributions across the country. Sue Lee also introduced me to Stanford University’s Chinese Railroad Workers in North America Project and other similar efforts. We even got permission to use photographer Corky Lee’s re-staging of the famed Golden Spike photograph.

In January 2020, Legacy debuted at the Wild and Scenic Film Festival in Nevada City, California. This past May, during Asian Pacific American Heritage Month, the Forest Service made Legacy available on YouTube as well.

Kyle Lancaster, from Gigantic Film Co., supplied most of the beautiful cinematography that makes Summit Tunnel and other important cultural heritage sites within the boundary of the Tahoe National Forest come to life.

Rock tunnel
The famous Summit Tunnel constructed by Chinese Railroad Workers. Photos courtesy of the Eastern Sierra Interpretive Association, photo taken by Kyle Lancaster.