Friday, October 28, 2005

How many Chinese were dead building the RR?

I am a Chinese 6th grade student. I have a report about the Transcontinental RR, so let me ask you: How many Chinese were dead building the RR?  

—D. J.


Blogger CPRR Discussion Group said...

While the number is uncertain, probably about 100-150 Chinese died building the railroad (this based on the very specific reports at the time), although a larger number of Chinese railroad workers may have died in Nevada from smallpox because there are a couple of sentences in only a single later newspaper story saying that 1,200 died.

10/28/2005 9:36 PM  
Blogger CPRR Discussion Group said...

To: "G J Graves"

Need your help.

We received a question from a Chinese 6th grader this week asking how many Chinese had died in the CPRR construction.

We thought that this was somewhat documented on the website, but when looking through what we have online in order to add up the numbers, were distressed to find that it all evaporated into unverified secondary sources. The specific reports that are mentioned at most add up to 36 Chinese deaths, and even these are not properly documented primary sources.

For example of the 36, for "(15-20)+2" a typescript of Gillis' speech is quoted by George Kraus, but the quoted comments about deaths were nowhere to be found in the printed version, nor was this published between 1863 and 1869. Further, of the 36, only one accident with 3-5 Chinese fatalities was reported as actually due to a railroad construction mishap (in which the foreman, Philip Hagan was also blown to pieces and and at least one other caucasian died; hardly supporting the notion of loss of life being the result of indifference ["Countless workers perished"] to Chinese workers' lives). There must be more primary source material, but we just don't have it documented. We need to show how many reports could support or contradict the notion of racially based indifference to life, and how many of the reported deaths were due to even potentially preventable railroad construction mishaps.

You previously wrote: "If one were to read the papers published between 1863 and 1869, a more-than-casual reader will discover that 137 deaths of Chinese railroad workers were reported on by local newspapers. These 137 workers were just that – workers – that died during their period of employment. Some deaths were from disease, some from avalanche, some from gun shot, etc., and a few actually from accidents that occured while the workers were on the job."

The only newspaper accounts we can find are of the 3-5 Chinese, a single event on April 16 or 17, 1866, mentioned above, previously sent.

Can you please send scans or photocopies of the complete local newspaper articles published between 1863 and 1869 that you relied upon when you report "137 deaths of Chinese railroad workers." To be credible, website visitors need to be able to see and read all of these primary source newspaper articles that you used in determining the number 137.


10/30/2005 12:08 PM  
Blogger CPRR Discussion Group said...

From: "G J Chris Graves"

... It took me a couple of days in the State Library, reading 1863-1869 papers to find the 137.  I read the [Sacramento Daily] Union, the Placer Herald, and the Dutch Flat [Enquirer].  To go back would be a real job.  ...


10/30/2005 12:09 PM  
Blogger CPRR Discussion Group said...

See additional comments.

10/30/2005 12:21 PM  
Blogger CPRR Discussion Group said...

From: "Chris Graves"

1. Humboldt Register, June 2, 1866: "a drove of Chinamen on their way to Montana was attacked, just over the line, in the Queen's River country, and 40 are reported killed." Were these former RR workers? Don't know.

2. Owyhee Avalanche, June, 1866 ... "ninety-five Chinamen were killed by Indians last week – forty five in one and fifty in another party. Of one hundred, only five Celestials escaped to tell the sad tale of their comrades butchery."

3. Report of the Commissioner of Indian Affairs, 1867-68, page 97: "many other Chinamen must have been similiarly murdered, as travellers coming over the road afterwards report finding 102 unburied bodies of Chinese lying exposed along the route." railroad workers? don't know. Were these part of the 1200? Don't know.

4. Elko Independent, 1868 (date not noted) KILLING OF CHINAMAN AT TOANA: ... after telling of the killing of two Chinese workers, by Caucasians, the paper says "the Chinamen were off duty at the time, " Were these two part of the 1200? Don't know.


10/30/2005 4:39 PM  
Blogger CPRR Discussion Group said...

See additional comments.

3/12/2006 12:42 AM  
Blogger CPRR Discussion Group said...

From: "Chris Graves"
Subject: Small pox on the CPRR grade 1868/69

I continue to be puzzled as to the information provided by the Elko Independent  in January, 1870,  a story that says in part that "six cars are strung along the grade, between here (Elko) and Toano, ... picking up the remains of deceased Chinese railroad workers."

The earliest mention that I can find as to smallpox perhaps being the cause of these deaths is a letter from Crocker to Huntington, dated January 20, 1868, date lined "Humboldt Camp," presumably at the edge of the Humboldt Sink, MP 232.  Crocker says in part "The smallpox completely demoralized our track laying force and they could not have laid much more iron if they had it, as very nearly all the White man [sic] left the work and most of our best foremen also.  We are breaking in Chinamen and learning them as fast as possible ... Strobridge sick with a very bad cold  and afraid it ws the small pox as the symtoms were very similiar.  Men running scared out of their senses."  On the date that letter was written, rail laying was being done near Strongs, MP 113.

I have walked/travelled the old grade between Elko and Toano; there are no severe mountains to cross, no need for large amounts of black powder, no reason for me to suspect  that accident could have been the source of deaths that could have filled "six cars" with human remains, leaving me with the only reasonable cause of death to be disease. (Excluding the shooting death by an Anglo of a Chinese worker early in 1870 at Toano, mentioned in the press of the day.)

It is of interest that the "White" workers had left the grade,  however the letter persuades me that the Chinese, some 120 miles East of Strongs, continued to work on grading.

Does anyone in our group have other letters that speak of the smallpox, "pest cars" or deaths from this disease, or any other cause of death for large numbers of laborers, Chinese or White?

—G J Chris Graves, NewCastle, Cal.

9/22/2006 12:02 AM  
Blogger CPRR Discussion Group said...


On the 6 cars between Elko and Toano in January 1870, nothing says they filled the cars. They could have simply placed the cars at convenient points spread along the line for ease in retreaving whatever bodies there were to retrieve.

Also given the comparative example of Civil War encampments, where disease and accidents took far more lives than warfare, the Central Pacific construction force could still have suffered a "regular" rate of casulties without the need of anything dramatic like an epidemic - and such casulties would likely not have been reported in the newspapers with any regularity.

In the end, I believe we will never be able to count the deaths in building the Central Pacific – neither Chinese nor White. And I also believe the death rate among the all-White Union Pacific workers was likely higher than among the Central Pacific workers of all races, for a number of reasons.


9/22/2006 12:05 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

From: "Quimby Russell"

There was an excellent article on "Safety First" in the bulletin -

Safety First Comes to the Railroads 1910-1939 by Dr. Mark Aldrich in The Railway & Locomotive Historical Society, Inc., Railroad History Bulletin 166, Spring 1992.

[from the R&LHS Newsgroup.]

11/03/2006 9:11 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

... According to a [New York] Times article of Oct. 4, 1856, when Daniel McCallum took over as the [Erie Railroad's] General Supt. in Spring 1854 he had "declared his intention to enforce the rule of 'safety first and speed afterwards' ... "

—Tommy Meehan

[from the R&LHS Newsgroup.]

11/03/2006 9:17 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

A newly discovered newspaper report shows that the notion of large numbers of Chinese casualties in building the Central Pacific Railroad is almost certainly a myth based on a single erroneous newspaper article. (On June 30, 1870, the bodies of 50, not 1,200 Chinese dead were reported to have arrived in Sacramento by train for reburial, and not all of this much smaller number had died of construction accidents.)

Consequently, any claims of more than 150 Chinese killed building the first transcontinental railroad now seem extremely dubious.

1/17/2007 9:59 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

See additional discussion.

10/06/2009 8:34 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Also see, Deaths during railroad construction.

3/19/2012 11:20 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

The Chinese railroad workers may have had a lower morbidity and mortality rate relating to water born diseases, according to this analysis by the University of California, Davis, History Project:

"Healthier Habits
Workers lived in canvas camps alongside the grade. In the mountains, wooden bunkhouses protected them from the drifting snow, although these were often compromised by the elements. Each gang had a cook who purchased dried food from the Chinese districts of Sacramento and San Francisco to prepare on site. While Irish crews stuck to an unvarying menu of boiled food – beef & potatoes – the Chinese ate vegetables and seafood, and kept live pigs and chickens for weekend meals. To the dull palates of the Irishmen, the Chinese menu was a full-blown sensory assault. The newcomers seemed alien in other ways: they bathed themselves, washed their clothes, stayed away from whiskey. Instead of water they drank lukewarm tea, boiled in the mornings and dispensed to them throughout the day. In such a manner they avoided the dysentery that ravaged white crews."

5/23/2012 10:58 AM  
Blogger CPRR Discussion Group said...

See related discussion.

12/25/2012 3:59 AM  

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