Thursday, December 07, 2006

Last Spike ceremony images and the way they portrayed race

From: "Sara Hudson"

I am a student working on a paper about the day of the Last Spike ceremony and the images that circulated that day, and over the next decade, and the way they portrayed race in the railroad as an "American" project. ... Because I'm interested in race, I'm very interested in the comparison of Thomas Hill's portrait and the key to the portrait, in which the Chinese and Native Americans are not shown. ...

Many thanks for your help, and your extraordinary website.



Blogger CPRR Discussion Group said...

You have chosen a difficult topic, as there is much misinformation in recent books.

Please note that the Thomas Hill painting is a multiple portrait (perhaps the most ambitious portraiture ever attempted), not intended simply as an historical depiction of the Promontory ceremony. So there are men shown who were not there on that day, for example, engineers Theodore D. Judah who had died earlier, and Lewis Metzler Clement who was in Washington, D.C. as a Federal Railroad Commissioner at the time.

Make sure not to miss the insights of black economist Thomas Sowell who has written extensively on race and economics. (Prejudices do not necessarily equate to outcomes because the intended harm may not occur, or may paradoxically benefit the intended victims, whose actions and choices in response to the racism are all important; or, economic necessity in a market economy may force those with prejudices to ignore them because the cost to them of acting on racist views becomes too high.)

The building of the Central Pacific Railroad is likely the best example, not of racism, but of overcoming racism due to economic necessity.

We have heard claims that the Golden spike ceremony excluded the Chinese workers, but found that the historical and photographic record instead shows that they were given a place of honor in the ceremony. A reporter for the "San Francisco Newsletter," May 15th, 1869, described the final moments of the celebration at Promontory: "J.H. Strobridge, when the work was all over, invited the Chinese who had been brought over from Victory for that purpose, to dine at his boarding car. When they entered, all the guests and officers present cheered them as the chosen representatives of the race which have greatly helped to build the road ... a tribute they well deserved and which evidently gave them much pleasure."

Not only were the Chinese honored at the golden spike ceremony, but three of the Chinese men who laid the last rail, Ging Cui, Wong Fook, and Lee Shao, lived long enough to also participate in the 50th anniversary parade celebrating the event in 1919.

Part of the confusion may result because of a failure to appreciate that the Utah portion of the transcontinental railroad was built mostly by Mormon contractors, so there may not have been very many Chinese CPRR workers in Utah on May 10, 1869.

Another fascinating aspect is that the Chinese railroad workers' willingness to save likely allowed them to became quite wealthy by the standards of a Canton peasant planning to return to China:

"The Chinese [railroad workers] ... are paid from $30 to $35 in gold a month ... They are credited with having saved about $20 a month." —Alta California Newspaper, November 9, 1868.

12/07/2006 9:25 AM  
Blogger CPRR Discussion Group said...

Also see the earlier discussion.

12/13/2006 12:25 PM  

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