Sunday, December 31, 2006

National History Day Questions

From: "Sophie Su" rongxian21@yahoo.com

... Here are a few questions ...

1. Did the Chinese workers who immigrated benefit from their time in America despite the dangers of working on the railroad as well as from the animosity they faced from the public?

2. What types of tasks were Chinese workers assigned to do and what was their typical work day? (as in breaks, treatment by supervisors, hours, wages)

3. After the potential of Chinese workers were realized (despite their small build) were they generally forced to work on the railroad, or was there a type of contract enacted? (if so, could the workers dissolve them as they wished, or were they generally violated by their employers)

4. Did the Railroad at all help the U.S. during the mini-economic depression of the Reconstruction Era?

5. How beneficial was the Railroad as a whole? (considering the overproduction of goods in the late 19th Century that led to extreme deflation and the smaller farmers who could not afford the price of transporting their goods by Rail)

Thank you so much for your time and effort in contributing to our project! We are extremely grateful! ...

—Jennifer Li, Kelly Sharpless, Sophie Soo

11 Comments:

Blogger CPRR Discussion Group said...

From: "Kevin Bunker" mikadobear45@yahoo.com

I'm always a little wary about answering a question as asked the way Sophie's first one is. How do we, so many years removed, quantify "benefit" for good or ill by anyone so dead and gone, and so culturally removed from us in the current world and mid-19th century "Anglo America." For whatever it's worth, I'd hazard an educated guess that the Chinese laborer emigres that worked on the Central Pacific and later railroad construction projects did benefit in that their presence and efforts began to force open the eyes of white Americans, and helped begin the later-arriving Civil Rights Movement. However, it is far more correct in my opinion, to say that these Chinese laborers and their progeny did not immediately benefit in a broader cultural sense. Instead, they entered an extended world of hardship, both economic, political and physical. They were economic chattel, bound to repay debts that came from joining labor pools brought over from China. They were categorically ravaged by the press and whites then, and for one to three generations hence until some assimilation had taken place and earlier hateful generations had died away or other cultural scapegoats became later more popular scourges in white society.

I lack the credentials or references to answer question 2 well.

Question 3 is a bit easier to answer: the vast bulk of Chinese track laborers worked on the Central Pacific and later, Southern Pacific railroads, and other railroad construction projects in California and the Far West under contract. Their children often went into other forms of railroad or industrial-related labor, sometimes through hiring agencies. A great number of Chinese men who could demonstrate abilities in cooking American style foods found independent work as camp cooks in the Western forests where redwood, fir, pine and cedar trees were being harvested for lumber. Similarly, other Chinese provided laundry services for railroads, shipping and lumber companies. All was what we would call today second or third class work. The Chinese nor their descendents were permitted to rise into any form of larger management unless it was in isolated form or in the Chinese community. This was largely also true for the Japanese immigrants or any other Asian immigrant, by the way. Were they "violated?" By this do you mean abused? Physically or emotionally. Yes to both, especially so during the period circa 1880-1900, and particularly in the redwood lumber industry as the Chinese Exclusion Act was taking form in the state and Federal governments.

I'll let anyone else who understands economics better answer Sophie's questions 4 and 5.

—Kevin Bunker

1/01/2007 1:05 PM  
Blogger CPRR Discussion Group said...

From: "Wendell Huffman" wwhuffma@clan.lib.nv.us

1. Railroad workers, like everyone else, benefited to the degree that they got something they wanted in exchange for their labor. The Chinese were noted for the fact that they saved a higher proportion of their wages than did the non-Chinese. Perhaps this was because many of them intended to return to China and were sending money home. Many of the Chinese workers did return, and I have seen photos of some of the fine, western style homes they built there with what they had saved.

2. Grunt work.

3. The Chinese came to work. I have no idea what they were promised to induce them to signing on, but it was more like indenture than slavery, as with the way many Irish were induced to come to America to work for the Baltimore & Ohio. The Chinese did occasionally strike, but I suspect this was dissatisfaction with specific issues rather than a sense that promises made were not being fulfilled. I suspect that what kept the Chinese on the railroad was a sense that they were better off in company with fellow workers (probably people they had known since China) and the realization that their chances of returning home were better so long as they remained with the company (that is the contractor who imported them and hired them to the railroad).

4. The railroad provided jobs, and if you were one of the ones with a job in the depression, you were satisfied. The railroad provided jobs in a secondary way, too, in that it bought tons of manufactured goods.

5. Benefits of the railroad really depends upon how it stacks up to the unmeasurable alternative of not having the railroad, as well as one's subjective definition to benefit. The railroad kept the West Coast in the Union (which was Lincoln's objective). (One can debate here all you want the likelihood of California and Oregon really seceding had there not been a railroad, as well as whether a coast-to-coast United States is better than not.) The completion of the railroad stymied California's previously-independent economy and industry. It flooded California with inexpensive labor. People quit risking their lives to yellow fever and malaria by crossing Panama, since they could cross the country in a climate to which they were attuned once the railroad was completed. People could move across the country without having to spend an entire summer walking behind an ox team. A hell of a lot of money was made, which made its way into the economy. Many of the irrigation projects in the West were financed directly or indirectly by the railroad (the railroad wanted productive farms so they would have crops to ship). People in New York City could eat California lettuce and oranges. Many of the national parks in the West were created as a result of railroad-supported legislation (they wanted tourist destinations). The Southern Pacific blocked the federal government's attempt to drain Lake Tahoe to irrigate the Newland's project. Some of those things are good. Some are not so good.

W.

1/02/2007 4:54 PM  
Blogger CPRR Discussion Group said...

From: "Larry Mullaly" lmullaly@jeffnet.org

In response to questions one and three:
The best source for general information on Chinese workers and the Pacific Railroad is found on the Web in the Pacific Railroad Museum. Googling "Chinese Laborers and the Construction of the Central Pacific" will bring you to this page.

Chinese laborers were contracted for and brought to America from the Southern Chinese provinces not as individuals but as groups ("gangs") of workmen. An individual would sign an agreement with a Chinese recruiting contractor who would then pay for transporting the group of workers to the US. The operation was part of a well-organized system managed by in China and America by the famous "Six Companies" who would subsequently be hired out these labor gangs for construction or agricultural purposes. The use of Chinese labor for large projects was well established in both the Orient and California prior to the advent of the Central Pacific Railroad.

A fascinating portrayal of the arrival of these labor gangs to San Francisco is given in Albert Evans book "A La California, Sketches of Life in the Golden State" (A.L. Bancroft, San Francisco, 1874), pp. 308-19. The description vividly captures the spirit and scale of this the gang labor enterprise. It also reveals the complex social patterns that so distinguished east from west.

This account can be found on the web from the Library of Congress' California As I Saw It: First-Person Narratives of California's Early Years, 1849-1900

'A la California. Sketch of life in the Golden state. By Col. Albert S. Evans. With an introduction by Col. W.H.L. Barnes; illustrations from original drawings by Ernest Narjot

The pertinent section is CHAPTER XIII. FROM THE ORIENT DIRECT. Be sure to read this. The account makes it evident that Chinese workers came to America in vast numbers because they desired to do so. They also were conditioned to hard work and expected to do the same in America. The relationship between the women being shipped to America aboard the vessel, Great Republic, highlights the vast cultural differences between East and West.

—Larry Mullaly

1/05/2007 11:14 PM  
Blogger CPRR Discussion Group said...

'A la California. Sketch of life in the Golden state. By Col. Albert S. Evans.

CHAPTER XIII. FROM THE ORIENT DIRECT.

Arrival of a China Steamer at San Francisco. – Her Passengers and Cargo. ...

... Looking down from Rincon Hill, we see the long shed-covered wharf of the Pacific Mail Steamship Company stretching far out into Mission Bay to the southward, huge steamers lying in the docks, or at anchor in the stream, a stone's throw off, and in front, outside the high, closed gates, a vast crowd of Europeans, Americans, and Asiatics commingled, and a jam of vehicles of every description, gathered in anticipation of the steamer's arrival at her wharf. Descending the hill and making our way slowly through the crowd, we reach the gates at last; and approaching the group of police-officers on duty, offer the card inscribed, "Admit the Bearer on Great Republic," which was received at the company's office on Sacramento street, as a special courtesy from the great corporation. The officer has already recognized our companion as a member of the San Francisco "press-gang," and passes us through the side door with a quiet nod, not even condescending to look at our ticket. Passing down the long wharf, between the great steamers lying on either hand, we find in waiting a few vehicles – hacks sent to bring away some particular persons known to be on board, the United States mail and express wagons – some gentlemen and ladies who, having friends on board, have secured passes to go inside the gates, a crowd of custom-house officers, detectives in the employ of the company, the captain of the San Francisco police, with his entire watch, in grey uniforms, and armed with clubs and revolvers, and fifty to one hundred leading Chinese merchants, consignees of the cargo, or representatives of the "Six Companies," to whom all the Celestial emigrants or immigrants are consigned.

The "Great Republic," flying the flag of our country, that of the P. M. S. S. Co., and the yellow dragon of China, has meantime rounded Rincon Point, and is lying in the stream, off the southern end of the wharf, with hawsers out, vainly endeavoring, against the strong ebb tide, to warp into her berth on the western side. The bow hawser parts at last, and she drifts out towards Yerba Buena Island, then swings slowly round under steam, heads towards San Jose, and then, when about half a mile away, turns gracefully, and, with her monster wheels beating the bay into a foam, comes rushing at full speed directly down toward the wharf. The picket gates which separate the southern end of the shed from the section of open wharf beyond, are opened in an instant by the officers, and the people rush at their utmost speed down towards the northern gateway, apprehensive lest the leviathan, now approaching with the fleetness of a racehorse, should miss the point aimed at by a few feet, knock the pine-timber built wharf into kindling-wood, and send those upon it into Davy Jones' locker in an instant. Needless alarm! The monster of the deep obeys her helm to perfection, comes rushing swiftly into her berth right alongside the wharf, and, before we have ceased wondering at the immense proportions of this magnificent specimen of American marine architecture, her wheels are reversed, and she has ceased to move. Then, for the first time, we observe that her main deck is packed with Chinamen – every foot of space being occupied by them – who are gazing in silent wonder at the new land whose fame had reached them beyond the seas, and whose riches these swart representatives of the toiling millions of Asia have come to develop. The great gangway-planks – bridges they might be called more appropriately-are run out from the wharf and hoisted into place; the health-officer, who had boarded the steamer off "the Heads," comes down bowing and smiling as he parts with the officers of the vessel, the custom-house officers ascend to the decks, the detectives and policemen range themselves at the gangways fore and aft, and – hats off in front! – the grand panorama of the Orient is about to be unrolled!

The forward gangway is reserved for the disembarkation of Chinamen exclusively; the after gangway is for the cabin passengers, mostly Americans and Europeans. Several Chinese merchants, neatly-dressed and quiet, gentlemanly-behaved men, attempt to go on board by the after gang-plank, and are hurled back with, it would seem, needless violence by the officers stationed there. The sub-agents and employés of the Six Companies, who attempt to reach the main-deck by the forward gangway, are repulsed with even greater rudeness and force: the orders are that none shall be allowed to go on board until the custom-house officers have done their work. Half a dozen United States Navy officers, from the squadron in Chinese and Japanese waters, coming home on leave of absence, come down the after-gangway, and are told to get their luggage all together in one place on the wharf, and it will be passed immediately by the officers. Their lacquered boxes, trunks, open-work, rattan chairs and lounges for reclining upon in a tropipical climate, boxes of rare plants, and small collections of "curios" from the far East-West it seems to us-are soon run through, and chalked with the names of the examining officers, and they enter carriages in waiting, and are driven away to the hotels. A stout-built, manly-looking American, forty years of age or thereabouts, comes down the plank, and a fair-faced woman, who, with her four half-grown-up children around her, has been standing patiently for hours in a corner of the building on the wharf, grows suddenly pale in the face, runs towards him, and with the single exclamation, "O Joe!" has her arms around his neck in an instant. A few ladies and gentlemen, looking curiously about them, issue from the cabin, point out their luggage on the wharf, receive the proper directions, and, entering carriages admitted through the gates one at a time to receive them, are hurried away, apparently half glad at finding themselves standing on the solid land once more, half-sorry to part from those with whom they have voyaged across the broad Pacific, and dared the perils of the sea And now from the cabin emerges a tiny creature, clad in costly robes of satin, richly embroidered, and stands at the upper end of the plank in the gangway opening, as if in doubt which way to turn or how to proceed. She is not more than four feet in height – slender and graceful of figure. Her lustrous blue-black hair is puffed out at the sides and fashioned into a wonderful rudder-shaped structure behind, supported with gold and silver skewer-like ornaments thrust through it; and her head, guiltless of hat or bonnet, is surmounted by a small wreath of bright-colored artificial flowers. Her face is really pretty – the features being delicately formed – despite the obliquity of the almond-shaped eyes, and the slight projection of the anything but Grecian nose. Her complexion, naturally whiter than that of the common working people of her country, has been so cunningly improved by her maid-servant-who could teach our enamellers and beautifiers the first rudiments of their profession – that she is as' fair to look upon as the blonde beauties of our race, and you would hesitate long before you would swear whether the red which tinges her cheeks and lips is real or the work of "high art" in its-perfection. Her tunic or sacque is of sky-blue satin, embroidered with flowers in bright-colored silk; her wide, loose trousers of darker blue satin, similarly but more elaborately embroidered; and her dainty little feet are encased in slippers of blue satin, with gold-bullion embroidery and thick white felt soles, with thin bottoms of polished wood. In her hand she holds two fans, with which she endeavors to keep her face hidden as far as possible from the public gaze. Timid to the last degree she seems, and probably is, and she looks neither to the right nor the left, but keeps her eyes fixed on the plank beneath her, as if anxious to avoid the sight of every-thing else in the world. As she stands there in the open gangway, she looks the perfect counterpart of something we have seen, or dreamed of, before. Ah, yes; we remember now! Thirty years ago-fifteen or Sixteen years before this little thing was born-our big cousin came home from a sailing voyage round the world, and among the curious things he brought with him was a book of rice-paper, white as snow and soft as velvet, each leaf of which bore a single, wonderfully elaborate little picture, in colors more brilliant than the rainbow; her picture, correct and perfect in the most minute detail, was there; no one could fail to recognize it at a glance. She is the bride of an opulent Chinese merchant of San Francisco, who has been home to get her; his parents selected her for him from one of the most respectable families in the Central Flowery Empire, and he had no trouble with courting and such like Caucasian nonsense. He leads her down the plank, the bracelets and bangles of silver and green semi-transparent stone which encircle her wrists and ankles, clinking musically as she walks; and at the wharf a policeman, detailed for the purpose, receives and escorts the party through the crowd, which opens respectfully before the end of his club, and they enter a carriage. Another and another come down the plank; the last two are accompanied by bright-eyed, richly-dressed children, who follow mechanically in their mother's footsteps, furtively glancing at the strange crowd as they pass through it. These are the wives and offspring of Chinese merchants resident here, who married before coming to California; you had better take a good look at them now, while you can, for they – the women and female children – will be kept in the strictest seclusion from the moment they set foot in their husbands' and fathers' houses, and they may live many years, and die, here in the midst of a great Christian City, and yet never be looked upon by Caucasian eyes. You may purchase exquisite pictures, on rice-paper, of these "first-chop" Chinese ladies, at the bazaar of Chy Lung & Co., on Sacramento street, but the living married Chinese women or respectable young girls you will never so much as catch a glimpse of, except on such an occasion as this.

Following the Chinese ladies comes an Englishman returning from the Indies, a broad, burly fellow, with dogged resolution, self-complacency, and a stout, unconquerable determination to grumble at everything he meets in "this blarsted country, you know," traced upon every lineament. His feet are encased in clumsy thick-soled gaiters, his nether limbs in gray, very scant cassimere pantaloons, which hang limp as withered cabbage leaves round his ankles; a coat, broader than it is long, covers his shoulders, and reaches down just below his waist, and on his head is a hideous Monitor-shaped hat, as large as the shell of a green turtle, and as unmanageable and badly out of place in the San Francisco summer trade-winds as a balloon in a western tornado. Surely we have seen somewhere the counterpart of this figure also; yes, it was years ago, when we were laid up with a broken leg, and the fever of our waking hours was followed by the nightmare in our troubled sleep.

The custom-house officers have done their work here quickly, and perhaps effectually, and now all is ready at the forward gangway. A living stream of the blue-coated men of Asia, bearing long bamboo poles across their shoulders, from which depend packages of bedding, matting, clothing, and things of which we know neither the names nor the uses, pours down the plank the moment that the word is given, "All ready!" They appear to be of an average age of twenty-five years – very few being under fifteen, and none apparently over forty years – and though somewhat less in stature than Caucasians, healthy, active, and able-bodied to a man. As they come down upon the wharf, they separate into messes or gangs of ten, twenty, or thirty each, and, being recognized through some (to us) incomprehensible freemasonry system of signs by the agents of the "Six Companies" as they come, are assigned places on the long, broad-shedded wharf which has been cleared especially for their accommodation and the convenience of the customs officers. Each man carries on his shoulders, or in his hands, his entire earthly possessions, and few are overloaded. There are no merchants or business men among them, all being of the coolie or laboring class. They are all dressed in coarse but clean and new blue cotton blouses and loose baggy breeches, blue cotton-cloth stockings which reach to the knee, and slippers or shoes with heavy wooden soles; these last they will discard for American boots when they go up country to work in the dust and mud; and most of them carry one or two broad-brimmed hats of split bamboo, and huge palm-leaf fans, to shield them from the burning sun in the mountains or valleys of California, or the fertile fields of the south, towards which many of them will eventually direct their steps. There is a babel of uncouth cries and harsh discordant yells, accompanied by whimsically energetic gestures and convulsive facial distortions, as the members of the different gangs recognize each other in the crowd, and search out the places assigned them. The luggage is deposited on the wharf, and each group squat on the planking, or stand silently beside their little property, waiting in patience and perfectly soldier-like order the arrival of the officers who are to search them for smuggled goods. "Here, this way!" "Here, here on this side!" "There, over there on that side!" shout the policemen, as they swing their clubs about and frantically endeavor to direct the tide, often really creating disorder among these most orderly and methodical people, who would get things straightened twice as quickly without such assistance. For two mortal hours the blue stream pours down from the steamer upon the wharf; a regiment has landed already, and still they come. The wharf is covered with them so densely that the passage-way for carriages through the centre can with difficulty be kept open, and yet the stream is not broken for a single moment. You wonder where such a swarm of human beings found stowage room-the bulk seems greater than that of the steamer-and wonder still more when told that the vessel with all these on board had still room for a cargo of thousands of tons; her freight-capacity being some six thousand tons, and her custom house registry measurement between four and five thousand. This steamer actually brought one thousand two hundred and seventy-two Chinamen; last week one thousand two hundred came by sailing vessels, and behind them are yet four hundred millions of the most patient, ready, apt, and industrious toilers on the face of the earth.

The writer shares none of the prejudice against this people which is manifested so strongly by the lower order of the European-born residents of California, and leads to so many disgraceful acts of violence and outrage; but such a sight as this awakens curious thoughts, and suggests doubts of the future in the mind of every one who has made political economy and free institutions a study to any extent. The Chinese-labor question is destined within the next ten years – five years, perhaps – to become what the slavery question was a few years since, to break down, revolutionize, and reorganize parties, completely change the industrial system of many of our States and Territories, and modify the destiny of our country for generations to come. Educated, thinking men do not, as a rule, fear the result, nor see in this vast semi-civilized immigration any danger to republican institutions; nevertheless, it is a movement fraught with mighty consequences for good or ill, and the question demands and must receive a most careful consideration in all its bearings. Commerce, religion, politics, capital and labor, education, our whole social fabric, must be affected more or less. Occident and Orient stand face to face at last, and the meeting must signalize a notable era in the history of mankind.

The customs agents search the person of every Chinaman as he lands, and go through the luggage of every group or mess as thoroughly as possible, in quest of opium, the one blighting curse of China, for which she may thank Christian England, and for which her children will run any risk and bear any privation. The deadly drug is so costly in proportion to its bulk, that, next to gold and precious stones, it offers the greatest inducement for smuggling; and on the arrival of every steamer and sailing vessel from China, large seizures are made by the officers. On this occasion one officer detected and confiscated forty boxes of opium, each worth eight or ten dollars in coin, which had been concealed in the false bottom of a box containing merchandise of comparatively small value. To do them justice, we should say that one of the Chinese companies' agents directed the officer's attention to the box, and so caused him to make the discovery. Another officer discovered a suspicious protuberance on the person of a Chinaman, and had just reached out his hand to examine it, when the frightened Celestial flung from him into the bay half a dozen boxes of the poison. Bladders of it, flattened out like pancakes, were found concealed in the linings of blankets or bed-quilts, and the stuffed under-garments worn by some of the men. In all, several thousand dollars' worth thus fell into the hands of the officers, and a moiety of its value will go into the treasury of Uncle Sam, if the costs cannot be made large enough to swallow up all his share.

Fifteen or twenty Chinese girls – the poor raft and boat born women of Canton, trained, from childhood, to lewdness, and as utterly ignorant of the ways of virtue or any sense of shame or moral responsibility as so many blocks of wood-were landed also; some steamers bring them by hundreds, in spite of the efforts of the "Six Companies" to discourage the traffic. These women signed contracts, in China, to serve their masters a given number of years for their passage-money, board and clothing, and, despite our laws, will submit to live and die in a slavery more horrible than any other that ever existed on earth; all efforts of our authorities to break it up having proved utterly unavailing. As they land, they are searched in no delicate manner by the officers, and then received by their purchasers, and delivered into the charge of the sallow old hags in black costume, with bunches of keys in the girdles at their waists, who are called "old mothers," and who will hold them in horrible bondage and collect the wages of their sin – if they who have no moral responsibility can be said to sin – for the remainder of their days. The girls are dressed in silk or cotton tunics and trousers, similar in shape and color to those worn by the married ladies, but far less costly, are painted gaudily on cheeks and lips, and wear on their heads the checked cotton handkerchiefs which are the badge of prostitution. They are jeered and "hi-hied" by the crowd of common Chinamen waiting outside the gates, as they pass out to enter the open express wagons waiting to receive them and carry them away to the dens in Murderers' Alley and along the Barbary Coast. As fast as the groups of coolies have been successively searched, they are turned out of the gates, and hurried away towards the Chinese quarter of the city by the agents of the "Six Companies." Some go in wagons, more on foot; and the streets leading up that way are lined with them, running in "Indian file," and carrying their luggage suspended from the ends of the bamboo poles slung across their shoulders. By nightfall the throng has dispersed, the work of the officers is over, and the vast wharf is cleared for the delivery of the immense cargo in the hold of the steamer.

This cargo is made up of articles in a great measure strange to the people of the Atlantic States; and for their benefit the list is copied out in full from the manifest, as follows:

For San Francisco: 90 packages cassia; 940 packages coffee, from Java and Manila; 192 packages fire-crackers 30 packages dried fish, cuttle-fish, shark's fins, etc.; 400 packages hemp; 116 packages miscellaneous merchandise, lacquered goods, porcelain-ware, and things for which we have no special names; 53 packages medicines; 18 packages opium; 16 packages plants; 20 packages potatoes; 25 packages rattans; 2,755 packages rice; 1,238 packages sundries – chow-chow, preserved fruits, salted melon-seeds, dried ducks, pickled duck's eggs, cabbage sprouts in brine, candied citron, dates, dwarf oranges, ginger, smoked oysters, and a hundred other Chinese edibles and table luxuries; 824 packages sugar; 20 packages silks; 203 packages sago and tapioca; 5,463 packages tea; 27 packages tin.

For New York; 2 packages merchandise; 21 packages sundries; 150 packages silks; 465 packages teas; 144 packages rhubarb; 9 packages hardware.

For Panama, 1 package opium; 1 package sundries; 115 packages tea.

It is not the tea season, and this cargo is consequently a small one comparatively – nothing, in fact, to what is sometimes landed from a China steamer; though, as will be seen from the foregoing manifest, it comprises no less than 13,354 packages of merchandise, many of them of large size-a small mountain in the aggregate.

Having enjoyed to the utmost the pleasure of a new sensation, we leave the wharf, meditating on the strange scene which we have beheld, and wondering what is to be the end of all this, and wend our way back to Montgomery street. ...

Courtesy of the Library of Congress.

1/05/2007 11:51 PM  
Blogger CPRR Discussion Group said...

The above from:

Evans, Albert S., À la California. Sketch of life in the Golden state. By Col. Albert S. Evans ... With an introduction by Col. W.H.L. Barnes and illustrations from original drawings by Ernest Narjot. San Francisco, A.L. Bancroft & Co., 1873.

Part of the project: California As I Saw It: First-Person Narratives of California's Early Years, 1849-1900.

1/06/2007 8:16 AM  
Blogger CPRR Discussion Group said...

Dear Central Pacific Railroad Museum,

I am currently doing research for a National History Day project on the transcontinental railroad. This year's theme is "Triumph and Tragedy in History," and I felt that the history of the transcontinental railroad perfectly fit this theme.

First, I was wondering if you would be able to send me any primary sources, such as rare newspapers, letters, or first-hand accounts of the transcontinental railroad. In addition, I was wondering if I could have some information on the hardships that the Chinese and Irish Americans had to face during the railroad's construction.

—Jordan

1/28/2007 2:47 AM  
Blogger CPRR Discussion Group said...

From: wwhuffma@clan.lib.nv.us
Subject: Hardships during the railroad's construction

It is probably better to experience the hardships involved than to try to read about them or tell others about them. Words alone read in a clean, warm room just won't convey what it was like to build the Pacific railroad. You should probably try a few things yourself, or better yet, get your class to go try it.

Start off easy by getting a sledge hammer and breaking rocks for a couple days straight. Do this some in the winter when the temperature is below freezing. Then do it again next summer when it is in the 90s. Of course you will need eye protection--something they didn't have back in the good old days. When the rock is all broken down into hunks you can lift, shovel it all into carts and push them around for a few days. After you've moved the rocks, just shovel up some dirt and move it back and forth. Do this several days straight, not just for a minute or two. Don't shower or bathe.

Of course the real railroad builders used horses to pull their rock carts and supply wagons. Someone had to break and train those animals, so you'd better try that. Those horses will need to be shod every so often, so you might want to try that, too. Once you have the horses (or oxen if you can get 'em) fixed up, hitch them to a sledge and drag a locomotive 30 miles through the snow. It would be appropriate to build the sledge by chopping down some trees and hewing them into timbers you can frame together.

The tools (the bits, hammers, shovels, picks) will break or dull. You'd better put together a forge. Go spend a day or two standing by that fire in the heat of the summer, all the time swinging your hammer down on hot iron laid on an anvil. For a break, go dig some holes.

Something I don't know much about is the food the workers ate, its procurement and its preparation. Were there full time hunters and cooks? Nevertheless, whether the railroad did that or paid someone to do it, some one had to. You might want to live off the land and cook over a wood stove or campfire the whole time you are breaking rocks, shoveling soil, and pushing dirt around.

In short, building the railroad wasn't a whole lot different that building a farm or a house in those good old days of yore: Lots and lots of hard work. Lots of people did it. I don't see the tragedy in this. I don't even see the tragedy in those who died doing this. The tragedy is not in those who picked up the hammer or the shovel and doing what had to be done, but in those who were too lazy to try.

Real work is hard. Doing what has to be done is triumph.

—Wendell

1/29/2007 2:08 PM  
Blogger CPRR Discussion Group said...

From: "Julia Reese" k.c.melone@gmail.com

My name is Julia Reese and I was wondering if you could answer a few questions for me about the Chinese-American workers on the Transcontinental railroad. I am working on a History Day project and you would be a great help.

What were the triumphs and tragedies of being a Chinese worker?
Did the Chinese like their job?
Did they consider their pay good?

Thank you for all the help you can give me. You are making my project a success.

—Julia Reese

2/11/2007 3:31 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

We can only guess at the answers to your questions about whether the Chinese liked their job and whether they considered their pay good, as they never wrote down their thoughts nor told family members or others who recorded their words.

They came voluntarily to California, chose to work for the railroad, and stayed on even though the work was very hard, so we must conclude from their actions that their answer to both questions was yes.

They were paid $30 per month in gold, and were able to save $20 each month, which is quite extraordinary. The Chinese did go on strike once asking for an extra $5 per month.

2/11/2007 3:34 PM  
Blogger CPRR Discussion Group said...

See related.

1/16/2016 2:28 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Students: Also see homework and history day questions.

12/03/2016 9:37 AM  

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