Sunday, December 10, 2006

Student Questions - National History Day

From: yingcui63@hotmail.com

... I am writing to request an interview with you for my “National History Day Project.” The NHD Project is an annual national history competition for middle school students. Each year there is a specific theme. This year, the theme is Triumph and Tragedy. My topic is the Triumph and Tragedy of Chinese laborers working on the CP Railroad.

Your website has been great in my research, and I hope to have you as an interview and primary source. ...

... some questions ...

1. How did the perception of the Chinese people and their culture change from the beginning of the construction process to the end?

2. How did the wages of Chinese workers differ from that of Irish and non-chinese workers? If there was a major difference, did it change by the end of construction?

3. What, in your opinion, would have happened in the construction of the railroad if Chinese workers were not employed? How would it have effected history in general?

4. How many Chinese laborer died at Cape Horn alone?

5. What percentage of the deaths for workers were Chinese?

6. How did the Chinese' customs and general behavior differ from the white workers at the time?

7. Can you describe, in detail, what the method used by the Chinese to clear out huge rock outcroppings?

8. What long-term effects, if any, did the use of Chinese labor have on the general culture of the United States? California especially.

9. What, in your opinion, were some of the greatest tragedies of this event? also, what were some of the greatest triumphs that resulted from it?

8 Comments:

Blogger CPRR Discussion Group said...

1. How did the perception of the Chinese people and their culture change from the beginning of the construction process to the end?

This question is unanswerable because the Chinese CPRR workers did not leave any written or oral history, nor to our knowledge were their perceptions recorded at the time by others.

2. How did the wages of Chinese workers differ from that of Irish and non-chinese workers? If there was a major difference, did it change by the end of construction?

There was no significant difference. in 1867, Albert D. Richardson, authored Beyond the Mississippi describing his trip to the CPRR construction sites, and reporting that: "Irish laborers received thirty dollars per month (gold) and board; Chinese, thirty-one dollars, boarding themselves."

3. What, in your opinion, would have happened in the construction of the railroad if Chinese workers were not employed? How would it have effected history in general?

The Central Pacific Railroad could not have been constructed in the 1860's without the Chinese workers, as there was no alternative available labor force in California that was willing to accept such employment.

4. How many Chinese laborer died at Cape Horn alone?

There are no primary source documents recording any deaths in the construction at Cape Horn specifically. The entire surviving record of the construction at Cape Horn is one sentence in an engineering report published in 1864 by Chief Engineer Samuel S. Montague, commented only that "The work at Cape Horn has proved less difficult and expensive than was first anticipated."

5. What percentage of the deaths for workers were Chinese?

There are no records of deaths resulting during the UPRR construction, nor comprehensive records of deaths during the CPRR construction, only inconsistent sporadic and incomplete reports. As a result no valid calculation of the percentage can be made. There is no data to support the hypothesis that the death rate varied by race.

6. How did the Chinese customs and general behavior differ from the white workers at the time?

See: Chinese Laborers and the Construction of the Central Pacific by George Kraus:
"The Chinese on the Central Pacific were divided into small groups. Each group had a cook who not only prepared their meals, but also kept a large boiler of hot water ready every night so that when the Chinese came off the road they could fill their tubs made from powder kegs and take a hot sponge bath. This bath and change of clothes were regular habits every night before they took their evening meal. Strobridge, who earlier opposed employing the Chinese, pronounced them the best in the world. "They learn quickly, do not fight, have no strikes that amount to anything, and are very cleanly in their habits. They will gamble, and do quarrel among themselves most noisily —— but harmlessly."

7. Can you describe, in detail, what the method used by the Chinese to clear out huge rock outcroppings?

Friable outcroppings such as at Cape Horn might have been broken up using pry bars. More solid rock such as granite would be hand drilled to allow the rock to be blasted using black powder. Pick and shovel, and horse drawn dump carts would also have been used.

8. What long-term effects, if any, did the use of Chinese labor have on the general culture of the United States? California especially.

The Chinese laborers made possible the timely construction of the CPRR. The railroad made possible a transcontinental United States by dramatically decreasing the cost and time necessary for transportation. This resulted in long term economic growth creating enormous wealth and a dramatic increase in Americans' standard of living, although the immediate resulting drop in the cost of goods in California provided very difficult competition for existing California producers. The virulent and growing anti-Chinese sentiment in later 19th century California was despicable, and it took until the mid-twentieth century to significantly overcome the 19th century rejection of Chinese immigration and culture. As a result, the significant Chinese influence on American culture today likely primarily resulted from later immigration, not so much from the 19th century workers. This is rather far off the topic of the website, and cultural historians would likely have a much better perspective.

9. What, in your opinion, were some of the greatest tragedies of this event? Also, what were some of the greatest triumphs that resulted from it?

Building the transcontinental railroad was an enormous triumph that led to the United States becoming a global power. Chinese-Americans whose ancestors built the difficult mountainous and arid western portions of the first transcontinental railroad should look back with well justified enormous pride at their brave ancestors' amazing accomplishment – the manual construction of the greatest engineering project of the 19th century that united our nation. Those Chinese construction workers on the Central Pacific Railroad should be honored and cheered today, just as they were by the railroad officials on the day the rails were joined, and their feat memorialized as it was in the famous painting of the event, the A.J. Russell stereoview, as well as the earlier A.A Hart stereoviews commissioned by the railroad.

The success was also a personal triumph of the "Big Four" Sacramento merchants who became immensely wealthy and powerful by risking their personal fortunes on a visionary railroad project that most believed impossible. That triumph has continued to today, for example, as "Silicon Valley" which spawned the modern electronics and communications revolution which is a direct result of Leland Stanford's using his railroad fortune to create Stanford University in Palo Alto. It was also a huge triumph for the engineers such as Theodore Dehone Judah, and his successors, Samuel Skerry Montague and Lewis Metzler Clement, who planned the route and successfully executed the construction under extreme conditions on budget and seven years ahead of schedule.

The CPRR was also an enormous triumph of economic necessity in a market economy overcoming prevailing anti-Chinese racial prejudice in 19th century California. Tens of thousands of Chinese eventually were hired by the railroad at various times during the construction period. Many poor Chinese men came to 19th century California in the hope of getting rich and then returning to China – the Chinese railroad workers' willingness to save likely did allow them to became quite wealthy, at least by the standards of a Canton peasant, making the railroad a personal triumph for many by allowing their escape from poverty: "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, November 9, 1868 Newspaper.

Any worker injuries and deaths were certainly tragic, but these inevitably accompanied building the greatest engineering project of the 19th century. Building the transcontinental railroad entirely by hand labor assisted with black powder (and on-site nitroglycerin production), mules, and horse drawn carts was an Herculean labor that was certainly extremely exhausting, difficult, and dangerous. Mirroring the Civil War casualty statistics, natural causes such as avalanches and smallpox likely were an even greater hazard than the construction accident risks which were specifically reported as few in number. Out of concern for injured workers, the railroad created the Central Pacific Railroad Hospital which was the beginning of today's modern health care system, being the world's first multi-location health maintenance organization.

12/11/2006 7:28 AM  
Blogger CPRR Discussion Group said...

From: KyleWyatt@aol.com

I will add a bit more the the earlier responses you have received.  First, I'd like to complement you on your questions, which by and large are more to the point than a number we have previously received.  I'll insert my comments among your questins below.
 
Kyle Wyatt
Curator of History & Technology
California State Railroad Museum
 

1. How did the perception of the Chinese people and their culture change from the beginning of the construction process to the end?

Hard to say.  But as a result of the significant increase in the Chinese population in California and the West, many more people had the opportunity to have a first hand acquaintance with Chinese.  And there are many examples of people who formed positive impressions – including the bosses of the Central Pacific, but also many common workers.  They were recognized as hard and effective workers, for one thing.


2. How did the wages of Chinese workers differ from that of Irish and non-chinese workers? If there was a major difference, did it change by the end of construction?

Wages varied over time, but the accounts I've seen suggest that on a monthly basis they were equal or just slightly less than for white workers.  the biggest difference appears to be that the white workers received meals in addition to their wages, while the Chinese had to purchase their own food.  The other side of this is that the Chinese, eating traditional Chinese food, ate a much better, more balanced diet than the white workers.  So the Chinese likely came out ahead in that particular deal.  From memory, at a time when the wages for both whites and Chinese were reported to have been $35/month, the Chinese were generally credited with being able to save $20 of that – which is probably significantly more than the white workers were saving.


3. What, in your opinion, would have happened in the construction of the railroad if Chinese workers were not employed? How would it have effected history in general?

In the 1860s California had a very small labor population.  It would have been very difficult to build the Central Pacific without some emigrant group.  In the East and on the Union Pacific they were able to attract many veterans of the Civil War (both northerners and southerners), but it was difficult and expensive for such people to get to California.
 
Note that while there were a number of Chinese in California as a result of the Gold Rush, the great majority of Chinese workers on the Central Pacific were recent emigrants – often coming because recruiters in China signed them up.  (Times were very hard in China at that time, so emigration for work on the Central Pacific was very attractive.)  Work would have been slow, difficult and expensive without the Chinese.


4. How many Chinese laborer died at Cape Horn alone?

We know of no Chinese who died on Cape Horn.  But our records of deaths in general are very incomplete.
 
Note also that the "hanging in baskets" story at Cape Horn appears to be false as well.  First, hanging in baskets would be a physical impossibility there – the slope is not vertical.  And pretty much all the references we find telling about hanging in baskets appear to come from the 20th century – with nearly none in the 19th century.  (If it had actually happened, we would expect to find accounts of it, because it makes for a dramatic story – and newspapers back then as now look for dramatic stories.)


5. What percentage of the deaths for workers were Chinese?

Again, death records are very incomplete – for whites as well as for Chinese.  In my opinion, nobody has done a systematic and valid study of deaths during construction of the Central Pacific.  While I have no concrete evidence, my general sense is that the death rate (both white and Chinese) on the Central Pacific was no higher than on the Union Pacific, and I'm guessing it was significantly lower than on the Union Pacific.  The evidence I see suggests that the Central Pacific treated their workers better and with more care than the Union Pacific did.


6. How did the Chinese' customs and general behavior differ from the white workers at the time?

Socially, the two groups kept pretty much separate.  The Chinese largely maintained their Chinese cultural habits.  Different food has been mentioned above.  Also, the Chinese only drank tea (often cool by the time they got it) instead of water.  Since the tea was boiled to brew it, the Chinese largely didn't have the water-born diseases that many white workers suffered from.


7. Can you describe, in detail, what the method used by the Chinese to clear out huge rock outcroppings?

Construction techniques used by the Chinese were almost exclusively those taught to them by the Central Pacific bosses.  Most Chinese workers on the Central Pacific were unskilled when they first arrived.  On the other hand, by the end they were highly skilled.


8. What long-term effects, if any, did the use of Chinese labor have on the general culture of the United States? California especially.

Chinese were instrumental in building many railroads and other construction projects in the years after the building of the Central Pacific.  Among important lines they worked on were the Southern Pacific, Oregon Railway & Navigation, Northern Pacific, and the Canadian Pacific.  They also spread through the West, working in mines, factories, agriculture, and other construction projects such as building levees around rivers.  Chinese food and certain aspects of Chinese culture have permeated western U.S. culture.


9. What, in your opinion, were some of the greatest tragedies of this event? Also, what were some of the greatest triumphs that resulted from it?

Some of the greatest tragedies involve the prejudice and discrimination the Chinese experienced after they left the Central Pacific construction.  But we must take it in context.  Prejudice was the norm at that time, as it remains all too common today as well.  But prejudice and discrimination are certainly not unique to whites – in fact you can find such things in every corner of the world and in every culture.

12/13/2006 12:11 PM  
Blogger CPRR Discussion Group said...

From: "John Snyder" johnsnyder@onetel.com

Just adding a bit to the topic of discrimination, I found it interesting that period newspaper accounts make it clear that it was the Irish in the West who largely fomented and led anti-Chinese sentiment and prejudices – interesting because the Irish had been highly discriminated against in the East.

—John Snyder

12/13/2006 12:15 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

The dislike was mutual, as Chinese apparently were similarly prejudiced against "foreign devils." Unfortunately, prejudice was certainly rampant in the 19th century and not limited to the Chinese, as Irish, Mormon, and Indians were also subject to discrimination.

12/13/2006 1:05 PM  
Blogger CPRR Discussion Group said...

From: yingcui63@hotmail.com

... I would like to start off by saying how much your answers helped me in my research. I would also like to personally thank you for your efforts and your time spent answering my questions. ...

12/14/2006 4:54 PM  
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 10:05 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

i am a young girl in school doing a project looking for information and all of it is from this sight so i just wanted to say thank you because you gave me an A

1/18/2007 8:03 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

From: "Charlies Harris" charris@union-tel.com
Subject: Transcontinental Railroad

I am looking for information on the Transcontinental Railroad for my History Day project. I am mainly looking for primary sources, such as newspaper articles, diaries, and books. I am also looking for maps, and pictures.

... I feel this would be very beneficial to my project if you could send some facts on the railroad. ... Thank you for all of your help.

2/28/2007 8:18 AM  

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