Friday, February 09, 2007

Graduate Research Paper: Accidents while building the Transcontinental Railroad

From: "Lisa M Ortciger",

My name is Lisa Ortciger and I am a history graduate student at Western Illinois University. I am interested in writing a research paper on accidents that occured while building the Transcontinental Railroad. I am hoping that you can facilitate this paper by pointing me in the direction of documents and or books related to this subject as well as any other information you may have. ...

—Lisa Ortciger


Blogger CPRR Discussion Group said...

You have chosen a topic of great interest that has been the subject of considerable recent debate on our website.

The issue is that all but one of the 19th century accounts are very specific reports of small numbers of CPRR casualties (totaling less than 150 deaths from all causes), while you will also read modern claims that "thousands died."

As best as we can determine, the only basis for claiming large numbers of casualties is a single 1870 newspaper article describing the shipment by train of the bones of "1,200" Chinese railroad workers for reburial in China. The inconsistency of this single report with all the others bothered us, but just last week, after years of searching, a second article published by another Sacramento newspaper the same day was found that reported instead that there were the bones of about "50" Chinese on that train. Our conclusion is that unless further evidence is located, the solitary report of "1,200" should be regarded as extremely dubious. Others will disagree.

It is also important to try to distinguish possibly preventable causes of death relating to construction accidents versus deaths due to infectious disease, such smallpox, and to avoid being misled by the myths that often appear in the secondary literature.

The accounts of accidents and deaths relating to the construction of the Central Pacific Railroad that we have been able to assemble over a period of years are reproduced below; almost nothing is known regarding accidents and deaths in building the Union Pacific:

Bloomer Cut accidentPlacer Herald, April 16, 1864: "Horrible accident – Yesterday on the deep cut of the of the Pacific Railroad, near town, some of the workmen under the superintendence of Mr. Trowbridge [sic] attempted to set off a blast containing about 50 pounds of powder. From some cause it failed, when Mr. T. [sic], and two of the hands, – a Portugese and a Frenchman – commenced using a crowbar or drill upon the hole, when the blast went off suddenly, mutilating them in a horrible manner, especially the Portugese who is not expected to recover; but Mr. Trobridge [sic] will, with probably the loss of his left eye. The Frenchman was cut in the chin and his lip slit; he was less hurt than the other two."
[Note: "Trowbridge" is incorrect and actually refers to James Harvey Strobridge, Superintendent of Construction on the Central Pacific.]

Civil Engineer John R. Gillis speech before the American Society of Civil Engineers, January 5, 1870 (typescript, Southern Pacific Company Archives, San Francisco), also Galloway, First Transcontinental Railroad, p. 149: "At Tunnel 10, some 15 or 20 Chinese were killed by a slide" that winter. The year before, in the winter of 1864-65, two wagon road repairers had been buried and killed by a slide at the same location.

May 6, 1865: Serious Blasting Accident – On Tues. evening last, the hands working on the Pacific Railroad, in a deep cut below the station, put in a blast, containing just over a keg of powder, but from some cause it would not explode. On Wednesday morning the foreman suggested that a new hole be drilled but Patrick Maginn and Joseph Good, who had charge of the blasting, thought the rock was seamy and that the powder had gone into the seams so far it would prove a dangerous operation, and that it would be safer to pour water into the old hole and extract the powder. Accordingly they went to work at it and succeded in getting out considerable powder, when Maginn put down his drill into the hole causing an immediate explosion of the balance of the powder. He was badly cut and bruised in both hands, breast, neck and face. Fortunataely he had no limbs broken, nor were his eyes injured. In time he will recover; Good is only injured in the face – more particularly about the eyes, but it is not yet known whether he will lose his eyesight or not. Both men have families residing in Grass Valley. The Foreman was on the opposite side of the cut at the time, and was lifted up several feet by the explosion, falling upon the edge of the bank. When he came to himself he was just balancing on the edge of the brink. Had the blast been exploded it would have killed 15 or 20 men.

A. P. Partridge, who also aided in construction, told of the conditions under which the railroad gangs worked in the winter of 1866. He told Heath that the snows came early that year and drove the crews out of the mountains. There were about 4,000 men ... 3,000 of them Chinese. Most ... came to Truckee and filled up all the old buildings and sheds. An old barn collapsed and killed four Chinese. A good many were frozen to death. [Heath, Interviews]

The Salt Lake City Deseret Evening News of March 25, 1869, reported that "At Carlisle's works a few days ago, four men were preparing a blast by filling a large crevice in a ledge with powder. After pouring in the powder they undertook to work it down with iron bars, the bars striking the rocks caused an explosion; one of the men was blown two or three hundred feet in the air, breaking every bone in his body, the other three were terribly burnt and wounded with flying stones .... "

May 6 [1869], the San Francisco Evening Bulletin reported "A battle has occurred between two rival companies of Chinamen, several hundred in number, laborers of the See Yup and Teng Wo Companies. ...The casualties include the shooting, fatally, it is supposed of a Chinaman. The ball penetrated his left side, tearing the flesh and inflicting a very ugly wound. ... "

Elko Independent, January 5, 1870: "DEAD CHINAMEN — Six cars are strung along the road between here and Toano, and are being loaded with dead Celestials for transportation to the Flowery Kingdom. We understand the Chinese Companies pay the Railroad Company $10 for carrying to San Francisco each dead Chinaman. Six cars, well stuffed with this kind of freight, will be a good day's work. The remains of the females are left to rot in shallow graves while every defunct male is carefully preserved for shipment to the Occident."

January 8, 1869 DAILY REVEILLE of Austin, Nev. says "Rumor of small-pox in the Chinese Quarter – There was a rumor in the city yesterday afternoon that the smallpox had made its appearance in the Chinese quarter, north of Court Street and on the West side of Pine Street ... There is no class in the city that would spread the fell disease so rapidly and widely as the Chinese....Since writing the above the Marshall called upon and informed us ... that there was no smallpox among the inmates."

Humboldt Register (Unionville, Nevada), March 12, 1870, pg. 2: "GATHERING THE BONES:—— A singularly superstitious custom yet one which shows the reverence in which the dead are held, particular those who venture beyond the confines of the Flowery Kingdom, and voluntary or otherwise visit the unconsecrated shores of the barbarous nations, prevails among the subjects of his celestial majesty, the Emperor of China. It appears that coolie importing companies, the most enterprising and opulent of which are said to be controlled by white men, specifically agree to return alive or dead the bodies or bones of those bought, hired, or forced to leave their native land and work for the white barbarians in a foreign clime. To fulfill this agreement, which from political motives alone, the said companies do the latter, the remains of all chinamen, no matter from what cause death ensued, are carefully collected at stated periods and shipped to the land of their origin, where they again flourish in the vegetable kingdom in the shape of huge onions and cabbages. A goodly number of Johns delivered up the ghost along the line of the Central Pacific railroad, and in accordance with the custom, which owing to the intolerable stench it engenders, were, in our opinion, better in the breach than in the observance. A few chinamen with cars specially detailed for that purpose, have been engaged in the ghoul like operation of disinterring their dead countrymen and boxing them up preparatory to transporting them to Canton, Pekin, Hong Kong or some other point in the Celestial Empire. The bones of those who died early in the fight, and from which all flesh has decayed, are broken into suitable lengths and deposited in small boxes, while the skeletons of those recently deceased are carefully prepared, the flesh all being scraped off, and placed in correspondingly sized large boxes. The localities where the scraping operations are performed are marked with numerous wax tapers or joss lights, and bowls of boiled rice on which after the departure of the celestials, the Piutes and hogs, if there are any in the vicinity, feast with avidity. Two carloads of bones prepared and boxed in the most approved manner, and labeled with appropriate Chinese characters, given name, date of death, and company to which the deceased belonged, were shipped from this place to San Francisco on last Tuesday night. (March 6, 1870) From thence, it is presumed they will be sent to China immediately, and delivered over to the authorities who will probably dispose of them to some bone-dust or manure Manufacturer."

June 30, 1870, in the SACRAMENTO REPORTER: "Bones in Transit – The accumulated bones of perhaps 1,200 Chinamen came in by the eastern train yesterday from along the line of the Central Pacific Railroad. The lot comprises about 20,000 pounds. Nearly all of them are the remains of employes of the company, who were engaged in building the road. The religious customs of the Celestial Empire require that, wherever possible, the bones of its subjects shall be interred upon its own soil, and the strictness with which this custom is observed is something remarkable."

Sacramento Union, June 30, 1870: "BONES OF DEFUNCT CHINAMEN — The Central Pacific freight train last evening brought to the city the bones of about fifty defunct Chinamen who died from disease or were killed by accident while working on the line of the Central Pacific Railroad. They are to be interred in Conboie's private cemetery, as have been already the bodies of about one hundred others similarly deceased."

Related discussions:
National History Day
Last spike ceremony images
Bodies of Chinese
California admission day
Were non-whites allowed to ride?

2/09/2007 5:29 PM  
Blogger CPRR Discussion Group said...

From: "Jennifer Bauer"

If I try a google search for Patrick Maginn Central Pacific Railroad, the first entry links to the CPRR Museum's Chinese Laborers page; do you know where he's listed there? Or anything else I can print for my genealogy research on my paternal great-grandfather?

—Jennifer Maginn Bauer

9/30/2009 12:40 AM  
Blogger CPRR Discussion Group said...

See above. (The way you find something on a web page is to use your browser's "find" command.)

9/30/2009 12:41 AM  

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