Saturday, December 01, 2001

Chinese workers and the famous A.J. Russell Photograph at Promontory, May 10, 1869

Sorry that it has taken eight years, but we finally have a more complete and satisfactory answer to your question!

The famous A.J. Russell photograph (or the related stereviews by Charles Savage and by A.A. Hart) could not include the Chinese workers photographed earlier participating in the joining of the rails ceremony because at the moment the famous photo was being taken it was AFTER the conclusion of the ceremony and the Chinese workers were away from the two locomotives to dine at J.H. Strobridge's boarding car, being honored and cheered by the CPRR management.

On Sep 15, 2003 wrote:

We have received additional information regarding your question about the Chinese workers at the Ceremony at Promontory Summit on May 10, 1869. There is a photograph available now showing the the Chinese workers' participation:

"The stereo .. Russell #539. "Chinese at Laying Last Rail UPRR", on O.C. Smith's yellow mount. ... may be the only photographic record of the Chinese role in the Last Rail ceremony; The view clearly shows at least one Chinese worker and a partner with rail-laying tools appearing to adjust the last rail laid (from the CPRR side, according to your site), with a wooden track gauge stick still in place while 2 others look on; It could be the only photo to surface showing the moment the last rails were actually laid. A crowd stands behind and fans away on both sides. UPRR Locomotive "119" is prominent in the background. A couple of ladies are on shoulders to get a better look at the scene. —Phil Anderson, Hermosa Beach, CA"

See: A.J. Russell stereoview #539.
Date: Thu, 06 Dec 2001
Re: Chinese and the Savage photograph

Thanks for your interesting question to the Central Pacific Railroad Photographic History Museum. A number of responses to your question are reproduced below.

Organization: Dell Computer Corporation
Date: Thu, 6 Dec 2001

I am pleased to know that a CSRM docent has the interest and initiative to dig deep enough into the history of the CPRR to be able to question some of the written history of that great event. So far as the Chinese at Promontory are involved additional information has been uncovered that was not available to J.N. Bowman who had written the best record of that event from sources that were available to him in 1957.

Here is my response to Anne Ogborn's question, along with my opinions, [which no one asked for] interpretations and the story of the "Chinese at Promontory". ...

In my opinion ... the story of the "camera shy" Chinese is no more than another myth comparable to the Cape Horn Legend and there are a great many of them that have been imbedded in our collective memory of the history of the Pacific Railroad thanks to the likes of ... to name a few. This is another case of having to prove a negative which as you know is a difficult, time consuming, if not impossible thing to do. It is a 20th century interpretation of a 19th century event made by writers who never took the time to investigate the facts and who failed to stay within the context of the time of the event itself.

The story that Anne Ogborn relates to about "someone yelling for Charlie to take a shot" is an old fable that seems to change with each telling. The first time this story was told was when an old timer was being interviewed about his reminisces of his days on the Central Pacific by the SP PR Dept, some 50 years after the event occurred. In that original telling when the word "shot" was made the Chinese ran for cover because they assumed it was a powder blast about to be set off. There were no photographs of the event even though there were at least two photographers there, Savage and A.A. Hart. There were no stories in the contemporary newspapers that related the story of the Chinese dropping the rail and running for cover even though there were at least 12-15 newspaper reporters covering the event. It simply is not a true story and again in my opinion nothing more than the ramblings of an old man who thought it was funny to make fun of the Chinese and later historians that thought the story would add a little humor (at the expense of the Chinese). It seems to me that these writers who profess to tell the history of the railroad and decry the racism that took place are as guilty as those they condemn, perhaps more so, for reporting these myths and false stories as fact. If they had done their job as historians in ferreting our the truth the story would have been much different. At the moment I cannot lay my hands on my copy of the reminisces where this story is first told ...

I know of no reporting of any Chinese ever refusing to have their photograph taken. A.A. Hart as the official company photographer for the Central Pacific took several photographs which included Chinese workers. If any one would just consider that cameras in the mid 19th century were cumbersome instruments and not easy to move around and set up and especially that it took some doing to take a photograph and get set up for the next one. All the photos of the Last Spike ceremony were posed and it is obvious when someone moved he wound up as a blur so everyone being photographed tried not to move.

It is also my opinion that because the Chinese were the laboring class, as were a lot of white men, they simply did not get in many, if any, of the photographs that day due to all the executives, managers, superintendents, foreman, skilled mechanics, military, women and invited and uninvited guests and the like who wanted their picture taken. The Chinese generally were a humble race of men and I doubt that they cared one way or another if they were not included that day and damned sure they were not going to make an issue out of it.

Anne Ogborn's comment that she had "accepted the traditional explanation that this was simply racism which she believed to be the usual explanation given by docents at the CSRM" is unfortunate. There is no doubt that there was racial prejudice against the Chinese, they looked different, dressed differently and behaved differently as was their culture. They were easy to spot and every bully and low life took advantage of it. [in New York and Boston there were signs on public places "No Irish allowed"]. So what is new. Don't we still have that kind of a problem in the world today? I believe that if Ms. Ogborn and others would read the 1877 Senate Hearings by the Joint Special Committee to Investigate Chinese Immigration, Report No. 689 and especially the testimony of Charles Crocker and James H. Strobridge they would soon get a different perspective about the racism prevalent at that time and understand just who were the ones that persecuted the Chinese. Their testimony also provides their definition of what they meant by their own "prejudice's against the Chinese." To go even further, it will be found in that Congressional Hearing testimony accusations that the Irish Catholic [not the Irish Protestants] working class were the worst of the worst that were forever persecuting the Chinese laborers. Ms. Ogborn could easily be guided to your site for that information and she can decide for herself the question of racism during the mid 19th century.

I admire Anne Ogborn's interest and dedication to searching for the truth ...

I am enclosing a summary of the Chinese participation at Promontory as taken as an extract from my manuscript of the biography of James H. Strobridge which is far from complete. [I can't seem to get around all of these legends and myths]. I hope it will help tell the true story of the Chinese and should provide a better understanding just how Strobridge felt about his Chinese crews. Attached is a description of the events that more closely represents the Chinese participation at Promontory.

—Ed Strobridge


The Chinese at Promontory, Utah April 30 - May 10, 1869

(An extract from the unfinished biography of James H. Strobridge by Edson T. Strobridge)
Dec. 06, 2001

The Central Pacific had completed laying track to Mile Post 690 at Promontory on April 30th, 1869 and Superintendent J.H. Strobridge moved his camps back to Victory away from the bars, gambling tables and violence that was prevalent in the new town of Promontory. The Union Pacific track forces were still twelve miles from Promontory, held up by the 485' long "Big Trestle" and the long rock cut located a few miles east of the junction point. Strobridge had begun sending his crews back along the line to complete the work that had been left unfinished. By the time the of the ceremony there were very few men left at Victory and they were far outnumbered by the forces of the Union Pacific.

Sidney Dillon, President of the Union Pacific decided to take no chances. While his grading crews worked day and night, he took a page from the Central Pacific’s book and ordered ties and rails to Promontory Summit by wagon, around the unfinished "Big Trestle" and the incomplete rock cut. On May 1st Casement's track gangs commenced laying track eastward from the Summit, leaving a 58' gap for a pair of rails for each of the companies to lay on the day of the final ceremony. Plans were made to hold the ceremony on May 8th but the Union Pacific was unable to complete their work until 4 P.M. on May 9th.

The only Chinese workers at the ceremony arrived early on the morning of May 10th on the construction train from Victory. They were part of the track crew that had been planned to lay a permanent siding and claim Promontory as the Central Pacific terminus however the U.P. had worked all night and beat the C.P. to that claim. At about 10:30 am the Chinese began the final grading for the last two rails, the laying of the ties and rails, the driving of the spikes, and the bolting of the fishplates of the west rail. Then the last two rails followed, the Union Pacific rail was carried by an Irish squad under Foreman Guilford, dropped into place, and quickly spiked down. The last rail and east ceremonial rail, was reserved for a clean blue-frocked squad under their boss H.H. Minkler, would proudly carry it forward, drop it into place and would bolt up the fishplate an the south end and drive enough spikes to hold it in place.

Since some prominent visitors were to "drive" a last iron spike and, as amateurs, they would have difficulty in starting the spikes, the Chinese started a number of them. An experienced track worker could drive a spike in three blows, the visitors took upwards of ten. As Amos L. Bowsher is quoted, "the last [iron] spike was partly driven for Stanford and Durant by the Chinese". Stanford and Durant then gave light and ceremonial blows; the driving of the last spike was done by Superintendents J.H. Strobridge for the Central Pacific and Samuel B. Reed of the Union Pacific but which one gave the last blow is unknown.

At the completion of the ceremony joining of the CP & UP rails the polished California Laurel tie was taken up to be returned to California and the Chinese replaced it with a standard pine wood tie with common spikes substituted. A reporter for the San Francisco Newsletter, May 15th, 1869 describes the final moments of the celebration: "That [replaced tie] was immediately attacked by hundreds of jack knives and soon reduced to a mere stick. The ever watchful Chinese then took the remains, sawed into small pieces and distributed to the spectators. The Chinese really laid the last tie and drove the last spike. When we last saw the spot, soldiers were hammering away at the flanges of the rails and carried off all the pieces they could break, so that a new rail would soon be necessary. Six ties and two rails were demolished before the juncture was left in peace to the slower inroads of time."

"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."

From the Sacramento Daily Bee, May 12, 1869

Strobridge and the Chinese

"In all the railroad celebrations, here or elsewhere, there was no honor done to the great labor army of that war without whose aid the road would not have been completed this day. The Chinese had no place assigned them; and we mention this now because it has been the subject of much conversation, and because it gives the opportunity of introducing the following from the [San Francisco] Alta's dispatch of the proceedings at the front when the last spike was driven: "J.H. Strobridge, Superintendent of Construction of the Central Pacific entertained the Press and the officers of the 21st Regiment, and others most sumptuously. When the other guests arose from the table Mr. Strobridge introduced his Chinese foreman and leader who had been with him so long, and took the head of the table. This manly and honorable proceeding was hailed with three rousing cheers by the Caucasian guests, military and civilians, who crowded around Strobridge to congratulate and assure him of sympathy."

"This Strobridge is a great man. The chief of all laborers of ten to twenty thousand men, who have been his soldiers for five years or for the whole campaign. He had the working of the whole line and Superintended all. He knows the value of labor and appreciates the workers as a General does his best fighting troops. His name should be remembered among the many who have been honored on this great occasion."


From: "Wendell Huffman"
Date: Mon, 03 Dec 2001

I really know nothing more about that than you do. I doubt that very many Chinese were at Promontory, since they were primarily graders and the grading was long completed. It is nice to think that the Chinese were recognized as an "honor" team, or whatever. And, I can believe that they didn't want their pictures taken.



Date: Sat, 1 Dec 2001

Perhaps this will help: "One pair of rails was still to be placed, and eight Celestials, in new blue jackets and floppy trousers, stood proudly by to lay it. Unfortunately, for their decorum and pride, the Chinese all bolted ...when they heard the word ...."SHOOT". (John H. Williams, A great and shining road)

And: "....Now's the time, Charlie! Take a shot! the word "shoot" was all too familiar to the Mongolians...they...stampeded" (Sabin, note page 18)

This is sort of like the Cape stuff.......One guy writes a fable, and the rest follow suit.

Bowman says "At about 10:30 am the Chinese began the final grading for the last two rails, is quite likely the Chinese started a number of spikes......" Those are the only instances that Bowman used the word "Chinese" that I can find re: the laying of the rails. He goes on to say "...the Chinese also cut part of a tie into mementos...whoever drove the last spike is unknown--possibly it was one of the Chinese workmen.....Who ever drove the last....spikes is not known but probably it was one of the Chinese workmen." See Dr. J.N. Bowman, Calif. Hysterical Society Quarterly for June and Sept. 1957, reprinted by the Utah Hystircal SOciety..... Ah, the Perils of History! Chris Graves, NewCastle, AltaCal.



Over 1/2 of the Chinese were pulled back at Mormon Hill, known today as Mile Post 562, Toano, Nev. Not many were at Promontory....Strobridge knows a lot about this...



Received an interesting e-mail (see below). Do you know if Kraus' story about the Chinese being camera shy is correct?

Apparently there were very few Chinese at the ceremony. "Driving the Last Spike At Promontory, 1869" by J. N. Bowman states that "The bulk of the Chinese and other workers who had completed the line by May 1 had been shunted westward to improve certain points of the line, leaving only a few, perhaps a dozen, to do the grading, lay the ties and drive the few spikes of the west rail, lay the east rail for the ceremony, and replace the laurel tie." Bowman, Last Spike


From: "Anne Ogborn"
Subject: Chinese and the Savage photograph

Much is often made of the fact that the photographs taken at Promontory on May 10, 1869 showed no Chinese workers. I had accepted the traditional explanation that this was simple racism, which I believe is the usual explanation given by docents at CSRM, where I am a docent.

I was surprised to read in "High Road To Promontory" (Kraus) pg 273 a description of the laying of the last two rails. His description is spread over several pages, but is essentially this - A special honor squad of Chinese workers had been selected to carry the rail. As they approached someone yelled for Charles Savage to take a photo. The honor squad saw they were to be photographed, dropped the rail, and ran for cover. It required some inducement to get them to return and complete the job. If I were a photographer at this event I would take this as a sign that the Chinese workers didn't want their photo taken, and would respect that. People's reactions to being photographed vary quite a bit with culture. I'm familiar with India, where many people encountered want you to photograph them, even though they fully understand that they themselves will never receive a copy, and where other people are deeply suspicious of photography as 'stealing the soul'. I'm hoping that someone on this site might be able to give a more authoritative description of this 'laying the last rail' episode. I also thought it might be an interesting addition to your page on Chinese participation in the building of the Central Pacific.

—Anne Ogborn, docent, CSRM


Anonymous Anonymous said...

See update

4/19/2019 10:24 AM  

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