Saturday, January 22, 2005

Was there a camp of Chinese RR worker tents at Promontory?

It does not seem that there was a Chinese camp at Promontory at the time that the rails were joined, as has been suggested, although hundreds of Chinese railroad workers were seen further west along the CPRR grade in Nevada on May 11, 1869.

Does anyone have information to supplement the description from the diary of Capt. John Charles Currier regarding the numbers of Chinese workers at Promontory, the numbers involved in the last portion of the CPRR construction East of Mormon Hill, and whether perhaps there was a Chinese RR worker camp at Promontory Summit prior to May 10, 1869?

J. N. Bowman writes in "Driving the Last Spike At Promontory, 1869." California Historical Society Quarterly, Vol. XXXVI, No. 2,  June 1957, pp. 96-106,  and Vol. XXXVI, No. 3, September 1957, pp. 263-274:

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. ...

For the military participation, the diary of Lt. J. C. Currier of Co. K was found by Miss Irene Simpson of the Wells Fargo history room in 1954 in the possession of Mrs. Harriet Currier Hale (daughter of the Lt.) of San Mateo, California, and now of Massachusetts. That portion of the diary concerning May 10 is as follows:

"We have just witnessed the laying of the last rail. Crowds began assemblying at 7 a.m. There were several thousands present and ceremonies were opened with a prayer by a minister from Mass. A covered wood tie, beautifully polished and appropriately engraved was then brought out and placed in position by the highest officials of each R.R. A spike of gold was then produced with a silver hammer. A telegraph wire was attached to the spike — at a given signal, one, two, three strokes were made with the silver hammer. The telegraph wires were so arranged that the taps were flashed to all parts of the U. S. so that eager thousands in all the great cities knew the rail was laid and the R.R. complete. Truly it was worth the trip from New Hampshire alone to see this great achievement. Two beautifully decorated engines, one of each road advanced until the guards touched — the engineers climbed out and broke a bottle of champagne across the space and shook hands. Nattie [Mrs. Currier] and I were permitted to give a stroke — I used my sword hilt. Our regiment marched up and stood at Parade rest while our pictures were taken, then our regimental band played."

A few days later the regiment arrived at the San Francisco Presidio. [See Hist. Register, U. S. Army (Washington, D. C., 1903),I, 345, for career of John Charles Currier.]

... By the time of the celebration, about 20 tents and shacks had been erected on both sides of the track but most of them on the west side. ...

See the Silvis photographs of tents and shacks at Promontory.

Capt. John Charles Currier continued his journey west on the first CPRR train and writes in his diary, the next day:

"Tuesday, May 11th, 1869 P.M.
At Humboldt Wells, Nevada Territory, 165 miles from Promontory. We are making excellent time. There is a perceptible difference in the running time from that of the U.P. We go faster. Our car is very fair day cars. They are splendid, made after the latest pattern in Springfield, Mass. We have patent brakes, ventilation etc. They look fresh and clean, very much like the cars on the Boston and Maine running to Portland. Our friend who went to Salt Lake joined us yesterday. We came through several historic (to be) places last night such as "Red Dome Pass," "Terrace Point", "Desert Passage Creek", "Loans" etc. We are getting into sage brush and sand. What an oasis is the Salt Lake Valley on this line. Leaving barren rocks and sterile soil, the traveler emerges into a land flowing with milk and honey, fertile soil, cultivated farms, [and] good houses but he flies across this valley rapidly, like lightening, and comes out again upon a still more barren wood and worthless soil. Upon this we are now and, as if anxious to get over it quick, our speed is increasing. We run thirty miles an hour with very few stops. The Centrals carry their water along with them in immense tanks for it is very difficult to obtain water here. The grading of this road is perfect; for the last 80 miles we have run as smooth as a floor. The road was built by "John Chinaman", HUNDREDS OF WHOM ARE SEEN ALONG THE ROUTE. They attract much attention with their odd dress and cues dangling behind. They look strange to us. But they are faithful workmen and said to be infinitely superior to the Irish laborers. It is growing hot and dusty; we are in the alkali and the dust sifts and blows. There is nothing grown, nothing but miserable sage brush; not much sleep for us tonight."

"Wednesday, May 12th, 1869
Passed a night of intense misery and discomfort. The dust was stifling. There was very little air and the alkali came into the car in clouds filling eyes, nose, mouth and ears. With all this we ran like lightening at a frightful speed. Made 200 miles last night. Some times our car, it being the rear one, would snap as if it was to whip. Several of the officers became alarmed at our speed. On, On, we rushed with not a stop. We are 324 [miles from] Sacramento. Oh this alkali and sage brush! We are sick and tired of it; beats anything on the U.P. YET "JOHN" IS ENCAMPED ALONG THE ROAD right in the sun, apparently contented and happy. ... "