Saturday, May 22, 2010

Corrections regarding Chinese workers on the Central Pacific Railroad

Can you find inaccuracies on the web page,
Idioms: The Chinese Strike Against the Railroad?

Addendum: Professor Janet Fowler explains that the dialogs on the above linked website are fictional, and that the source of the "stories" about the Chinese workers on the railroad is the book for English as a second language students by Myrtis Mixon called Stories from American History.


Blogger CPRR Discussion Group said...

Subject: Corrections regarding Chinese workers on the Central Pacific Railroad.

Dear Professor Janet E. Fowler:

A Google alert brought our attention to your web page,
"Idioms: The Chinese Strike Against the Railroad."

Writing about the Chinese workers on the Central Pacific Railroad is very difficult because there is so much misinformation in the secondary literature.

Our CPRR Museum website has attempted to extensively document the history including many of the primary sources, which we hope will help you to honor the memory of the heroic Chinese transcontinental railroad workers by telling their story with historical accuracy.

There are some errors on your web page that might give students an incorrect impression.

James Harvey Strobridge lost his eye at Bloomer Cut on Apr 15, 1864 in an explosion of black powder, whereas the first use of nitroglycerin on the CPRR was on Feb 9, 1867. We are not aware of any Chinese injured in that explosion, and there is even dispute as to whether any Chinese workers participated in the Bloomer cut construction. Also, a "cut" is the removal of earth to form a large trench that the track can run through, and is not a mine. Here is a picture of Bloomer cut. So this explosion years earlier seems unrelated to the strike, and we have found no evidence that safety or working conditions were at issue in that short strike for increased pay.

The Chinese worker casualties due to construction accidents have likely been wildly exaggerated due to a single short Sacramento newspaper account claiming transportation of the bones of 1,200 dead which is contradicted by another newspaper article the same day reporting instead 50 dead (almost certainly including some who died in Nevada from smallpox).

(continued below)

5/22/2010 1:11 PM  
Blogger CPRR Discussion Group said...

Building a railroad through the mountains and wilderness of the American west by hand in the 19th century was extraordinarily difficult and hazardous work by modern standards, and there was virulent anti-Chinese racism in 19th century California, but your webpage may lead your students to draw erroneous inferences.

The Chinese had essentially the same working conditions and pay as unskilled caucasian workers on the Central Pacific Railroad. They were even able to save $20/month out of their $30/month wages paid in gold to transform themselves from their status as impoverished peasants when they left China for the voyage to California into wealthy individuals (by their standards) when they later returned to China.

So rather than being an example of callous mistreatment of workers or motivation due to racism, the Central Pacific Railroad is instead an excellent example of how market forces require employers to overcome their prejudices and treat workers sufficiently well to attract them to accept and continue employment to get the project completed. You can read first hand accounts in the testimony at the U.S. Senate inquiry in San Francisco. The writings of Professor Thomas Sowell discuss numerous other examples.

Students reading your web page would not expect the following which was the actual attitude of management at the completion of the Central Pacific Railroad:

A reporter for the San Francisco Newsletter, May 15th, 1869, described the final moments of the celebration at Promontory:

"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."

While in Sacramento, CPRR Director, Judge Edwin Bryant Crocker in his speech also paid tribute to the Chinese:

"I wish to call to your minds that the early completion of this railroad we have built has been in large measure due to that poor, despised class of laborers called the Chinese, to the fidelity and industry they have shown."

Hope that this is helpful. Please let us know if you have found any primary source evidence that is in disagreement with the above.

5/22/2010 1:15 PM  
Blogger CPRR Discussion Group said...

See comments about the strike

7/20/2010 11:08 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Subject: Chinese strike for "an end to beatings" ...

The PBS website writes:
"In June of 1867, two thousand Chinese railroad workers strike for a week, demanding an end to beatings, increased wages and work hours equal with whites. Central Pacific breaks the strike when they withhold food supplies to the Chinese, isolated as they were in the high mountains of the Sierras."

Which parts of this statement are historically correct or incorrect?

Can anyone supply 19th century primary sources that would help to understand the strike, its causes, issues, methods, and outcome?

The claim of "beatings" seems to be contradicted by the testimony of CHARLES CROCKER that the Chinese labor was not slavery ... "not servile labor ... it is free labor; just as free labor as yours and mine. You cannot control a Chinaman except you pay him for it. You cannot make any contract with him, or his friend, or supposed master, and get his labor unless you pay for it, and pay him for it." 44TH CONGRESS, 2d Session.  SENATE.  REPORT No. 689.REPORT OF THE JOINT SPECIAL COMMITTEE TO INVESTIGATE CHINESE IMMIGRATION, 1877

What is the truth?

7/24/2010 10:59 AM  
Blogger CPRR Discussion Group said...

From: "Wendell Huffman"

I cannot prove that there were no beatings (one cannot prove a negative, and the responsibility for providing evidence in this matter belongs to the one making the assertion). But in years of reading every scrap of primary writing I can find on the construction of the CPRR, I do not recall ever running across any statement that there were beatings. While it does not address the question of beatings, a report in the Placer Herald (of Auburn) of 4 August 1866 that Chinese workers were walking off the job in frustration over the hard rock encountered (apparently near Crystal Lake) illustrates (if true) that at least some of the Chinese were free agents. It is unlikely that any Chinese who could walk off the job (over frustration at accomplishing what they're trying to do) would have stood for beatings. These "free agents" were likely those employed from the local Chinese population, not those recruited in China. Unfortunately, we do not know the what proportion of Chinese employed on the railroad came from the local population vs. those recruited in China. Certainly those hired through labor contractors from China would have less freedom to walk off the job.


7/24/2010 11:00 AM  
Blogger CPRR Discussion Group said...

See related discussion.

1/18/2013 2:07 PM  

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