In port cities of China, leaflets distributed by labor brokers said, “Americans are very rich people. They want the Chinamen to come and make him very welcome. There you will have great pay, large houses, and good clothing of the finest description. Money is in great plenty and to spare in America.”
And so thousands of Chinese flocked from China to America, in search for work in the gold mines. After the profits from gold mining decreased because most of the easily obtainable gold had been found, an estimated 10,000 Chinese left the mines and were in search of jobs. From independent miners who had worked for themselves, many Chinese immigrants now became wage earners who worked for bosses. A growing number of Chinese were working in businesses owned by whites. But earning wages instead of prospecting did not discourage Chinese from moving to America. A paycheck of up to $30 could be made working for the railroad, which was 10 times as much than could be earned in China.
The Act of 1862 called for construction of a railroad and telegraph line from the Missouri River to the Pacific Coast. So on January 8, 1863, with a ground breaking ceremony in Sacramento, Central Pacific Railroad started work on the western end of the Transcontinental Railroad.
Two railway companies competed in this venture: The Central Pacific company laid track eastward from Sacramento, California and at the same time The Union Pacific company began laying track westward from Omaha, Nebraska and when the two lines met, the transcontinental railway would be complete. Each company wanted to cover more ground than the other – not just out of pride and competitiveness, but because they were being paid by the government for each mile of track they laid. Obviously the Central Pacific faces the bigger of the two challenges. Being in the western part of the country, the railroad was obliged to overcome 7,000 feet of mountain rise in 100 miles, where as the Union Pacific had 500 miles to which to overcome a gradual rise of 5,000 feet.
About two years after the commencement of construction, the line had completed less than 50 miles of running track. Central Pacific's construction superintendent, J. H. Strobridge, needed 5,000 laborers "for constant and permanent work." But the largest force that he was able to assemble at any time during the spring of 1865 was 800. Charles Crocker was the first to suggest Chinese were the answer to no labor, Chinese were in search of employment, but Irish Construction Superintendent J.H. Stobridge said, “I will not boss Chinese. I will not be responsible for work done on the road done by Chinese labor.” Stobridge changes his mind because Labor was scarce and unreliable. He then experimented with 50 Chinese, paying them $28 a month. They were restricted to only filling dump cars. But they proved to be so good at that task that they were soon given the duty of driving the carts as well as loading them, he let them try picks on softer excavations, with excellent results.
Company President Leland Stanford praised the new laborers as “quiet. Peaceful, industrious, economical – ready and apt to learn all the different kinds of work” involved in building a railroad. Crocker was particularly happy that the Chinese did not seem inclined to go on strike. “No danger of strikes among them,” he reported, “We are training them to all kinds of labor: blasting, driving horses, handling rock as well as pick and shovel.”
In the fall of 1865 the Chinese laborers of the Central Pacific, scornfully called by some, "Crocker's pets," came up against Cape Horn, a nearly perpendicular rocky promontory. At this point the American River is 1,400 feet below the line of the road. Chinese workmen were lowered from the top of the cliff in wicker baskets. The basket men chipped and drilled holes for explosives, and then scrambled up the lines, or swung away from the explosives, while gunpowder exploded yards away from them.
To speed up construction, the Central Pacific managers forced the Chinese laborers to work through the winter of 1866. Chinese workers were forced to camp in thin canvas tents. Snowdrifts more than 60 feet high covered the construction operations. The Chinese workers lived and worker in tunnels under the snow, with shafts to give them air and lanterns to light the way. Many workers were swept away by avalanches and weren’t uncovered until the snow melted in the Spring, where they were found still upright, grasping pick and shovel.
That spring, the Chinese went on strike. Their demands were for a raise up to $40 and workdays in the open to be limited to ten hours and that in the tunnels reduced to eight. As one spokesman put it "Eight hours a day good for white men, all the same good for Chinamen." They also objected to the right of the overseers of the company to either whip them or restrain them from leaving the road when they desired other employment."
A San Francisco newspaper speculated that the strike had been drummed up by agents of the rival Union Pacific Company. The newspaper writer could not believe that the Chinese had minds and wills of their own, or that they were able to organize and take action to protect them selves without encouragement.
Meanwhile, the Central Pacific managers moved to break the strike. They sent telegrams to New York, asking if they could get 10,000 blacks to replace the striking Chinese. At the construction camps in the Sierra Nevada Mountains, Superintendent Crocker isolated the strikers and cut off their good supply. “I stopped the provisions on them,” he stated, “stopped the butchers from butchering, and used such coercive measures.” Coercion worked. Imprisoned in their camps in the Sierra Nevada and forced into starvation, the strikers surrendered within a week.
In mid-1868, the Central Pacific finally broke through the Sierra barrier. The true cost in human lives will probably never be known since little record were kept, but must have been high.
The Chinese crews, in a race to beat the Union Pacific (Irish) would lay 10 miles of track, the “Ten Mile Day,” Dodge named it. In return for their hard labor, an eight man Chinese crew was given the honor of bringing up the last section of their rail May 10th, 1869.
The Central Pacific tracks were officially joined to the Union Pacific rails at Promontory Point near Ogden, Utah, on May 10, 1869. There were many eloquent orations on that day but E. B. Crocker was one of the very few to pay any tribute to the role of the Chinese. In a speech at Sacramento he declared: "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."
Chinese Laborers have rarely been credited to the work that they did on the Central Pacific. What wasn’t widely admitted, but probably well know, was the fact that the Central Pacific line wouldn’t have been possible if it wasn’t for the heroic feats that the Chinese laborers performed.