This year, we commemorate the 150th Anniversary of the final spoke being laid to complete the Transcontinental Railroad. This national achievement connected the west and east coast politically, economically, and culturally. The Chinese American workers were instrumental in this effort, making up 90% of the Central Pacific workforce on this project, but did not receive formal credit from the U.S. until 2014, when the Department of Labor formally inducted the Chinese Workers into the Hall of Fame.
"What was remarkable about that moment was that it took the nation 145 years to recognize Chinese immigrants’ role in building the nation," and Gordon H. Chang, author of "Ghosts of Gold Mountain: The Epic Story of the Chinese Who Built the Transcontinental Railroad.
Struggling to find employment opportunities after the gold rush, Chinese laborers were often given low wages while dealing with racism, dangerous work, and difficult terrain. Their work took place in elevation as high as 7,000 feet on the Sierra Nevada range where they were expected to carve through solid granite with nitroglycerine, which led to several deaths from the explosions, compounded by the lives lost in avalanches from the impact.
While there is no definitive death or injury toll, Gordon Chang estimates it may be in the hundreds.
Despite their contributions, the commemorative photo taken in Utah after the railroad was completed did not include any Asian workers. So today, as our community recognizes the way the transcontinental railroad set the stage for our globalized economy, we hope everyone takes a moment to recognize the role that the Asian American community played in America's history of innovation.
To get more engaged locally and dive further into the history of the Transcontinental Railroad, visit the California State Railroad Museum for their event this month: https://www.californiarailroad.museum/events/transcontinental-railroad-event
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