Forgotten Workers

The construction of the Transcontinental Railroad was an engineering feat of human endurance, with the western leg built largely by thousands of immigrant Chinese laborers.

Chinese laborers on a wood train, about 1866

Chinese laborers on a wood train, about 1866

Courtesy of Society of California Pioneers

The building of the Transcontinental Railroad relied on the labor of thousands of migrant workers, including Chinese, Irish, and Mormons workers. On the western portion, about 90% of the backbreaking work was done by Chinese migrants.

About 10,000 to 15,000 Chinese workers came to the United States to build the Central Pacific Railroad. 

Ging Cui, Wong Fook, and Lee Shao, three of the eight Chinese workers who put the last rail in place, 1867

Ging Cui, Wong Fook, and Lee Shao, three of the eight Chinese workers who put the last rail in place, 1867

Courtesy of Amon Carter Museum of American Art Archives, Fort Worth, Texas

Chinese workers found some economic opportunity but also experienced hostility, racism, violence, and legal exclusion. Many came as single men; others left families behind. Despite laws restricting Chinese immigration, a few workers were able to send for wives and establish families and lasting communities in the United States.

Officers of the Chinese Six Companies, undated

Officers of the Chinese Six Companies, undated

Courtesy of UC Berkeley, Bancroft Library

The majority of Chinese railroad workers came from the province of Guangdong in southern China. They were recruited through a vast network of small firms and labor contractors that supplied workers to railroad companies. After arriving in America, many migrants relied on labor contractors and ethnic associations, like the Chinese Six Companies in San Francisco, to find employment and to broker labor contracts with prospective employers.  

Central Pacific Railroad Company Payroll, 1865

Central Pacific Railroad Company Payroll, 1865

Courtesy of the California Railroad Museum

Railroad companies considered Chinese migrants a source of cheap, unskilled labor. In America in the 1800s, Chinese workers were seen as racially inferior to white workers. Employers used this prejudice to justify paying Chinese workers less than other workers and to relegate Chinese workers to the most undesirable jobs. 

Anti-Chinese Cap Pistol, 1876

Chinese migrants confronted prejudice and racism immediately upon their arrival in America. Local governments passed discriminatory laws to restrict immigration and to exclude Chinese workers from employment in certain industries. As hostility grew, Chinese migrants encountered physical violence from vigilantes, mobs, and organized labor. The growing anti-Chinese movement at the local level culminated in the passage of the 1882 Exclusion Act, the first federal law to restrict the immigration of a group of workers by the criteria of race and class, and made Chinese migrants “illegal aliens.”