Working Conditions

Workers performed strenuous and backbreaking labor, often under pressure by managers to complete the railroad faster. 

Workers toiled six days a week, from dawn to dusk, under extreme weather conditions. To speed progress, a second shift of workers often labored at night by the light of lamps and bonfires. 

Near Humboldt Lake, Nevada, about 1868, Chinese workers transferring track to an installation handcart.

Near Humboldt Lake, Nevada, about 1868, Chinese workers transferring track to an installation handcart.

Courtesy of Library of Congress

Chinese laborers’ hat, about 1900

Chinese laborers’ hat, about 1900

Many workers wore clothing traditional to southeastern China, where the Central Pacific Railroad sought laborers.

Miner's pick, about 1900

Miner's pick, about 1900

Gift of Stephen York

Chinese workers used picks, shovels, blasting powder, and muscle power to carve the railroad through the mountains.

Workers using mostly muscle power graded the road, bored the tunnels, and laid the track. Workers pushed the Central Pacific Railroad over the granite wall of the Sierra Nevada Mountains and across the arid west.