Smithsonian Marks 150th Anniversary of Transcontinental Railroad With Opening of “Forgotten Workers” Display
The Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History is marking the 150th anniversary of the Transcontinental Railroad with “Forgotten Workers: Chinese Migrants and the Building of the Transcontinental Railroad” and “The Transcontinental Railroad” open May 10 through spring 2020. The new displays offer insight into the backbreaking labor that ultimately connected the Union Pacific and Central Pacific railroad companies at Promontory Summit, Utah, May 10, 1869.
To commemorate the anniversary, Rep. Grace Meng (D-N.Y.) will read a Congressional resolution recognizing Chinese railroad workers at the museum May 10 at 9:30 a.m., joined by Representatives Judy Chu (D-Calif.), T.J. Cox (D-Calif.) and Ro Khanna (D-Calif.); Smithsonian Secretary David J. Skorton; Lisa Sasaki, the director of the Smithsonian’s Asian Pacific American Program; and descendants of Chinese workers. The event will take place in front of the museum’s Jupiter locomotive in the General Motors Hall of Transportation, and a media tour of the displays will follow.
“The artifacts on view will help visitors understand how these forgotten workers often had to endure unfair and hazardous conditions in addition to the backbreaking labor,” said Peter Liebhold, a curator in the museum’s Division of Work and Industry and co-curator of the displays.
“Forgotten Workers” will focus on the Chinese laborers whose hard work and sacrifice made possible the completion of one of the nation’s largest infrastructure projects and an amazing engineering feat of human endurance. Objects on view will provide a detailed look into the daily lives of Chinese laborers, such as a pair of chopsticks, a mining pick and a laborer’s conical hat.
A large graphic floor map of the United States will show the difficult and expansive terrain that challenged workers and the scale of the project that successfully connected the east and west coasts of the country by land. Visitors will be able to walk the route of the railroad, find the states and territories that it passed through, understand that native peoples were displaced and the impact on the American landscape and environment.
Museum visitors can get their hands-on history with two new interpretive carts that will provide facilitated experiences. The “Stereoscope Cart: Building the Transcontinental Railroad” will allow visitors to view historic 3-D images that show the ways people, animals and machines came together in the challenging western landscape to complete the railroad. With the “I’ve Been Working on the Railroad” cart, visitors can learn about jobs associated with building and operating the railroad. Among the objects are a tool similar to one employed by Chinese workers to tunnel through a thousand feet or more of solid granite. Visitors can try hefting a 20-pound shovel of coal and imagine the backbreaking labor to do that 400 times in one hour.
Programs enhancing the story of the Transcontinental Railroad and the worker’s’ legacy will be presented May 10 and include an Objects-Out-of-Storage presentation, a “Cooking Up History” program about the regional Chinese cooking along the railroad and a performance from San Francisco-based troupe Eth-Noh-Tech that uses theater to tell traditional Chinese stories.
“Forgotten Workers” and its companion case “The Transcontinental Railroad” with models of the two locomotives that met at Promontory Summit and a replica spike donated by the Union Pacific Railroad to the Smithsonian in 1958, are part of this larger Smithsonian-wide initiative to commemorate the Transcontinental Railroad’s 150th anniversary. Information on digital content, events and displays can be found at https://americanhistory.si.edu/transcontinental150. Social media users can join the conversation at #Transcontinental150. The museum will also host an online Transcontinental Railroad object group with more than 100 digitized artifacts: https://americanhistory.si.edu/collections/object-groups/tcrr.
Through incomparable collections, rigorous research and dynamic public outreach, the National Museum of American History explores the infinite richness and complexity of American history. It helps people understand the past in order to make sense of the present and shape a more humane future. The museum is located on Constitution Avenue N.W., between 12th and 14th streets, and is open daily from 10 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. (closed Dec. 25). Admission is free. For more information, visit http://americanhistory.si.edu. For Smithsonian information, the public may call (202) 633-1000.
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