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Smithsonian Marks 150th Anniversary of Transcontinental Railroad

Displays, Exhibits and Online Resources Begin May 10
April 30, 2019
Identical photographs side by side in which men stand on train tracks and look into the horizon
The Smithsonian is marking the 150th anniversary of the Transcontinental Railroad beginning May 10 with a series of displays, programs, a symposium and online resources that tell new stories and bring little-known history to light, ranging from forgotten immigrant Chinese laborers to the complex legacy of America’s railways. A two-day symposium and teacher workshop is being co-hosted with the 1882 Foundation, a non-profit organization that seeks to broaden public awareness of the 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act through public programs, the development of educational resources and heritage-preservation initiatives.  

A display case at the National Museum of American History will explore the story of the Chinese laborers whose sweat and sacrifice made possible one of the nation’s largest infrastructure projects. “Forgotten Workers: Chinese Migrants and the Building of the Transcontinental Railroad” opens May 10 and continues through spring 2020. Visitors can trace the railroad’s route, see the states and territories it passed through, learn about the native peoples who were displaced and how the American landscape and the environment were affected through a large, graphic floor map. “The Transcontinental Railroad” is a companion case with models of the two locomotives that met at Promontory Summit, Utah, May 10 and a replica spike donated by the Union Pacific Railroad to the Smithsonian in 1958.  

The National Postal Museum will present “Train Day” May 11 with a full day of free family-friendly activities and demonstrations about trains and the Transcontinental Railroad. “Train Day” will run 10 a.m. to 4 p.m., with evening poetry sessions from 5 to 8 p.m. Visitors can learn about the history of mail and the railroads from education carts, open May 10–12. For full event information, go to https://postalmuseum.si.edu/visit/train-day.html.

Education carts will provide facilitated hands-on experiences for on-site visitors at the Postal Museum and American History Museum. For virtual audiences, the Smithsonian has created an online portal with program information, educational resources, a Transcontinental Railroad digital-book collection by Smithsonian Libraries and more than 100 digitized objects at https://americanhistory.si.edu/transcontinental150

Transcontinental Railroad anniversary programs run Friday and Saturday May 10–11 and social media users can join the conversation at #Transcontinental150. Support and funding from the Smithsonian’s Asian Pacific American Center (APAC) has made programming possible. Smithsonian museums and research units participating in the initiative include APAC, the Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage, the National Museum of American History, the National Postal Museum, Smithsonian Libraries, and the Smithsonian Accessibility Program. Smithsonian Affiliates across the country are staging exhibits and hosting events as well. The calendar of free public events includes: 

Friday, May 10
 
  • “Cooking Up History” Demonstration
    • A public cooking demonstration by chef Martin Yan on the kinds of foods Chinese laborers would have eaten while working on the railroad as well as a discussion of Cantonese food culture’s lasting impact on American dining. National Museum of American History’s Wallace H. Coulter Plaza Demonstration Kitchen at 1 p.m.
  • “Objects-Out-Of-Storage” Presentation
    • The first part of this presentation explores the history of Chinese food and restaurants in America with objects from museum’s Chinese food and restaurant collection dating from the 19th century to modern day. The second half will feature objects from National Numismatics Collection that illuminate the culture and economy of Chinese migrants living in Guangdong (formerly known in English as “Canton”) and their experiences in the American west after immigrating to the U.S. in the mid-19th century. “Objects-Out-Of-Storage” is scheduled from noon to 1 p.m. and 2 to 3 p.m. at the Wallace H. Coulter Plaza in the National Museum of American History. 
  • “The Red Altar” Performance
    • This performance by the San Francisco-based troupe Eth-No-Tech uses theater to tell traditional Chinese stories and will take place in the National Museum of American History’s Presidential Reception Suite from 4 to 5:30 p.m.

Saturday, May 11
 
  • “Morning at the Museum”
    • This is a sensory-friendly program with families of children with cognitive disabilities, autism and other sensory processing disorders. Families registering for the program gain early access to the National Postal Museum where they may participate in facilitated activities and explore the museum at their own pace. For more information or to register, contact Ashley Grady at access@si.edu. The program is from 9 a.m. to 10 a.m. at the National Postal Museum.
  • “Train Day”
    • A full day of family-friendly educational programs and demonstrations on the history of trains and the Transcontinental Railroad will run at the National Postal Museum from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m.
  • “Poetry After Hours: Poetry Im/migration, Labor and Trains”
    • An evening poetry reading and presentation on the Transcontinental Railroad’s legacy and connection to Asian American identity will feature Utah State Poet Laureate Paisley Rekdal and critically acclaimed poets Marilyn Chin and Regie Cabico at the National Postal Museum, 6 to 8 p.m.
       
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