Chinese Railroad Workers in North America

Between 1864 and 1869, thousands of Chinese migrants toiled at a grueling pace and in perilous working conditions to help construct America’s first Transcontinental Railroad. The Chinese Railroad Workers in North America Project seeks to give a voice to the Chinese migrants whose labor on the Transcontinental Railroad helped to shape the physical and social landscape of the American West.

Overview of the transcontinental railroad

2019 marked the 150th anniversary of the introduction of large numbers of Chinese workers on the construction of the first transcontinental railway across North America. May 10, 2019 was the 150th anniversary of Leland Stanford’s driving the famous “golden spike” to connect the Central Pacific and Union Pacific at Promontory Summit, Utah, to complete the line. The labor of these Chinese workers (who eventually numbered between 10-12,000 at any one moment) was central to creating the wealth that Leland Stanford used to found Stanford University. But these workers have never received the attention they deserve. We know relatively little about their lives. What led them to come to the United States? What experiences did they have in their arduous work? How did they live their daily lives? What kinds of communities did they create? How did their work on the railroad change the lives of their families in China and how did it change the lives of the workers themselves, both those who returned to China or went elsewhere after the railroad’s completion and those who stayed in the U.S.?

This project is producing a new analysis of how they contributed to shaping the physical and social landscapes of the American West. The sesquicentennial anniversaries of the railroad’s construction and completion provide an unprecedented opportunity to launch a major evaluation of their experiences. We have brought together historians and other scholars in a range of disciplines in North America and in Asia to locate new historical materials and developing a multi-disciplinary approach to understanding and appreciating this long neglected history. While the focus of the project is the Chinese railroad workers, the Project also includes research on the lives that these individuals lived during the decades after the railroad was completed. In addition to recovering an unjustly neglected chapter of history of special significance for Stanford University, this transnational, collaborative, multi-year research project has pioneered new ways of exploring the shared past of China and the United States.

The Chinese Railroad Workers Project has produced a body of scholarship based on new materials and in-depth analysis of the Chinese railroad worker experience in America. The history of the Chinese in the U.S. from the nineteenth to early twentieth century is a transnational story that should be told from both U.S. and Chinese perspectives. This project’s unprecedented international team of scholars in multiple disciplines in North America and Asia enables new research and publications on the Chinese in America from both U.S. and Chinese vantage points.

Chinese Railroad Workers of North America website