A label reading, Constructing the Transcontinental Railroad in the 1860s was a monumental engineering feat that connected the East and West coasts of the United States with a continuous iron road. Chinese immigrants made up 90 percent of the work force for the Central Pacific Railroad, the company responsible for laying track from Sacramento eastward. The Central Pacific encountered difficult terrain and dangerous conditions, especially over and through the rugged Sierra Nevada mountains. Young male Chinese immigrants, numbering in the thousands, provided a source of cheap and exploitable labor, but the men quickly proved themselves capable, effici1ent, and courageous. From blasting 15 tunnels through solid granite to laying 10 miles of track in one day, the Railroad Chinese persevered through harsh and dangerous conditions. More than 1,200 perished during construction. Completed in 1869, the Transcontinental Railroad had tremendous impacts on the country. It provided a foundation for long-term economic prosperity by increasing trade and communication. It also promoted settlement of the country’s interior, though the government stole the land from Indigenous nations. The route would not have been completed without the Railroad Chinese, most of whom remain nameless. Only in the last decades have they begun to be recognized for their efforts.
A railroad spike from the transcontinental railroad in a display case
A map of the Transcontinental Railroad
A label reading, There is little information about individual Chinese immigrants who worked on the railroad. Payroll ledgers. Often listed only Foreman, and very few were Chinese. The names of laborers, if recorded at all, were typically written as nicknames or as shortened versions. No letters or journals from Chinese transcontinental railroad workers have ever been found.
A painting of men suspended on the side of a cliff, building a railroad.
A label reading, Creating tunnels through the mountains and cutting roadbeds along the sides of granite cliffs were initially thought to be impossible. Early progress in the tunnels using hand tools by candlelight amounted to only inches excavated per day. Incorporating black powder and liquid nitroglycerin greatly accelerated their advancement, though the unpredictable explosives made the work treacherous. This painting shows workers lowered down with rope and baskets striking granite to create holes for explosives. Once set and fuses lit, the workers were quickly hauled up to escape the explosions and cascading rock. Unfortunately, blasting accidents proved to be a major contributor to the casualty rate.
A label with postcards reading, This 1963 postcard image is based on a painting by Chinese American artist Jake Lee (1915–1991). Lee created a series of 12 original paintings for Johnny Kan, owner of the famed San Francisco Chinatown restaurant called Kan’s. The large watercolors depicting Chinese American history hung in the Gum Shan “Gold Mountain” dining room, and souvenir postcards of the paintings were sold at Kan’s for many years. The Central Pacific crossed through Donner Pass, some 7,000 feet above sea level. Winter snows, up to 40 feet in a season, challenged construction efforts. The Railroad Chinese helped by building dozens of miles of snow sheds to protect the track from snowdrifts and avalanches. This picture shows Chinese workers greeting one of the first trains through the area. After the completion of the Transcontinental, some workers continued to work the rails on other connecting lines.
A label reading, Lim Lip Hong (1843–1920) left China at age 12, seeking a better life and income to help his family back home. After jobs on ships and in mining and construction, he found work with the Central Pacific Railroad from 1864 to 1867. He stood 6 feet tall, spoke English, and became a valuable leader and communicator with the white bosses. He later worked on rail lines in Nevada and Utah. Lim married a Shoshone woman in Virginia City, Nevada, but was driven from the town by whites due to his race. He started over in San Francisco’s Chinatown, married again, and ran several businesses with his family. Hung Lai Woh (1850–1905) was one of the few Chinese railroad workers known by name. One of his sons, Kim Seung Hong (1894–1995), recalled hearing about the railroad project from his father. On Kim’s 100th birthday, he was recorded talking about his memories: It so happened, in my father’s time, that Leland Stanford and Charles Crocker were commissioned to build the Central Pacific Railroad. In the beginning, they were getting nowhere with American labor. Every weekend they go out on a binge, and nobody came to work on Monday. They had only built about 27 miles. So, Stanford says, this will never do. We’ll have to bring some Chinese over here, because if they could build a Great Wall, they could build a railroad in no time. So, they got a lot of Chinese to come over here to work, including my father [Hung Lai Woh] and my uncle. Unfortunately, my uncle lost an eye in a blasting accident across the snow shed, which runs through the Cascade Mountain. ... Later, my father started a family in San Francisco, and I saw the first light of day before the end of the century. —Kim Seung Hong, one of the first Chinese American graduates from the University of California, Berkeley (1917)
A colorful mural painted on a wall in a city. Three Chinese workers sit on a hillside.
Label with a picture two young men painting a mural and an old photograph of three Chinese laborers, reading, "The James Museum, in collaboration with Chinese American artist Chenlin Cai, presents The Path We Came, a mural representing the integral role Chinese immigrants played in the construction of the transcontinental railroad in the 1860s. It was created for the museums 2023 special exhibition From Far East to West: The Chinese American Frontier. Based on a 1919 photo of three Chinese workers at the transcontinental railroad anniversary celebration, Cai imagines them at the railroads completion 50 years prior. The workers are depicted here in black and white, as an homage to the past and to traditional Chinese ink paintings. One worker looks out at the horizon, searching for the promise of a better future. Another reads a letter from home, longing for the loved ones he left behind in China. The third man puts down roots in the form of this grass plant, crowned by a resilient dandelion, representing their determination to thrive for future generations. Set against the Sierra Nevada mountains, the color palette reflects Florida's orange hues. The rising Sun and tearful Moon embody the duality of the Chinese American laborers experience - marked by aspirations for a brighter future and and enduring ache for their distant homes. SHINE Mural Festival Bright Spot Mural in partnership with the James Museum and Chenlin Cai. Special thanks to Lantmannen Unibake for their partnership and to KunShi further Chinese translation."