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This Day in Labor History: May 10, 1869

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On May 10, 1869, the Transcontinental Railroad was completed when the Central Pacific and Union Pacific lines met at Promontory Point, Utah. The railroad itself was key to the growth of the American nation after the Civil War, but it came at a terrible cost to workers, particularly the Chinese for the Central Pacific. Examining the treatment of the Chinese shines a lot not only the conditions of labor of the most despised group of workers in the United States, but also on the limits of Republican Party free labor ideology.

While the Union Pacific relied largely on Irish labor, the Central Pacfiic hired mostly Chinese laborers to build the railroad. There were certain dangers with all railroad construction and the UP did build across the territory of still pretty powerful Native American tribes, but the land itself was slowly rising and without major physical obstacles in the way. On the other hand, the CP had to build across the Sierra Nevada and then through the difficult terrain of Nevada. It was going over the Sierra that tells the most compelling labor history of the Transcontinental Railroad.

The Central Pacific hired James Strobridge as its construction superintendent. It was his job to hire the men and build the road. Strobridge liked to beat his workers with a pick handle. While Charles Crocker, one of the CP top executives, objected to this treatment, Leland Stanford, Collis Huntington, and Mark Hopkins, were fine with it. In 1865, Strobridge started hiring Chinese laborers, the most easily dominated in the country at that time, even more so than the newly ex-slaves. The low wages meant that even the Irish were hard to get. CP wanted 4000 workers and had 800. By 1868, 80% of the 12,000 member CP workforce were Chinese. The Chinese presence was hated in California but was also necessary in the early years to do the work white miners did not want to do. When everyday whites left mining after not striking it rich, they saw the Chinese as competition for the white man’s republic they hoped to build in the Golden State.

railroad_laborers_news

Image from Harper’s of Chinese railroad workers building the Transcontinental Railroad

Few would object than if Strobridge turned his legendary labor methods on the Chinese. And turn on them he did. He only brought the Chinese on when the Irish began demanding higher wages. The CP explicitly divided workers by race, forcing the remaining Irish to take lower wages. They wanted about $50 a month. The Chinese were paid $30 and the Irish $35. The Irish had their food and board provided, but the Chinese had to pay for theirs. The Irish of course blamed the Chinese for keeping wages down.

The conditions of work were extremely difficult. Building through the Sierra meant cold, rain, and lots of snow. The Chinese labored on blasting 16 tunnels through the Sierra, an extremely dangerous proposition at any time, and especially during an era when employers had no legal responsibility for workplace safety. It is impossible to know how many Chinese workers died building the railroad, from avalanches, explosions in tunnel building, and other causes. No one kept track because the CP didn’t care. A 1870 newspaper story in a Sacramento paper reported that a train carrying the bones of 1200 dead Chinese workers to San Francisco had passed through town. We can probably see that as a bare minimum of the dead and the number was almost certainly much higher.

chinese-railroad-workers

As word of the horrible conditions got back to San Francisco, fewer Chinese signed up. Strobridge raised the wage rates for the Chinese to $35, but this was not enough. In late June 1867, thousands of Chinese went on a short strike. They had concrete demands. They wanted $40 a month, a 10-hour day for above-ground work and an 8-hour for tunneling work instead of the 12-hour day they faced, and end to beatings, and the right to quit without harassment from the company.

Strobridge’s response was to stop feeding the workers. Crocker looked into hiring newly freed slaves (at the same time that southern planters were exploring hiring Chinese) to replace them but this was unrealistic. So simply refusing to send supply trains carrying food was the best answer. The Chinese were high in the mountains, far away from home, and with no means of survival. They were at the mercy of the Central Pacific. After a week, the strike ended and they returned to their brutal, deadly work.

Once they crossed the Sierra and started building in the baking hot and dry alkali flats of the Great Basin, the Chinese had enough. Hundreds of workers fled back along the railroad lines to California. Strobridge sent horsemen to round them up just like they would round up cattle. Free labor this was not.

This story suggests the very strong limitations of Republican labor policy and I want to once again push back on the idea that the Republican Party was a revolutionary political party. The vast majority of these railroad executives were Republicans. Many Republicans were perfectly fine with coerced labor so long as it wasn’t the actual conditions of slavery in the American South. That’s because for them, the problem with slavery was not the treatment of blacks, but the effect on whites, making them lazy, violent, and unconcerned with industrial progress. The abolitionists had different views and at least some of them were not horrible toward the Chinese, but they were always a pretty stark minority in the Republican Party. There was a revolutionary element in the Republican Party, yes, but their views of labor with the mainstream were more an alliance of convenience than a broad set of commonly held views. Far more common and growing ever more powerful in the years after the war were people like the Central Pacific executives, who would happily drive labor to the point of death for profit.

The Chinese would go on to build many western railroads, facing discrimination and violence wherever they went. Hatred of the Chinese eventually led to the Chinese Exclusion Act, the first legislative victory for organized labor in American history. Violence however continued and it was only with the rise of Japanese immigration and declining Chinese populations due to the immigration restriction that the violence subsided.

I based part of this post on Mark Fiege’s The Republic of Nature: An Environmental History of the United States, which is not primarily a labor history, but which contains detail of these issues in its railroad chapter and which is worth you reading for more on the importance of nature for understanding key events in American history.

This is the 106th post in this series. Previous posts are archived here.

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  • Chris

    This story suggests the very strong limitations of Republican labor policy and I want to once again push back on the idea that the Republican Party was a revolutionary political party. The vast majority of these railroad executives were Republicans. Many Republicans were perfectly fine with coerced labor so long as it wasn’t the actual conditions of slavery in the American South. That’s because for them, the problem with slavery was not the treatment of blacks, but the effect on whites, making them lazy, violent, and unconcerned with industrial progress. The abolitionists had different views and at least some of them were not horrible toward the Chinese, but they were always a pretty stark minority in the Republican Party. There was a revolutionary element in the Republican Party, yes, but their views of labor with the mainstream were more an alliance of convenience than a broad set of commonly held views. Far more common and growing ever more powerful in the years after the war were people like the Central Pacific executives, who would happily drive labor to the point of death for profit.

    I’m curious what you mean by this, since I’m always interested in learning more about that era.

    My impression was that the Republican Party in the mid-19th century wasn’t that different from the Democrats in more recent times, with a progressive wing (the Radical Republicans) that was where the abolitionists made their home, and a Blue Dogish conservative wing (the Liberal Republicans) that was basically the voice of the Northern capitalist elites. The latter were the people who eventually took over the party completely in the Gilded Age and have run it ever since, and would fit with the people you’re describing. (And who, WRT the Civil War, weren’t against slavery so much as they were against the power of slaveowners).

    I never thought of the Republicans as “revolutionary” any more than the Democrats (even at their best under Roosevelt), but I also didn’t think they were totally in the bag for the 1% until the Gilded Age. Lincoln in particular has some quotes about capital and labor that would have the entire modern “party of Lincoln” shitting bricks.

    • See the link for someone making that argument.

      • Opie Elvis

        Curious on your take of some of Michael Sandel’s work where he looks at the changing views of citizenship and labor – specifically Democracy’s Discontent from the late 90’s that discusses the changing view of what labor means as the Industrial Revolution comes to full fruition.

      • trollhattan

        That fellow is quite fond of Obama, isn’t he? What an odd read.

        • Aimai

          Wow. I did read the linked article. What a lunatic. Talk about hindsight being 20/20. In retrospect everything is, indeed, quite clear. Obama is no Lincoln because he’s not anti-anything hard enough for long enough. So nothing he does has any meaning.

          • Linnaeus

            I like Jacobin a lot, but sometimes even they miss the mark.

            • trollhattan

              With that as an introduction I’m not smitten. There’s a Clarence Thomas piece that helps not one bit, also, too.

              Layout and graphics are quite.

              • Walt

                Jacobin is the Slate of the left.

                • Ronan

                  yep. it started off quite good at the start, but has become awful.

      • Tom Servo

        Do you have any recommendations for late 19th century American history reading (for a non-academic ideally, but no matter)? By “late” I mean post-Reconstruction (I guess that is by definition the Gilded Age?)

        • This might be one of those cases where asking the professional is not the best idea, but what subjects are you interested in?

  • The use of exploited immigrant labor from China was one of the options used to bridge the gap between slaves and free wage laborers in a variety of places during the middle and late 19th and early 20th centuries. A lot of this was spurred by push factors of emigration in China. In Cuba contract “coolie” labor by Chinese was used to replace chattel slaves of African descent. A similar system of contract labor for Chinese workers existed in Peru. In South Africa a number of Chinese indentured workers were imported to work in the mining sector in the early 20th century as well.

    • Aimai

      Lets not forget the use of exported Indian laborers as well. Or, in the present day, Nepalese in “Arap” lands like Saudi Arabia and, tragically, in Iraq as contract laborers. First you move people, or get them to move, out of their homes and societies and then you abuse them and then you let other people kill them to avoid the cost of letting them settle and have families and join your polity.

      • Ronan
      • Woodrowfan

        and Filipino.

        • DrDick

          I was just going to say that. There are a lot of Filipino women in domestic service in the Arab world and many are effectively kept in slavery and treated as badly as the Chinese were here. It has been a major diplomatic issue between the Philippines and Saudi Arabia.

          • Aimai

            Yes, thank you for mentioning Fillipino women. Their situation is truly horrific. The helplessness of young, female, workers when they are brought in by employers around the world simply can not be overstated as a problem. And in the gulf states especially where there is often no real labor economy except labor performed by foreigners (with the local population bought off by petrodollars and definitionally non working) things are even worse. Its like the entire situation is a labor camp in which there are no rights for laborers at all since citizens and indigenous wives and daughters are not likely to be laborers.

            And, by the way, the same pro to-slavery goes on in the US with Indian women brought in to be servants to upper class Indians.

            • There have been problems with Chinese families who hire Filipino nannies to work in Hong Kong.

            • DrDick

              It actually applies to a lot of immigrant domestic workers in this country and is a serous problem, though not as bad as in the Arabian Peninsula.

          • In Lebanon a lot of the maids, many of them treated badly, are also from Sri Lanka or Ethiopia.

          • Pat

            These maids have to make themselves available to do whatever housework at any time that the family wants, 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. They traditionally get Sunday afternoon off. That’s it.

    • RepubAnon

      “Disposable” workers are still seen today – ethics-free employers use the workers up, and discard them when they’re too ill to work. From labor contractors who employ undocumented workers and then on payday call ICE to deport them before paychecks are handed out, to brown lung disease in Third World textiles industries, it’s de facto slavery.

  • Bruce Vail

    Reading this great post makes me wonder whether an archive exists anywhere of interviews with actual laborers on the rail line.

    The WPA project you wrote about this week talked about oral history projects with interviews of former slaves, so were there any interviews of Chinese construction workers?

    • When I was researching this, I ran across some website where Stanford was trying to collect more real information about these people. I don’t think there’s much out there. I’ve never heard of anyone interviewing the last of these construction workers, although it doesn’t mean it didn’t happen.

      • DrDick

        One of our grad students did his dissertation on the Chinese in Montana (I was on the committee) and he could not find much.

    • md rackham

      The California State Railroad Museum library would be one place to check. It certainly contains a lot of contemporaneous reports on Central Pacific labor issues.

      (Sadly, the film shown when you enter the museum was redone about 10 years ago and it went from at least acknowledging the mistreatment of Chinese laborers to a paen to the glories of capital as America fulfilled its manifest destiny.)

  • Nick

    There was a massacre of Chinese on the Snake River close to where I grew up — not sure if it was in Oregon or Idaho. I think it was just before WWI, but I might be wrong. There was a party of 15-30 men there panning for gold in what is still a remote and inaccessible part of the canyon; a group of whites from Enterprise ambushed and shot most or all of them, and the incident was covered up and ignored judicially. If I remember correctly, a lot of the cover-up was associated with a WWI monument, which still stands and has the names of a couple of the men involved.

    Here’s a link, it was a bit earlier than I thought:

    http://www.lagrandeobserver.com/News/Local-News/Monument-marks-site-along-Snake-River-where-34-Chinese-miners-were-murdered

    A book was recently written about it, published by a regional press — one of the interesting things about it is that one of the people involved in the loss of files was a young county clerk who stayed in her job and lived for a long time. She was still remembered when the reporter was researching the story, and I believe that he encountered a certain amount of surly non-cooperation on that account (in the 2000s). She, and most of the men have descendants in the county.

    Sorry about the vagueness, local history is often what people know the least about, and I’m no exception.

    • Nick
    • Informant

      My immediate thought upon reading about lack of judicial action in that case: “Buford Tannen was a notorious gunman, whose short temper and a tendency to drool, earned him the nickname ‘Mad Dog.’ He was quick on the trigger and bragged that he’d killed 12 men, not including Indians or Chinamen.”

  • Woodrowfan

    How reliable is that newspaper figure from Sacramento? I don’t doubt it’s possible, but I’d like to know more about the paper.

    And I find this entire series fascinating. thank you.

    • It’s impossible to know. I took that info from a scholarly piece, but there’s no way to really judge the accuracy.

  • cpinva

    just another reason to despise Leland Stanford, a rapist and abuser of labor.

    interesting thing (and a bit scary), my son just graduated with a degree in American history. we were having a conversation, the original topic of which escapes me, and I mentioned the Chinese exclusion act. he’d never heard of it before. it seems, in four years of college history classes, along with high school classes, the subject never came up. I remember reading about it and discussing it, in my required 6 hours of history, in college. do they no longer teach this at the undergrad level?

    • Hogan

      Did he go to Stanford?

      • cpinva

        if he did, I received no tuition bills from them.

    • Woodrowfan

      it depends on the class. The survey classes at my school are probably pretty typical. The 1st one has to cover from the first people crossing into North America in the ice age through Reconstruction. The second class covers from Hayes being chosen up to however far the prof can go. I’m usually pressed to get through Vietnam and I get further than some of the other sin my department. The Chinese Exclusion Act is in the textbook, but I can give it a short mention, at best, in class. I do cover it in my upper-level Immigration and Late 19th-Early 20th Century classes. I have a cool pro-Cleveland postcard that I show my class from the 1892 election declaring Harrison the “pro-Chinese” candidate.

      • cpinva

        this is my recollection of it in my class.

        “The Chinese Exclusion Act is in the textbook, but I can give it a short mention, at best, in class.”

        just a brief mention of it, with some minimal expansion by the instructor. I think the reason it stuck in my head, was because it was another, in a string of horrible things the gov’t had done, that I’d never heard about before then. those 6 hours left me a bit shell shocked, and we weren’t yet completely out of Vietnam at the time, so that horror was fresh.

    • randomworker

      I didn’t know anything about it either and I went to school a long time ago. The link to the May 2013 post by Erik is excellent reading.

    • I think that one reason the CEA isn’t taught because there aren’t a lot of Chinese left who were affected by it personally. My grandmother and her sister had to get a special bill passed in Congress to become citizens, despite the both of them being British subjects,(and in grandmas case, married to an American citizen), because of their Chinese ancestry. This was in the late 1940s.

    • Derelict

      I know the CEA is included in at least some curricula for high school and lower-level college courses. Or, at least, it was the subject of two chapters I wrote for a text book aimed at those levels.

      The CEA is one of the most interesting and least examined immigration acts in US history. This post contains far more information about the plight of the Chinese and the CEA than most history text books that cover this period.

    • Linnaeus

      I remember discussing it at some length in my AP US History course in high school. But that was a long time ago.

    • Informant

      The Chinese Exclusion Act was covered in both my middle school American history class and in my high school AP US history class back the 1990s. It’s not surprising though that you could complete a US history bachelor’s degree without hearing about it, at least if the school offered a wide variety of classes on US history and didn’t specifically require an “America in the Gilded Age”-type class.

    • Gwen

      I remember reading about it in high school, but I actually read the damn book.

      (Unlike in college where I was too busy raising ruckus with the University Democrats, and playing video games, to care).

    • Thlayli

      It probably comes up reliably in con-law classes, being the reason that Wong Kim Ark had to go to court to prove his citizenship.

      History? Hmm, likely one of those “we just don’t have time to fit it in” things.

    • I don’t think that’s quite the way to think about it. First, it’s entirely possible that it was mentioned and your son wasn’t there/forgot about it/whatever. From the perspective of someone who grades this material, I would not say that students’ perception of what information was covered is all always that precise with what actually was covered. Second, there are a zillion possible things to talk about it and if he didn’t take a class where this particular issue was emphasized, his courses no doubt talked about all sorts of things that I don’t have the chance to discuss.

    • DrS

      We covered this in high school, but I did live in California.

  • Didn’t the UP have to go over the Rockies and Wasatches? Those ranges aren’t gentle rises.

    • g-rant

      The Rockies crossing was at Sherman Summit which is one of the gentlest places to cross and so didn’t require massive tunnels or other earthworks. The Wasatch were a different story. I think they added a large number of Mormon laborers at that point to keep the Irish in check.

      • Right–the Rockies are really a hit and miss mountain range and southwestern Wyoming is very much a miss. Really quite easy. Also, doesn’t the track go just north of the Wasatch?

  • g-rant

    This was really interesting, thanks. Minor nitpick–it’s Promontory Summit not Promontory Point where the CP and UP met up.

    • cpinva

      interesting. the “golden spike”, used to symbolically connect the two tracks, is on display at the Smithsonian in DC. when last I saw it (a millennia ago), the info card stated that the tracks met & joined at promontory point, not summit. so have all the references to it I’ve ever seen, in textbooks and other books.

  • ChrisTS

    Erik: I think you mean ‘shines a light on’ not ‘a lot’.

  • Herbal Infusion Bagger

    In the (very good) Railway Museum in Sacramento, there’s a photo of the Golden Spike ceremony.

    Not a single Chinese worker to be seen in it. Shocking.

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