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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.

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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.

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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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