On May 10, 1869, at Promontory Summit, Utah Territory, Leland Stanford drove home a ceremonial gold spike to mark the meeting of the eastern and western lines of the Transcontinental Railroad. The western portion of the line, beginning near Sacramento, California, was a monumental challenge. Over the course of five years, workers would blast tunnels through the granite rock and cliffs of the Sierra Nevada and lay tracks across the burning desert of Nevada and Utah.
Gordon H. Chang seeks to rectify a historical injustice in “Ghosts of Gold Mountain: The Epic Story of the Chinese Who Built the Transcontinental Railroad.” Mr. Chang is a professor of humanities and history at Stanford University, and he has written the definitive history of Chinese laborers and their role in one of America’s great accomplishments.
Chang manages to combine scholarship and storytelling, making the book fascinating to read. He argues that their story is a long-lost tale of helping to build the Transcontinental Railroad and forge modern America, only to then disappear into the shadows of history. No written letters, journals or diaries written by the Chinese laborers that the author could have used to document their lives and experiences have ever been discovered in America or China. Instead, Chang does a masterful job of using archeological findings, railroad company business documents, payroll records, ship manifests, newspaper and magazine articles and photographs to piece together a tale of remarkable bravery, resiliency and loyalty.
The book begins in Guangdong, China, in the mid-19th century, where thousands of young Chinese men migrate to California, or Gold Mountain as they call it, to seek their fortune as laborers in the gold mines. Eventually, many more begin to arrive as contract laborers for the Central Pacific Railroad Company.
During the nearly five years needed to build the Central Pacific’s portion of the railroad, an estimated 20,000 Chinese men worked on the 690-mile line. They comprised about 90% of the construction force, performing all the manual labor required to create roadbeds, blast out tunnels and lay track.
All the while, they braved some of the most dangerous working conditions imaginable. Chang describes these conditions in vivid detail. They endured scorching summer heat in the high altitudes, dirt and choking dust, smoke and fumes from the constant use of explosives. They survived isolation, desiccating winds and thin air, winter blizzards and freezing temperatures, as well as the dangers of accidental explosions, falling trees, snow slides, avalanches, cave-ins, illness, broken limbs and plain exhaustion. In all, Chang estimates that nearly 1,000 Chinese railroad workers died.
Mr. Chang’s provides the reader a profound understanding of 19th-century Chinese culture, shaped by centuries of Confucianism. The Chinese were subjected to a strange and hostile environment in California, where the railroad owners and construction foremen often thought of them as less than human. However, with their work ethic and stoicism, and their propensity to work harder than any others, they managed to win the grudging and then open respect of the company because of their herculean efforts.
However, Chang notes that no Chinese workers appear among the dozens of dignitaries, officials and common workers assembled in Andrew J. Russell’s iconic photographs of the May 10, 1869, celebration of the joining of the rails at Promontory Point. But J. H. Strobridge, the Central Pacific’s field construction supervisor, who had come to admire the immigrant laborers, honored some of the Chinese workers in his personal railroad car after the ceremony.
Chang’s purpose in writing this book is to right a wrong. He considers their absence from Russell’s photograph a consequence of racism. Even if it was unintentional, the photograph is emblematic of history’s neglect of the critical Chinese contribution to what was perhaps the greatest feat of engineering and construction in United States history.
Twenty years after the completion of the railroad, any good feelings that Americans had for the Chinese were replaced by blatant discriminatory laws, and in far too many instances, outright hostility. This book is a timely reminder of the initial experience waves of immigrants faced in America. All contributed to the nation’s building but were reviled and treated badly because of their ethnicity until the Melting Pot eventually worked for them.
Ghosts of Gold Mountain is a mesmerizing story of the first Chinese immigrants — of how hard they worked and persevered in the face of discrimination. Chang is immensely proud of his ancestors, wanting to ensure that today’s Americans of Chinese descent appreciate what they endured in order to make a good life possible for future generations. He reminds his fellow Chinese Americans “of places in the Sierra where, when the night is dark and cold winds blow, one can hear the wailing ghosts of Chinese railroad workers who died during the construction effort. They are lost, suffering, and still seeking a way home to find eternal peace.” This book brings their long-neglected story to light.
Bob Funk is a retired U.S. Marine and a retired high school principal.