It spread Anglo-European culture throughout the country and encouraged trade, but the story of the Chinese labourers who built the track has largely been forgotten.
“You can almost feel the pain,” Roland Hsu said as he stood inside the train tunnels along Donner Summit in California’s Sierra Nevada mountains.
Jagged and bumpy, the walls of the tunnel hardly resemble underpasses made by modern-day machinery. Instead, in the 1860s, teams of Chinese labourers blasted through the granite and painstakingly hand-chiselled 15 shafts through the Sierra Nevada so that the first transcontinental railroad could whisk passengers 1,800 miles from Sacramento, California, to Omaha, Nebraska, cutting travel times from six months to just six days and forever transforming the nation.
“It took four men to manually drill a hole into the granite,” said Hsu, director of research for Stanford’s Chinese Railroad Workers in North America Project (CRWNAP), which seeks to shed more light on the experiences of Chinese railroad workers. “A fifth individual would smash it with a sledgehammer. They would then rotate the bar a quarter turn and pound it once more, and so on. This was how they drilled the hole to then pack the black powder, light it and run. There were no hydraulics.”
Because of the difficult construction process, workers could only clear inches per day; it took two and a half years to bore through the nearly 1,700ft-long tunnel at Donner Summit. Hsu advised, “Look closely.” and “you can still see the drill marks”.
This monumental engineering feat had massive effects for the US. ,, and so on, with a focus on the former, and so on, with a focus on the latter. As new towns sprang up along the rail line, it altered where Americans lived, fueled westward expansion, and reduced the cost of travel. However, the project destroyed forests, displaced many Native American tribes, and rapidly spread Anglo-European influence across the country. It also came at a high cost: an estimated 1,200 Chinese labourers died during the six-year construction period, and those who survived faced racial discrimination and threats.
Today, Amtrak’s Zephyr train still chugs along much of the most arduous portions made by Chinese workers more than 150 years ago. Climbing through the Sierra Nevada mountains, the trip offers expansive views of snow-capped peaks and swaths of towering pine and fir trees. (The rest of the line, connecting the San Francisco Bay Area and Chicago, runs on a different route forged after the original Transcontinental railroad.)
It was the greatest engineering enterprise of the 19th Century
On foot, you can also get a better look at the Chinese labourers’ work. Near the Tahoe National Forest, along Donner Pass Road, a plaque calls attention to the “China Wall”, a 75ft retaining wall that still firmly holds the dirt above it in place today so that landslides didn’t bury the track. Called a “engineering marvel” by the Truckee-Donner Historical Society, which installed the plaque, the wall was constructed by Chinese “master builders” who made it by stacking stones, one on top of the other, without any cement or mortar.
A section of the railroad that is no longer in use but is accessible to adventurous hikers is just above the wall. The tracks are no longer there, and the path is now an unmarked trail. More than 7,000ft in elevation, it opens up to picturesque views of Donner Lake in the distance. It’s here that hikers can walk through a series of tunnels, including the nearly 1,700ft-long Tunnel No 6 – the longest of the 15 tunnels bored through the mountains – along with snow sheds that were built to protect the tracks.
It feels eerie – and yes, painful – to stand at the entrance of one of the tunnels and see the small shaft of sunlight at the other end, Knowing how difficult it was to carve that opening, as well as how poorly the Chinese labourers were treated. At one point, in an effort to speed up construction, they worked around the clock, each crew shrouded in darkness for hours at a time.
These structures now stand as a testament to their sweat and sacrifice. They also reflect a legacy that was long erased from US history. But with the recent rise in anti-Asian hate in the US, there has been a renewed push – including establishing the first national Asian Pacific American museum and passing new laws in Illinois, New Jersey and other states to teach Asian American and Pacific Islander history to school-aged students – to recognise the role that Chinese labourers had in completing such a monumental feat.
“It was the greatest engineering enterprise of the nineteenth century,” Connie Young Yu, a historian whose great-grandfather was a Chinese railroad worker, said. “And to think it would be the Chinese who would build the tracks that would unite the states by rail.”
Chinese labourers were never intended to construct the world’s largest railroad. The Central Pacific Railroad (CPRR) and the Union Pacific Railroad had been tasked by Congress to build a railway to connect the country. The CPRR, on the other hand, was unable to hire enough white workers at the time because many of them had left for better-paying jobs in the mines.
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