A Chinese Immigrant Recalls the Dangers of Railroad Work

From the 1860s to the 1880s, thousands of Chinese immigrants found work in railroad construction in the West, notably on the Central Pacific line of the First Transcontinental Railroad, which was built primarily by Chinese. The extreme danger of this work is suggested by this excerpt from Chinese American Voices, in which a railroad worker recalls some of the life-threatening hazards Chinese workers faced, often under worse conditions and for lower pay than their white counterparts.

Our foreman then ordered us to pack up and return to Yale. So, although already suffering pangs of hunger, we had to start on our way immediately. When we were passing China Bar on the way, many of the Chinese died from an epidemic. As there were no coffins to bury the dead, the bodies were stuffed into rock crevices or beneath the trees to await their arrival. Those whose burials could not wait were buried on the spot I boxes made of crude thin planks hastily fastened together. There were even some who were buried in the ground wrapped only in blankets or grass mats. New graves dotted the landscape and the sight sent chills up and down my spine. . . .

The work at Hope was very dangerous. On one occasion, there was a huge rock on the slope of the mountain that stood in the railroad’s path and must be removed by blasting before the tracks could go through. However, the sides of the rock were nearly perpendicular all around and there was no easy way to reach the top. The workers had to scramble to the top by use of timber scaffolding and by ropes fastened to the rock. After they reached the top they drilled holes in the rock to hold the dynamite charges. I was one of the workers who were assigned the task of drilling. Each morning I climbed the rock, and after I had finished the day’s work I was lowered again by rope. I remembered that in blasting this rock more than three hundred barrels of explosives were used. . . .

Another incident occurred about ten to fifteen miles west of Yale. Dynamite was used to blast a rock cave. Twenty charges were placed and ignited, but only eighteen blasts went off. However, the white foreman, thinking that all of the dynamite had gone off, ordered the Chinese workers to enter the cave to resume work. Just at that moment the remaining two charges suddenly exploded. Chinese bodies flew from the cave as if shot from a cannon. Blood and flesh were mixed in a horrible mess. On this occasion about ten or twenty workers were killed.

Source | Judy Yung, Gordon H. Chang, and Him Mark Lai, eds., Chinese American Voices: From the Gold Rush to the Present (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2006), 40-41.
Creator | Wong Hau-hon
Item Type | Book (excerpt)
Cite This document | Wong Hau-hon, “A Chinese Immigrant Recalls the Dangers of Railroad Work,” HERB: Resources for Teachers, accessed July 25, 2014, http://herb.ashp.cuny.edu/items/show/614.