The low-down on Victorian San Francisco from the author of "Shaketown"
Wednesday, April 18, 2012
Building the Hard Road
Promontory Summit, Utah
Chinese immigration began shortly after the California Gold Rush in 1849 and ended abruptly with the passage of the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882. The earliest migration in 1849 consisted mostly of young male peasants who were recruited from their homeland to extract metals and minerals, reclaim swamplands, build irrigation systems, work as migrant agricultural laborers and fishermen, and construct a vast railroad network (like Wo Sam's and Wo Li's elderly companion on the train in Shaketown). Chinese immigrants were the unsung heroes in the success of the Transcontinental Railroad: in spite of major racist opposition, the Central Pacific Railroad Company under Charles Crocker employed about 15,000 Chinese to construct the eastward-bound leg by early 1867; the Chinese laborers were determined and tireless, toiling under extreme working conditions in the Sierra Nevada (workers of the west-building Union Pacific were mainly Irish immigrants and Civil War veterans). To blast through the mountains, the Central Pacific built huge wooden trestles on the western slopes and used gunpowder and nitroglycerine to move tons of rock, hollowing out tunnels through the granite--often with loss of life and limb. The two railroads met at Promontory Summit in Utah in 1869.