During a ceremony, two men shake hands while surrounded by a crowd of men and two locomotives facing each other.

How Chinese Migrants Built the Transcontinental Railroad

May 10 marked the 154th anniversary of the completion of the first Transcontinental Railroad. Connecting the two coasts revolutionized travel, transformed the U.S. economy, and escalated conflicts between Indigenous people and settlers. During the 100th anniversary in 1969, U.S. Secretary of Transportation John A. Volpe said:

“Who else but Americans could drill 10 tunnels in mountains 30 feet deep in snow? Who else but Americans could chisel through miles of solid granite? Who else but Americans could have laid 10 miles of track in 12 hours” (New York Times).

Actually, these accomplishments were achieved primarily by Chinese workers, many ineligible for U.S. citizenship. They were instrumental in constructing the transcontinental railroad, completing its western portion. However, their contributions were largely ignored and nearly forgotten in history. 


Learn more about the Chinese railroad workers who built the transcontinental railroad. 

Donate and support the efforts of immigrant home care and other workers in New York who are organizing against the 24-hour workday and wage theft.

• Support organizations like the Chinese Staff & Workers’ Association and Chinese Progressive Association, the National Mobilization Against Sweatshops, and Asian American Legal Defense and Education Fund protecting labor and civil rights. 

Following the belief that it was white settlers’ God-ordained destiny to expand and possess the land, settlement to the West grew from the 1830s and 1840s. The 1862 Homestead Act incentivized westward movement and the displacement of Indigenous people, with 160 acres of land provided for free (Library of Congress). Though the passage of the Pacific Railway Act months later made it possible by funding the creation of a railroad route that made the journey less arduous and expensive. Before the Transcontinental Railroad, the trip cost upwards of $1,000 but fell to $150 following its completion (History). 

The act authorized the Union Pacific Railroad (building westward from Nebraska) and the Central Pacific Railroad Company (building eastward from California) to lay two lines of track until they met. Construction of the transcontinental railroad ran from 1863 to 1869 and depended on the exploited labor of Indigenous and (enslaved and free) Black people, Mormons, but mostly Irish and Chinese immigrants. 

In California, around 20,000 Chinese workers constructed the railroad. Central Pacific Railroad initially refused to employ Chinese workers due to stereotypes and anti-Chinese sentiment (History). They changed course upon facing a labor shortage because white laborers were “reluctant to do such backbreaking, hazardous work.”

Unlike the mid-western prairie, worked by mostly Irish and other Euro-American laborers, the western section of the route meant avalanches and extreme weather conditions in desert and mountain terrain (HistoryStanford). It required removing boulders, building wooden trestles on slopes and across canyons, and blasting and tunneling through the Sierra Nevada mountains. White laborers found farming or mining preferable. Central Pacific recruited and employed Chinese workers in the country and abroad, resulting in 90% of their labor force being Chinese immigrants. It’s estimated that over 2,000 Chinese workers may have died. 

Despite this, they worked longer hours and were paid less than their white counterparts. They had white (often Irish) overseers and had to pay for their own lodging and food. Seeking pay parity and shorter shifts in hazardous tunnels, thousands of Chinese workers went on strike in June 1867. The railroad company considered using newly-freed Black people as strikebreakers. 

 “A Negro labor force would tend to keep the Chinese steady, as the Chinese have kept the Irishmen quiet.” 

Mark Hopkins, Central Pacific Railroad executive.

The company instead opted for starvation tactics and threats of violence to end the eight-day strike, known as “the largest collective labor action in American history to that date” (Stanford). Though the railroad company did not concede to the strikers’ demands, work conditions improved, and the notion that the Chinese were “docile” and unwilling to “fight for their rights” was dispelled. 

May 10, 1869, would mark the official completion of the Transcontinental Railroad and the erasure of the efforts of Chinese laborers, without whom, according to Central Pacific Railroad executive and later California Governor and Stanford University founder, it “would be impossible to complete the western portion of this great national enterprise.”

Chinese workers are mostly absent in the iconic photo and documentation of the ceremony of the hammering of the symbolic Golden Spike when the two tracks met. Many were dismissed or relocated before its completion, giving the impression that the largest engineering feat was accomplished solely by white Americans. 

Over a decade later, the 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act barred the immigration of Chinese laborers to the U.S. for 10 years and prevented those in the country from naturalization (Historian). The law and those to follow were part of a wave of anti-Chinese sentiment and violence that not only shaped Chinese and other Asian Americans’ experiences, even to this day, but also stripped them of the recognition for helping transform the U.S. into the world power it is today. 


• The Transcontinental Railroad is hailed as one of the country’s greatest feats of engineering, but the immigrants who built it have long been ignored. 

• The Chinese workers were given the most difficult and dangerous work but compensated less than their Euro-American counterparts. 

• The work of Chinese migrants was integral to the railroad’s construction, the labor movement, and the transformation of America.

2058 1436 Dominique Stewart

Dominique Stewart

Dominique is a writer and editor whose interests lie within the intersections of social justice and culture. She has written and edited for several outlets, including Brooklyn Magazine, The Tempest, and the Broward-Palm Beach New Times. Dominique was the managing editor for a women’s health magazine called Sidepiece Magazine.

All stories by : Dominique Stewart
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