The Influence of Chinese and Irish Laborers on the Transcontinental Railroad The Chinese and Irish laborers answered strongly when asked to help build the Transcontinental Railroad that connected the Pacific and the Atlantic Coasts. During the long process the immigrant workers encountered harsh weather and living and working conditions. Their work produced the Great Iron Trail in an incredibly short time with minimal resources and equipment. Their struggles are often overlooked and their overseers credited with the building of the railroad. The Chinese and Irish found what entertainment they could, often challenging each other to lay more track in one day than the other. Both found a hostile country in the management of the railroad companies and the U.
S. government that rejected them from the work place and drove them to accept the poor conditions presented by the railroad positions. The two groups couldn't have been more different, yet they came together to create a revolutionary railway and opened a new era in the United States. Their great influence may have made the completion of the transcontinental railroad possible. The Chinese and Irish were drawn to the land of opportunity in order to become successful. They came from different ends of the world to end up at a common destination: California.
The Chinese were dreamers when they came to California; they hoped to profit from the Gold Rush. They left a feudal system that restricted many aspects off their lives (Daley 14-15). The Irish had visions of a more stable future, coming to California in search of steady jobs (Potter 621). They left Ireland for America to escape the Great Potato famine. Long before the Gold Rush of 1849, the Chinese had known about the wealth that lay in America, or "the Mountain of Gold" (Sung 1-4; Howard 225). Legend told of a place where the precious metal was bountiful.
They dismissed this until a few daring men found wealth in America. Many were drawn to the prospect of easy money and by 1850 nearly 25, 000 Chinese had immigrated to California (Sung 5; Daley 26-27). Some searched the deserted land claims for overlooked gold, while other Chinese were hired by successful gold miners as cooks, houseboys, gardeners, farmers, and laundrymen (Sung 10-11; Howard 224-226). Unfortunately they were met with discrimination.
Many were shut out of the workplace and the Chinese in California quickly became beggars. The Irish had come from a hostile Boston in search of a place in the job market. They found an equality they had been unable to find in New England (Potter 670; Howard 225). Although they found jobs, few were very successful. A majority still lived in shantytowns and poverty even in California. The Civil War played a major role in who was hired and how the employees were chosen.
The Civil War began in 1861, two years before the groundbreaking to start the transcontinental railroad and one year before the Great Railroad Act of 1862. The construction on the transcontinental railroad was finished in 1869, four years after the end of the Civil War and six years after the groundbreaking (Howard 126-143; website). The western and eastern railroad companies had always depended on immigrant workers and with the start of the Civil War, this dependency was even greater (Johnson and Supple 191). There was a shortage of white Americans willing to work because they had either enlisted or been drafted into the war (Hogg 71; Howard 224).
The Chinese were forced into a servant's / slave 's life. In some cases, white men imported Chinese laborers in crowded ships, much like the African slaves, and "hired" at auctions (Hogg 72-73). The Chinese were also looking for a way out of poverty and slavery and saw the transcontinental railroad as a means of escape. During the Civil War, the wealthy were able to buy their way out of the draft, leaving the poor to fight. The Irish made up a large portion of those in poverty and were often drafted. They saw this a way for the government to justify unjust social distinctions (Moynihan 64).
As a way to avoid the draft, the Irish signed up to work to build the transcontinental railroad. The Chinese had a valuable asset that would contribute to the building the first transcontinental railroad; they could adapt to many different jobs, communities, and lifestyles (Sung 14; Howard 225; Hogg 72-73). Their diligent, efficient work surprised the railroad contractors who were wary about hiring them. To overcome language barriers, the Chinese would gather in groups of ten to fifteen, appoint a headman to translate work orders, and work in those teams (Hogg 73).
Similarly, the Irish were used to the hard labor that laying railroad track demanded. They had done physical labor in the eastern U. S. , such as digging canals (Howard 225). As well as the Chinese, the Irish had a unique working style learned in the industrial east coast.
When laying track they would use a system similar to the assembly lines found in factories (Howard 327). The Chinese were underestimated when the contractors hired them. They took smaller shovel bites into banks of earth, and their barrow men took lighter loads than the American workers. But, by the end of the day, the Chinese laborers had progressed further than the American workers who had joked about them earlier. The Chinese worked methodically and constantly, not taking breaks and almost always in silence. A younger worker would bring hot tea to the men working, but as soon as their cups were empty, they went back to work.
The "coolie's," as the Chinese workers had been named, worked longer and smoother than the white crews. Even after the white gangs had stepped up their own work pace and cut back on the number and duration of their breaks, the Chinese still laid more track than any other crew (Howard 227-228). The Irish used a work technique picked up in the New England factories to manage their backbreaking tasks. They used an assembly line approach while laying track. Each person would be assigned a certain part of the task and would do it repeatedly as the group progressed. This allowed each person to concentrate on a single task, to completing it well and quickly.
The groups moved along quickly when working, but still took the normal breaks (Howard 227-228; Hogg 126). It was a rare sight to see two groups working together so perfectly, but the Irish and the Chinese, when they could get along, can be considered a human machine. They worked in such perfect synchrony that their progress was smooth and quick (Howard 327). The Chinese would lay and align the rails and the Irish would pound the heavy iron nails into the ground to hold the rails in place. The Chinese used their ingenuity when moving the large rails by making a human moving belt, sliding the bars across bouncing pieces of denim and large Chinese hats. The Irish utilized their own techniques when driving the nails.
Each man would trade off blows on the nail, thus driving it into the ground quickly and efficiently. Never was a machine used in the laying of the transcontinental railroad. It was all done by manual labor. Unfortunately, competing companies the Union Pacific and the Central Pacific did not hire from both groups and mixed crews of Chinese and Irish were uncommon. The Union Pacific workforce consisted of primarily Irish laborers while the Central Pacific workforce consisted of primarily Chinese workers (Hogg 126).
Unfortunately the two groups seldom got along. The Chinese success at building the transcontinental railroad caused many a disturbance in other camps. The other railway workers were upset that the "yellow" men worked more efficiently than they did and often protested in the form of strikes, by stepping up to meet the coolies' progress, or raids: "All that spring the drunks and young 'toughs' found their sport by setting fire to Chinese laundries and cigar factories... ." (Howard 235).
The Irish were greatly infuriated by the Chinese success. At one point a large riot broke out between the two groups, in which both teams suffered great losses (Hogg 126-128; Howard 303). The Irish and Chinese were often competing to see who was the better group. By 1865, word had reached the eastern cities of the incredible progress made by both groups, Chinese and Irish alike, and the competition between them.
Bets were placed among contractors of the Central Pacific and Union Pacific to see who could lay the most track. Day in and day out the Chinese and Irish worked and each day the length of track lay increased. The Irish laid an impressive 10 miles of track in a single day and finally won the bet (Hogg and Howard). The conditions the Chinese and Irish were forced to work in ranged from below freezing to temperatures above 110 s, from flat plains to towering mountains. The Chinese and Irish faced their most challenging snow at Colfax, California, where they were temporarily stopped by thirty-foot snowdrifts (Hogg 74). Interestingly, the Chinese found amusement out of this barrier.
They dug tunnels to nearby tents and formed an under-snow community (Hogg 75). They even continued their work under the snow when they could, digging large domes around the work area (Howard 234). When winter passed, the snow melted and presented another hazard to the Irish and Chinese. The melted snow would rush down the mountains in the form of flash floods, killing hundreds, and stripping the camps of supplies (Howard 334).
Avalanches, rock falls and mud slides posed yet another danger. Tunneling, by means of dynamite and nitro, would loosen snow, rock, and earth that would tumble down on lower camps (Howard 234). At one point, Central Pacific workers were above Union Pacific crews when a blast knocked two-ton boulders loose and sent them hurtling down on the Union Pacific crews (Hogg 127). Summers were no better. Storms ravaged the plains halting progress sometimes for days on end (Howard 237-238). Flash floods continued to rush down on the camps.
The temperature often exceeded 100^0, especially in the plains and deserts. Mountains and cliffs posed the most challenging terrain to the workers. At Cape Horn, California, the Chinese used their innovation again while blasting a trail up an 800-foot cliff (Hogg 76). It took two months to pass this obstacle with 11 miles of track. In comparison to nearly five hundred miles of track each month on the plains.
Although the laborers were able to lay more track in the plains, Indians presented a danger, during that time. For instance, Cherokee Indians attacked a group of scouts at Crow River, killing four people (Howard 242-245). The Chinese and Irish proved their endurance surviving the winters and summers in tiny, unsanitary camps. The pay the Irish and Chinese received was sometimes a minimal $4 to $8 dollars a month, but usually about $1 a day (Howard 226; Hogg 72). This turned away many possible native-born Americans who realized that more money could be made in the silver mines in the Sierra, and those who did join waited until closer to the mines before deserting the railroads for a job in the mines (Hogg 72-73). This made it hard for the railway workers to escape poverty.
Laws discriminating against Chinese added taxes, fees and duties to what they owed, making it harder for them to overcome their setbacks (Howard 226-227). It was an infrequent sight to see the Chinese or Irish recognized for their hard work on the transcontinental railroad. More often, a contractor or overseer would get credit for the work the laborers put in. The transcontinental railroad, the "Great Iron Trail," the gateway to the west, was finished on May 10, 1869 with the ceremonial "Last Spike." The true creators of the railroad were only credited once in a speech in the final blow ceremony. The Irish and Chinese had a huge impact on the transcontinental railroad, finishing it four years early and with perfection while overcoming a large number of obstacles with their ingenuity and hard work. Without these immigrant workers the project may never have been finished, or even started.
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