Asian Americans Advancing Justice - LA

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Episode 1, Lesson 2: The Contributions of the Chinese Transcontinental Railroad Workers


Episode 1, Lesson 2

The Contributions of the Chinese Transcontinental Railroad Workers

GRADE  7-12
SUBJECT  English Language Arts, U.S. History, World History
With dreams of having a better life, thousands of Chinese risked their lives across the Pacific Ocean to join in the construction of the Transcontinental Railroad from 1863 to 1869. These Chinese laborers worked under extreme and hazardous environments. Due to their ethnic appearance and language barriers, the Chinese were greatly taken advantage of by their employers. These Chinese laborers became pioneers in the collective labor actions of American labor history, while also contributing to the economies of the U.S. and China.

Students will learn:
  • The contributions of Chinese railroad workers and immigrants to the economies of the United States and home countries abroad.
  • The pay disparities and working conditions of Chinese railroad workers and immigrant workers.
  • The fact the Chinese railroad workers’ contributions were not recognized.
  • The reasons immigrants wanted to come to the U.S.
  • To research the railroad’s impact on the Native Americans’ lives, communities and homelands.

The construction of the 1,776-mile Transcontinental Railroad was established by the federal government’s Pacific Railway Act of 1862. The Central Pacific Railroad (West, breaking ground in Sacramento, California) and the Union Pacific Railroad (East, breaking ground in Omaha, Nebraska) took on the challenge to link travel between the Pacific and Atlantic Oceans. From 1863 to 1869, Central Pacific hired roughly 15,000 Chinese laborers — enduring long journeys across the ocean from China to California — to complete the Summit Tunnel at Donner Pass. This was exhausting work, with Chinese workers shoveling twenty pounds of rock over 400 times a day to make their way through 1,659 feet of the Sierra Nevada Mountains to complete the project.
The Transcontinental Railroad shaped America in countless ways by facilitating domestic commerce and international trade. During the 1880s, the freight the railroad transported was worth around $50 million per year. The railroad also connected the scattered cities and towns across the West, making it easier for immigrants to settle across the land.
Chinese workers served as the major labor force on the Central Pacific Railroad construction (roughly 90% of crews), but were treated differently. White workers were paid $35 per month including food and accommodation; however, Chinese workers received only $26 without any food, accommodation, or basic insurance. The Chinese workers held an eight-day silent protest against the wage disparity and working conditions, leading to a decrease in both extreme working hours and whippings. Over time, company leadership slowly improved the pay of the Chinese laborers.

  • Golden Spike: During the “Golden Spike Ceremony” on May 10, 1869, the rail lines of the Central Pacific and Union Pacific were joined at Promontory Summit, Utah. Of the 15,000 Chinese workers that comprised almost ninety percent of the Central Pacific labor force, none were visible in the iconic photograph taken on that day.
  • Remittance: The transfer of money sent by migrants to family members and relatives in their home countries.

  1. What purpose did the Transcontinental Railroad serve for the U.S. economy at that time?
  2. Why were Chinese workers needed to build the Transcontinental Railroad?
  3. Why did the Chinese workers want to come to the U.S. to build the railroad?
  4. Why do you think the Chinese were not included in the completion ceremony photograph at Promontory Point? Why were they not acknowledged for their work?
  5. What types of jobs do immigrant and migrant workers take on today?
  6. Why do immigrant and migrant workers continue to come to the United States today?

ACTIVITY 1: The impact of the Transcontinental Railroad

In 1867, Chinese railroad workers who were working their way through the rocky terrain of the Sierras, laid down their tools and went on strike for better working conditions.

  • What were the differences in pay and treatment between white workers and the Chinese workers?
  • What were some of the demands that the Chinese laborers were making?
  • What did the railroad director do in retaliation of the strike?
  • Were the strikers concessions met? Was this work stoppage/strike successful for the Chinese? Why? Why not?
Have students share their findings in a class discussion, addressing the questions above.

ACTIVITY 2: Mapping the Transcontinental Railroad
A “Utilizing the Geography of Chinese Workers Building the Transcontinental Railroad” by the Chinese Railroad Workers in North America Project at Stanford University and the “Exploring the Path of Chinese Railroad Workers” by the 1882 Foundation, have students research key historic sites from the railway path.
Assign each student one of the sites - such as Sacramento, Bloomer Cut, Summit Tunnel - and have students explore the challenges and obstacles that workers had to overcome in the creation of the Transcontinental Railroad. Have students share presentations on the sites in class.

ACTIVITY 3: Present day immigrant and migrant workers
Ask students to research contemporary immigrant and migrant workers.
  • What type of jobs do immigrant and migrant workers take on today?
  • Does the U.S. need immigrant and migrant workers today? Why or why not?
  • Why do immigrant and migrant workers continue to come to the United States?
  • How might immigrant and migrant workers contribute to their home country while working abroad?
  • How do immigrant and migrant workers contribute to the U.S. economy?



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