• A photo of a group of laborers at work on a line change project in Utah. Courtesy of the University of Utah J. Willard Marriott Library via Mountain West Digital Library.

     

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    Reproduction of an earlier photograph of an extra gang at work on a line change project of the Utah Lines of the Denver and Rio Grande
    • Date
    • 1914-06-13
    • Creator
    • Geo. Anderson
    • Rights
    • This material may be protected by copyright. Permission is required for use in any form. For further information please contact the Multimedia Archivist, Special Collections,J. Willard Marriott Library, University of Utah.
    • Partner
    • Mountain West Digital Library
    • Contributing Institution
    • University of Utah - J. Willard Marriott Library

  • “Coaling on the road at Wannewacker by Chinese laborers,” 1876. Courtesy of the Utah State Historical Society via the Mountain West Digital Library.

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    Central Pacific Railroad--Construction P.18; 20051
    • Date
    • 1876
    • Description
    • Front: Coaling on the road at Wannewacker by Chinese laborers. Back: Chinese laborers / workers hauling coal. Donor: L.V. McNeely.
    • Rights
    • Digital Image © 2014 Utah State Historical Society. All Rights Reserved.
    • Partner
    • Mountain West Digital Library
    • Contributing Institution
    • Utah State Historical Society

  • A photo of Chinese laborers working with one-horse dump carts. Courtesy of the Utah State Historical Society via the Mountain West Digital Library.

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    Central Pacific Railroad--Construction P.9; 00527
    • Date
    • 1863
    • Creator
    • Hart, Alfred A
    • Description
    • Chinese laborers / workers with one-horse dump carts building a grade for the Central Pacific at Prospect Hill Cut, 75 miles from Sacramento, where construction started. Photograph taken by official Central Pacific photographer: Alfred A. Hart of Sac... more
      Chinese laborers / workers with one-horse dump carts building a grade for the Central Pacific at Prospect Hill Cut, 75 miles from Sacramento, where construction started. Photograph taken by official Central Pacific photographer: Alfred A. Hart of Sacramento. Southern Pacific Photo X167. less
    • Rights
    • Digital Image © 2014 Utah State Historical Society. All Rights Reserved.
    • Partner
    • Mountain West Digital Library
    • Contributing Institution
    • Utah State Historical Society

Laborers

As construction began on the Central Pacific Line, railroad organizers were finding it impossible to retain the thousands of workers needed to lay track. White, mostly Irish, workers would quit after building up savings to seek their fortunes in the gold fields. The Central Pacific questioned where they might find the sustained manpower needed to finish the job.

For them, the answer lay in the Chinese, who had experienced great difficulties in California after emigrating during the Gold Rush of 1849. They were barred from participating in public life, yet had to pay extra taxes. Politicians, notably head of the Central Pacific and Governor of California Leland Stanford, began running on anti-Chinese platforms.

Chinese workers were first brought to railroad work to send a message to Irish workers that they were expendable. Yet work from the Chinese gave the Central Pacific great returns on the meager $30 a month it paid each laborer and thus they eventually comprised 80 percent of the workers on the line. The Chinese would brave the hazardous conditions of tunneling and accomplish incredible feats of track laying, including one period where they put down 10 miles in 12 hours.

A more diverse group was responsible for the construction of the Union Pacific line, including Irish Civil War veterans and newly freed slaves looking for paying jobs in the more progressive West. Mormons also comprised a significant portion of the Union Pacific workforce because of a collective desire to see the railroad incorporate Utah into the rest of the nation.