Connection and Exclusion

View item information

“Throwing Down The Ladder By Which They Rose,” a 1870 political cartoon. Courtesy of The New York Public Library.

The thousands of Chinese laborers who worked under harsh conditions for low wages, and whose diligence made completion of the railroad possible, were met with a growing anti-Chinese sentiment. Riding a longstanding wave of anger over the perception that Chinese workers (and their low wages) were taking jobs from Americans, the Chinese Massacre of 1871 resulted in an angry mob hanging seventeen Chinese men and boys in Los Angeles. In 1882, the Chinese Exclusion Act was signed into law, putting severe limits on both the number of new Chinese immigrants allowed into the country and those who could become naturalized citizens. Anti-Chinese mobs would continue to enact violence for years to come.

While the anti-Chinese movements brought out the worst in Americans, the Transcontinental Railroad did create opportunities for communication and knowledge sharing never before possible. Poems, including Walt Whitman’s “Passage to India,” novels, and films were inspired by the new possibilities of the cross-country railroad. News, scientific discourse, and culture could travel from one side of the country to the other at new speeds. So could goods, with $50 million in freight traveling the rail line in its first ten years of operation. With the success of the original transcontinental route, tracks were laid to connect even more parts of the country. That original route, however, is still partly in use today. The Amtrak “California Zephyr” train travels via the first Transcontinental Railroad from Sacramento to Nevada.