Letting others die in
a cruel race for precious miles...
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Joseph Hubert Becker, Snow sheds on the Central Pacific Railroad in the Sierra Nevada Mountains, May 1869, 1869.

Joseph Becker, a staff artist for Leslie's Illustrated Weekly Newspaper traveled west aboard the first cross-Rockies Pullman train in 1869 and sketched Chinese workers during a six-week stay in California. Here, as Chinese laborers shake their fists at a train emerging from a snowshed, it is unclear whether they cheer their accomplishments or jeer at the system that subjected them to such difficult labor.

"The Big Four of the Central Pacific - Crocker, Hopkins, and Stanford - had gotten their project off to an earlier start after securing a loan of $1,659,000 from the State of California and untruthfully convincing President Abraham Lincoln that the Sierra Nevada began almost at Sacramento, so that the federal subsidy was forty-eight thousand dollars per mile, not sixteen thousand dollars. Using their mercantile contacts in the East, they ordered equipment and rails sent around Cape Horn to San Francisco and upriver to Sacramento. Lumberjacks cut trees in the foothills for ties and trestles, and hundreds of Chinese laborers threw up embankments and graded the right-of-way. Tracklaying began in 1863, but the Central Pacific extended only 115 miles four years later as the construction gangs entered the mountains. Seven thousand, then ten thousand, pig-tailed Chinese "coolies" struggled against the rocks, snow, and terrible winds of the Sierra Nevada. Landslides tore away work that had taken weeks or months. Blizzards buried the roadbed and many of the workers, forcing the company to build huge snowsheds to protect the line. Chinese workers swung in baskets suspended by ropes, drilling holes for dynamite in the face of sheer rock walls. They collapsed from heat and humidity deep in tunnels driven through solid granite. Hundreds died, and still they came, recruited in China, brought to California, and taken by rail to the end of the track. They preserved. In the summer of 1867 the Central Pacific crossed the crest of the Sierra Nevada, and the laborers moved swiftly downgrade toward the deserts of Nevada. As Casement's Irish gangs drove westward, the Central Pacific's Chinese raced them to a connection...from: Milner, Clyde A. II, O'Connor, Carol, Sandweiss Martha A. (eds.), The Oxford History of the American West.
bridgebuild.jpg (55743 Byte)The most basic of all principles was that initial construction should be as cheap as possible, with any improvements in the line to be bought with earnings. In a system of private provision of railroads, this meant that corporate strategy came to prevail over geographical strategy, which, in turn, even prevailed over the fate of thousands of Chinese and Irish laborers involved in the building of the Union and Central Pacifics.

Bridges like the bridge over Dale Creek were often constructed in less than five days. What counted was time - human lives played the lesser role in the railroad construction. Such bridges were usually built of timber first before they were replaced by steal constructions. Quite often, however, these timber constructions held out for more than a hundred years.

 

The famous episode of one and a half week's side-by-side building of the Union and Central Pacific...
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..just in greed for miles ...just to prove that 'those Chinese coolies' can do more than ten miles in less than twelve hours...

In truth, the construction of the first transcontinental railroad proved to be a competition between the Union Pacific (working westward) and the Central Pacific (building eastward). As the construction of the Central Pacific turned out to become desperate in the mountains of the Sierra Nevada, Collis P. Huntington, owner of the Central Pacific, ordered another working party to leave the mountains and to descend in the desert regions of Nevada. Thus, he hoped, land could be occupied and (if only) graded by the Central Pacific, which meant that the Central Pacific would be granted the land subsidies. Consequently, there were two working parties of the Central Pacific working at the same time at two different places. For the Chinese coolies, grading the land in the desert meant being exposed to an additional danger: Indians were known to attack the labor gangs especially in desert regions. Huntington, when one of his men asked him to equip the Chinese with guns, put it rather plain: "A Winchester is worth $12, a Chinese none.

The only problem was that the Union Pacific had had exactly the same idea. Irish labor gangs rushed westward to grade (and to claim) the land (and the subsidies) for the Union Pacific. The consequences were rather bitter for the Chinese coolies of the Central Pacific and the Irish laborers of the Union Pacific. Greed for precious subsidies from Washington meant for the workers then a one-and-a half-weeks grading of land side-by-side. More than once during that famous week, their labor was all of a sudden interrupted by nitroglycerin attacks from the other side...

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After two weeks of bloody fighting for the precious miles, President Ulysess S. Grant ordered the two construction companies to join each other peacefully at Promontory Point (UT) on May 10, 1869.

 

back to: The Building of the Transcontinental Railroads

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