Guest editorial: Widen the lens to examine role of Chinese in building Transcontinental Railroad
Golden Spike Foundation board
When I first saw the original print of Andrew J. Russell’s “East and West Shaking Hands at Laying of the Last Rail” from the Union Pacific’s Historical Collection at the Utah Museum of Fine Arts, I found it surprisingly … small. I had always imagined this iconic photograph, also known as the “Champagne Photo,” to be grandiose, superlative and towering compared to its hundreds of counterparts in the collection.
Over the course of a century and a half, this photo has been framed by historians, scholars and educators to encapsulate the entire narrative of the construction of the nation’s first transcontinental railroad. Yet, there it was before me, a standard imperial print measuring 10 inches by 13 inches like most of the other photographs.
The Champagne Photo is both a source of pride of accomplishment and a painful reminder of exclusion. While the old adage says a picture is worth a thousand words, it may not always tell us the entire story. As a member of the organizing entity to celebrate the sesquicentennial of the greatest engineering feat of the 19th century, I and my colleagues hope to widen the lens of history to truly understand the magnificence of this project.
In Russell’s “Chinese laying the last rail on May 10, 1869,” eight Chinese railroad workers are placing a ceremonious rail just moments prior to the driving of a golden spike into a polished laurel tie.
Same day. Same photographer. Different story.
While teaching professional development to fourth-grade teachers across the Wasatch Front as part of the new Utah history curriculum, I learned nearly all the teachers recognized the Champagne Photo and nearly none have seen the photograph with the Chinese workers. One teacher even confessed to me she was surprised to learn the Chinese even worked on the railroad in Utah.
Not only did the Chinese work in Utah, they were part of a more than Herculean effort to lay an unfathomable 10 miles of track from sunup to sundown on April 28, 1869, to help settle a wager between Charles Crocker of the Central Pacific and Doc Durant of the Union Pacific. On that day, an estimated 4,000 Chinese workers along with a handful of Irishmen lifted more than 4.4 million pounds of materials including 25,800 ties, 55,000 spikes and 3,520 30-foot rails each weighing 560 pounds. These railroad workers were asked to do the impossible and they delivered the impossible.
The construction of the combined 1,776 miles by the Union Pacific and Central Pacific Railroads gave America its independence to move into the modern era of industrialization and to rise as a global power. On the other hand, there was undoubtedly collateral damage. In just a half century, the bison population declined from an estimated 30-50 million to just a few hundred. The way of life for the Native Americans was irrevocably altered. The Chinese became scapegoats for economic and labor woes and eventually became the first and only race to be excluded from immigrating to the United States with the 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act.
The stories behind the construction of the transcontinental railroad are exponentially greater than an image of a single photograph. In order to navigate our country’s present and future, we need to have a comprehensive understanding of our past. Flaunting the celebratory while flouting the dolorous is a disservice when it comes to fully recognizing and honoring the perseverance, resilience and fortitude of all those involved in the building of not just a transcontinental railroad but of Utah and America.
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