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In 1862, Congress authorized construction of the first transcontinental railroad, and granted land and subsidies to the Central Pacific (working eastward from Sacramento) and the Union Pacific (working westward from Omaha) to accomplish that goal. Most of the workers were European or Chinese immigrants. The decision by the Central Pacific to hire Chinese was opposed by the European immigrants who viewed them as too small and frail for the physically intensive construction jobs and unqualified for the masonry and pyrotechnical jobs. Critics of the hiring policy were reminded that the Chinese had constructed the Great Wall of China and invented gunpowder.

The Central Pacific hired the Chinese in groups of fifty to one-hundred, paying them $26 to $35 per month. White employees were paid $35 per month, plus room and board. The workday was from sunrise to sunset, six days a week. Between 12,000 and 14,000 Chinese worked for the Central Pacific on the transcontinental railroad, and more than 1,200 died during its construction. The Chinese worked at leveling roadbeds, digging tunnels, and blasting mountains. They were praised for their work ethic and workmanship by newspaper reporters and their Central Pacific bosses, including some who had originally objected to their employment. Yet, when the transcontinental railroad was finally completed at Promontory Point, Utah, the Chinese were excluded from celebrations there and in Sacramento. But the good reputation they had earned led to the Union Pacific and the Northern Pacific hiring Chinese workers beginning in 1870.

Sources consulted:

Shih-Shan Henry Tsai, The Chinese Experience in America (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1986)

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