Laying Some History On You: Working on the Railroad

North America was once spanned by vast expanses of railway track, with one of the most extensive networks of trails in the world for both passengers and freight. In the West, in both the United States and Canada, Chinese labourers as well as immigrants from other Asian nations were the primary workforce on the railroads. The folksong ‘I’ve been working on the railroad’ might paint an idyllic picture of railway labour, but the reality was hard and unpleasant. Talking about the great age of rail and the waves of immigration into the West, very little discussion is dedicated to railway labourers and the conditions they worked in; it wasn’t until 1999 that Congress deigned to recognise their contributions to the early development of the West.

‘Gangs’ of workers, numbering between 12 and 30, were responsible for leveling ground, laying ties, setting rails, and driving millions of spikes. Traveling with a cook to prepare their rations, usually of poor quality, they worked seven days a week in conditions ranging from scorching heat to blizzards. They were often isolated from the rest of society, as the tracks went through remote and sometimes hazardous areas. The work was grueling and it could be violent.

Railway workers were expected to use explosives in their work, often with inadequate training, and the explosives were usually poorly manufactured and lacked stability, exposing people to pretty significant risks of injuries. Workers were raised and lowered by hand in wicker baskets as people hacked through canyons and valleys and pushed through mountains. The triumph of rail in North America is often depicted as a battle with nature, as much of the terrain was harsh and difficult to navigate, but people rarely mention the foot soldiers who fought that battle.

In an era where organized labour was on the rise and workers were starting to resist exploitative labour practices by working in solidarity with each other, often spanning religious and cultural backgrounds, Chinese workers didn’t even enjoy solidarity with other workers; a strike in 1867 for better wages collapsed after a week because white labourers didn’t support their Chinese counterparts. Chinese workers were routinely derided by other workers and some of the rhetoric might seem familiar today; some white immigrants accused Chinese workers of stealing jobs by providing cheap labour.

In China, advertisements for railway work were published as early as 1855. Many labourers came to the West anticipating employment in the gold fields and ended up working on projects like the Transcontinental Railroad. They faced bigotry and hatred from their employers and supervisors, including Irish workers who flatly refused to supervise Chinese railway workers, on the grounds that they were ‘unfit.’ Unlike Chinese immigrants who settled in sheltered communities like San Francisco’s Chinatown, they didn’t have access to a supportive community and this isolation could be deadly.

The railways needed a lot of labour and they needed cheap labour. They got it through Chinese workers, most of whom were represented by labour agents. Agents often paid passage from China, expecting their workers to earn it on the other side. Wages were not paid directly to workers, but rather to their agents, and it was up to the agents to decide how much should be given out to the workers. After, of course, accounting for expenses like clothing and feeding workers, providing tools, and so forth. None other than Leland Stanford called this policy ‘just and liberal.’

Chinese labourers made varying rates of pay across the United States and Canada, but generally earned much less than free Blacks, whites, and Native American/First Nations workers. While all railway workers were undoubtedly exploited and subjected to the same hazardous and grueling working conditions, Chinese labourers in particular got the short end of the stick. They were paid far less, brutalized by ‘security officers’ supposedly posted to keep track workers safe, and punished when they fled railway work for the gold fields or other opportunities that presented themselves.

And, of course, none of this labour was a path to citizenship. Despite breaking their backs in service of the railroad, Chinese immigrants were denied citizenship in the United States and had limited civil rights; unlike immigrants from Europe, they didn’t have property rights, for example.

Today, many of the tracks laid at the cost of scores of lives in North America are gone. They’ve been torn up, paved over, or neglected to the point that they are no longer functional. The age of rail was eclipsed by the car and, despite attempts at promoting the resurgence of the railway industry, restoring these tracks will probably be an uphill battle. For one thing, workers enjoy more protections today, including fair wages, limited working hours, and mandates for safer working conditions. That adds substantially to the cost per mile for laying track.

The only reason people were able to develop railways so quickly in North America, radically restructuring society by making it possible for people and goods to criss-cross the continent, was because of cheap, essentially disposable Chinese labour in the West. Without these labourers, railways would have developed reasonably rapidly to the Rockies and then stopped short for lack of labourers. Yet, the contributions of Chinese immigrants are rarely recognised when people talk about how the United States pulled itself from a rough frontier to an economic and political powerhouse in a matter of decades.