Memory  /  Discovery

Remembering the Forgotten Chinese Railroad Workers

Archaeologists help modern descendants of Chinese railroad workers in Utah commemorate their ancestors' labor and lives.

It was the first day of the Chinese Railroad Workers Descendants Association conference in Utah, put on to mark the 150th anniversary of the completion of the first transcontinental railroad. In 1869, the ceremonial “golden spike” was driven in at Promontory Summit, Utah, which is near where we gathered. More than 400 people came to the conference to honor the lives of the estimated 10,000 to 15,000 Chinese men who were instrumental in the massive, dangerous project. Some, like Low, could trace their genealogical roots to individual railroad workers. Many could not, but they still strove to learn. As the Chinese proverb, or chéngyŭ, goes: “When drinking water, remember the person who dug the well” (吃水不忘挖井人; chī shuǐ bù wàng wā jǐng rén).

The transcontinental railway was primarily built in two extensive portions by two corporations. Union Pacific Railroad, which built the section east of Salt Lake City, mainly relied on Irish and other European immigrants for their labor pool. Central Pacific Railroad, which built the western segment, had to compete with lucrative mines for laborers; they instead relied on Chinese workers, many of whom were fleeing the aftermath of the opium wars and the Taiping rebellion back home. They were paid less and worked longer hours than their Euro-American counterparts.

Despite the huge presence of these Chinese workers, few Chinese individuals were named in the payroll ledgers and other historical documents of the late 1800s. Racial prejudice by Euro-Americans tended to erase or discount Chinese American contributions. Because of this, the descendant community is bound by a shared yearning to know what it was like back then. What did these workers eat? Where did they live? How did they relax?

Archaeology, the study of the material remains of the past, is uniquely positioned to explore these questions. Archaeologists have been studying Chinese railroad work sites for over 50 years and, in 2012, the archaeology network of the Chinese Railroad Workers in North America Project (CRRW) began collecting and presenting their results.

As a museum registrar in the historical archaeology lab at Stanford University, where I worked for the director of the CRRW archaeology network, and as a Chinese American, I went to the Chinese Railroad Workers Descendants Association conference in May—and volunteered on a tour with 200 attendees over two days—to help show how archaeology provides one of the clearest windows into what life was like for some ancestors of the participants. But, in the end, what I witnessed was more than just a one-way history lesson.