Chinese laborers building trans-U.S. railroad faced dangers and prejudice

Tolerance for racial minorities in America appears to be growing despite recent occurrences of bigotry, mostly by neo-Nazis and other hate groups.

I’ve never cared for the word “tolerance,” however, when referring to the treatment of minorities. To me, tolerance means grudging acceptance or sufferance, as when we are forced to endure screaming children in restaurants and aboard airplanes, barking dogs, loud motorcycles and leafblowers and trash-strewn neighbors’ front yards.

We shouldn’t “tolerate” minorities. We should show them acceptance, respect and inclusion.

Unfortunately, acceptance, respect and inclusion haven’t always been accorded minorities in Nevada and across the nation, particularly the Chinese. The 1882 federal Chinese Exclusion Act, for example, restricted the immigration of Chinese into the U.S. to placate the demands of Caucasians seeking racial purity. The act was renewed in 1892 for another 10 years, and in 1902 Chinese immigration was made permanently illegal. Although this act was later repealed, Chinese remained ineligible for U.S. citizenship until 1943.

Despite prejudice against the Chinese, as many as 15,000 of them helped build the transcontinental railroad which was completed 150 years ago this month when the Union Pacific and Central Pacific railroads linked up at Promontory Point, Utah, on May 10, 1869. Five days ago, we commemorated this important anniversary.

When recalling the history of the railroad’s cross-country route from the East to San Francisco, we must remember that it passed through Churchill County on its way to Reno and San Francisco at White Plains, which lies about 35 miles north of Fallon where Highway 95, the Lovelock Highway, meets Interstate 80. First populated in 1864, the year Nevada became the 36th state, White Plains was the site of a large mill that processed silver ore from nearby mines.

In 1873, a tourists’ guide to the West described White Plains as having “no vegetation that meets the eye when gazing on the vast expanse of dirty white alkalai.” A post office and telegraph office were established at the growing community in 1879, but were discontinued in 1909 when the mines played out. The little town even had a newspaper, appropriately named the White Plains News. Alas, it lasted only one edition! Today, a highway rest stop takes the place of long-abandoned White Plains.

As for the Chinese railroad workers, they did most of the backbreaking and hazardous work constructing the Western portion of the route through California, Nevada and Utah because only a handful of white Americans volunteered to join the construction gangs. The Chinese, who made up approximately 90 percent of the railroad workers in these three states, also received lower wages than the Caucasians, many of whom were European immigrants who taunted and mocked them because of their race. In the iconic photo taken May 10, 1869, which shows swarms of laborers hoisting champagne bottles around two locomotives at Promontory Point the day the transcontinental line was completed, only two of them were Chinese.

During their labors on the massive construction project, “The Chinese toiled in extreme weather conditions, bored tunnels and built bridges and retaining walls and became experts in masonry, carpentry and track-laying. Sometimes they were lowered off cliffs by ropes to plant explosive charges when blasting was necessary, knowing that once the fuse was lit the difference between life and death hinged on how fast they were brought up.

“There were occasions when avalanches buried workers in snow and they weren’t found until the snow melted the following spring. There were hundreds, possibly more than a thousand, who died building the railroad,” according to Stanford University history professor Richard Chang, author of “Ghosts of Gold Mountain: The Epic Story of the Chinese Who Built the Transcontinental Railroad” who is affiliated with Stanford’s Chinese Railroad Workers in North America Project.

The project has amassed a treasure trove of oral histories, letters, photographs and newspaper articles relating to the Chinese workers’ contributions and the dangers and prejudice they faced while building the railroad. Thankfully, these materials are being used to counter and correct many other descriptions of the railroad’s construction history which have downplayed, misinterpreted or even ignored the presence and accomplishments of the Chinese. The renowned historian Hubert Howe Bancroft, author of “History of Nevada, 1540-1888,” in describing the prejudice the Chinese workers faced in Nevada, was one of the few writers on the subject who got it right when he wrote, “The Chinese were never welcomed in Nevada and were discriminated against in the laws and constitution of the state where race prejudice showed itself.”

The Nevada Museum of Art in Reno is holding a special art exhibition through Nov. 10 that displays paintings relating to the Chinese presence in constructing the railroad. I have heard the show is fascinating and not to be missed.

David C. Henley is publisher emeritus of the Lahontan Valley News and Fallon Eagle-Standard.


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