This May marks 150 years of one of the most pivotal events in U.S. history: the completion of the Transcontinental Railroad. On May 10, 1869, the presidents of the Union Pacific and Central Pacific met in Promontory, Utah and drove a ceremonial last golden spike into a rail line that connected their railroads, linking the United States from shore to shore. As we commemorate the 150th anniversary, follow our #TranscontinentalRailroad blog series all week for untold stories of this iconic event.
The story of the Transcontinental Railroad cannot be told without recognizing the workers whose labor helped turn the nation’s dreams of a continental empire into a reality. The following adapted excerpts from Manu Karuka’s Empire’s Tracks: Indigenous Nations, Chinese Workers, and the Transcontinental Railroad and Ryan Dearinger’s The Filth of Progress:Immigrants, Americans, and the Building of Canals and Railroads in the West salvage stories often omitted from the triumphant railroad narrative by focusing on the suffering and survival of the workers who were treated as outsiders.
To understand the transcontinental railroad in terms of continental imperialism is to understand the development of the United States of America as an imperial state.
The United States of America is profoundly unexceptional. The Central Pacific and Union Pacific railroads are manifestations of a broad historical process that I call railroad colonialism. North American railroads linked with railroads elsewhere in the colonized world. Imperialists across the Americas, Africa, Asia, and Australia built railroads as infrastructures of reaction, as attempts to control the future. Infrastructure, in other words, played a police function, materializing not through liberal universalism, but proliferating distinctions and comparison along the lines of community, nation, race, gender, caste, and respectability. Railways enabled the circulation of colonial commodities throughout the imperial core, and even more importantly, they made the large-scale export of financial and industrial capital to the colonies a central feature of global capitalism.
Railroad colonialism was produced through great suffering. By the early twentieth century, infrastructure development in African colonies involved the impressment of “political labor” to build rail lines in Nigeria and Kenya, two months of forced labor authorized in Uganda to build rails, and compulsory labor on public works in Kenya and Nyasaland. British and French imperialists employed horrific work conditions and a wanton carelessness with worker’s lives, categorized as “public works,” to build railroads for the profits of engineering, construction, and steel corporations, and for the reorganization of African societies around cash crop exports. Catastrophic death rates littered railroads across the colonized world. In some places, each mile of railroad cost upward of a thousand human lives.
Railway building, in many parts of the colonized world, augured the introduction of new, hierarchical systems of management tying wages and skills to racial distinctions. The racial organization and management of industrial labor saw some of the earliest and most significant forms of struggles over wages, technology, and the working day. Worker’s struggles developed alongside armed insurgencies and campaigns of industrial sabotage, sometimes blending into struggles for self-determination and freedom.
The days leading up to the Golden Spike ceremony offered an instance of the “yellow peril” to America. Rival Chinese work crews clashed, in what the San Francisco Bulletin reported on May 6, 1869, was a “Chinese Tong War.” This “battle between two rival companies of Chinamen . . . laborers of the See Yup and Teng Wo Companies” included “several hundred” combatants. The workers, noted the Bulletin, had been “idle at [Camp] Victory” in Rozel, Utah, for a number of days leading up to the skirmish. Apparently, this “row” had occurred after fifteen dollars due to one of the companies went unpaid. According to the editor, “After the usual braggado- cio, both parties sailed in . . . armed with every conceivable weapon. Spades were handled and crowbars, spikes, picks and infernal machines were hurled between the rank [sic] of the contestants. Several shots were fired and every- thing betokened the outbreak of a riot.” Suddenly, labor boss James Strobridge, along with several of his Irish workers, rushed into the “melee” and, after receiving the help of “leading ‘Chinamen’ who were more peaceably disposed,” restored order. One “Chinaman” was shot in this conflict, and, according to the Bulletin, “If this man dies, another encounter will certainly follow and much bloodshed will doubtless ensue.”
Despite the relative lack of violence among the Central Pacific’s Chinese workers throughout the construction period, this conflict offered Californians a counterpoint to the American triumph that was to take place two days later. Framing the brawl as a “Tong War,” the Bulletin conjured up images of reckless gangs and secret societies that engaged in illegal gambling and opium trades, most common in San Francisco’s Chinatown. Whereas, for whites, such activity might evince a masculine solidarity, when associated with Chinese immigrants, it revealed an immoral and unmanly otherness.
In the post-Promontory period, popular travel writers, pictorial reporters, photographers, artists, and illustrators commemorated American progress and remembered those who created it. Historian Martha Sandweiss argues persuasively that photographers and artists, in particular, labored to produce work that could interest and appeal to an audience “hooked on dramatic narratives of western life.” In effect, their craft became the storyteller’s craft, and their images “became substitutes for firsthand experience.” In addition to capturing visual evidence of the “divine blessings bestowed upon the American nation,” these images presented Americans with evidence of “what they had, who they were, and what they could become.”
In nineteenth-century America few transformations of the natural landscape evoked more wonder and pleasure than the completion of the transcontinental railroad. In crafting vivid images of the progress the railroad had generated, Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper exacerbated the separation of physical production from cultural consumption that was a hallmark of industrializing America. Through its images readers were encouraged to discover, remember, and celebrate the building of this unparalleled achievement as uniquely American.