The Transcontinental Railroad and the Asian-American Story


By Meera Muñoz Pandya, Intern

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Transcontinental Railroad Forever stamps, issued May 10, 2019. ©USPS; all rights reserved.

2019 marks 150 years since the completion of the Transcontinental Railroad. The story of postal history in this country is very much one of communication and the spread of both mail and information, with the railroad being integral to that story. As the west coast of the United States became more and more populated, aided by the 1849 California Gold Rush, the vast geographic distance between population areas became a barrier to the movement of people and information. The idea of uniting the country with a railroad was born in the middle of the 19th century, and two companies began working on this monumental undertaking in the 1860s; Union Pacific Railroad starting from Omaha moving east, and Central Pacific Railroad starting in Sacramento and working their way west.[1]

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Railroad spike hammer featured in gallery experience cart.

The new gallery experience cart at the National Postal Museum provides visitors the opportunity to engage with objects involved in the construction of the railroad, such as the measuring chains used by surveyors, hand drills, chisels, and railroad spikes. The cart also illuminates the contributions and experiences of Chinese immigrants, who built the majority of the western part of the railroad amidst challenging conditions and discriminatory practices. One thing that set the Chinese railway workers apart from their American counterparts was their diet; this is represented on the gallery cart by a squat, thick ceramic jug that was used to store soy sauce. Immigrants largely maintained a traditional Chinese diet, which served them very well. Not only did it include much more nutrition than the average worker’s diet with the inclusion of dried vegetables, their drinking habits were also different. Rather than drink water, they tended to drink either tea or hot water, both of which had been boiled. This significantly decreased their chances of contracting water-borne illnesses, making them much more effective workers. The cart provides insight into the lives and history of this early Asian-American population.

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Cart objects (left to right): engineer's or surveyor's chain; soy sauce jug; hand drill or star chisel.

The hiring of Chinese-American workers became a crucial part of the construction of the railroad, and in the end had a profound effect on the United States’ development as a nation, its immigration policies, and its Asian-American population. Chinese immigration to the west coast began in the 1850s, driven by the availability of agricultural and factory jobs; newly discovered gold mines in California were an additional draw.[2] Central Pacific Railroad-- a company contracted by Congress-- started laying track in 1865, but the primarily white labor pool in California at the time was scarce and unreliable. The railroad company experimented with hiring Chinese laborers, despite racially-driven protests from white workers and foremen.[3] After a successful trial run where 50 Chinese laborers were tested, the company began hiring them in droves. They soon made up the main body of labor for Central Pacific, as the company constructed the hardest stretch of the railroad, through the Sierra Nevada Mountains.[4] They made less than their white counterparts, and in 1867 participated in an (eventually unsuccessful) strike for equal pay.[5] The Chinese laborers often did the most dangerous parts of the construction, including the dynamiting of mountain tunnels.[6] Many men lost their lives constructing the transcontinental railroad; estimates range from 150 to 2,000. Most of these were Chinese Americans.[7]

The Chinese-American population expanded vastly during the production of the railroad; between 10 and 15 thousand Chinese-American workers were employed by Central Pacific during the peak of construction. When the two railroads, one moving east from Sacramento and one moving west from Omaha, met at Promontory Summit, Utah in 1869, there was a celebration.[8] The railroad unified the vast country in a very real way, which was of special symbolic importance so soon after the Civil War.[9] In the news reports covering the completion of the railroad, very little mention was made of the Chinese Americans who had played such a crucial role in its construction. In a well-known and widely-circulated photograph depicting the celebratory ceremony, they are notably absent.*[10] 

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"East and West Shaking Hands at Laying Last Rail." Ceremony for the driving of the golden spike at Promontory Summit, Utah on May 10, 1869. Photograph by Andrew J. Russell. Public Domain.

Following the festivities, many workers were dismissed and returned west, although several remained employed by Central Pacific to improve earlier construction that had been completed quite hastily.[11] As the number of Chinese Americans in the west increased, however, so too did anti-Chinese sentiment. Economic tensions quickly became prevalent, as many Chinese workers were willing to work for lower wages than their white counterparts. There were also cultural tensions as Chinatowns emerged in cities throughout the West Coast. Many Chinatowns were seen as places of prostitution, gambling, and opium by numerous white citizens who argued that the presence of Chinese immigrants compromised American morality. [12]

As a result of the anti-Chinese sentiment that became pervasive during this period, California made several efforts to slow or stop the influx of Chinese immigrants to their state, which had continued beyond the completion of the railroad. A series of laws were passed by the state from the 1850s to the 1870s that were ultimately negated by the federal government as a violation of a diplomatic treaty with China (the Burlingame-Seward Treaty).[13] An 1875 law known as the Page Act was successful in banning women from “China, Japan or any other Oriental country” who were suspected of prostitution.[14] In 1880 a new treaty with China allowing for the restriction of immigration was negotiated and in 1882, Congress passed the infamous Chinese Exclusion Act, which barred immigration from China for 10 years.[15] Exclusion had by this point become a national issue, as a prominent part of the Democratic party’s platform, and was a piece of their rehabilitation in the wake of secession and the Civil War.[16] Organized labor groups in the west had also made restriction of immigration integral to their political work. The Chinese Exclusion Act was extended periodically; in 1904, the extension was made indefinite. Its passage represents a shift from open immigration policies to ones that gave the federal government control over who was entering the country, using criteria such as nationality, ethnicity, gender, and class.[17]

Exclusion had a radical effect on the development of the United States’ population of Asian descent. The banning of immigration from China led to increased immigration from other parts of Asia, especially Japan, to replace the cheap labor Chinese workers had previously provided.[18] Japan was in the midst of rapid urbanization and industrialization following the 1868 Meiji Restoration, which led to upheaval and agricultural decline. The Pacific Coast and Hawaii were the most popular destinations for Japanese immigrants,[19] as Hawaii’s sugar plantations were a big draw.[20] By 1920, Japanese people represented 40% of Hawaii’s population.[21] Korean immigrants, many of whom had been converted to Christianity by missionaries in Korea, also moved to Hawaii in large numbers.[22] Indian immigration to the United States also commenced during this period following the passage of the Chinese Exclusion Act, consisting of largely though not exclusively Punjabi Sikh men who had been disenfranchised by the land reforms following the 1849 British annexation of the Punjab, a region of India.[23] The Philippines was annexed by the United States in 1899, and Filipino immigrants soon began pouring into the country as well.[24] Much like the influx of Chinese immigrants, this multi-region Asian emigration led to an immediate backlash from white Americans. An Asiatic Exclusion League became active in San Francisco in the early 20th century, aggressively campaigning for a more expansive ban on Asian immigration.[25]

In 1910, the federal government opened a new immigration station at Angel Island, located near San Francisco, California. Officials moved the primary immigrant processing station from San Francisco to the island to better isolate people who needed quarantine, prevent escape, and ensure detained immigrants couldn’t communicate with the Asian-American population ashore. The vast majority of the Asian immigrants who arrived to the United States were processed at Angel Island for the next 30 years.[26] Upon a ship’s arrival to San Francisco, any Western Europeans and first class passengers were allowed entry into the city. Asians, or members of other immigrant groups, notably Mexicans and Russians (as well as anyone requiring a medical quarantine) were taken to Angel Island to be processed. There they were rigorously questioned on the details of their documents, subjected to extensive physical exams that were especially invasive by East Asian norms, and detained between two weeks and six months while their documents and interviews were corroborated.[27]

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Poem carved into the wall of camp barracks. Image courtesy of Angel Island Immigration Station Foundation.

The legacy of the Chinese Exclusion Act also encompasses illegal Chinese immigration into the United States, as legal options were very limited under the law.[28] In 1906 the San Francisco earthquake destroyed the city’s municipal records, allowing Chinese-born people to claim that they were born in the United States, making them natural-born citizens, and allowing their children to enter the country. Thus the phenomenon of “paper sons” (and daughters)--people who came to the United States with false papers claiming to be the child of a “natural-born” citizen--became a prominent part of Angel Island’s story. Immigration officials developed grueling interrogations to counter this practice,leading to lengthy delays for Chinese immigrants especially.[29] In its 30 years as an immigration station 175,000 Chinese immigrants were detained under dangerous conditions at Angel Island.[30] Officials deemed the barracks to be a firetrap (which turned out to be true, as a fire destroyed the immigration station in 1940). The food was also famously bad, and any outdoor and recreational time was very limited for detainees. Some carved poetry into the walls expressing their frustrations with their situation. The poems are expressive and evocative, speaking at length about depression and sorrow alongside longings for home or for freedom. [31]

In the early 20th century, as Angel Island was in use, there was a shift in how immigration policy was legislated. In 1908, the United States entered into what was known as the Gentleman’s Agreement with Japan. The informal agreement stipulated that the U.S. would allow the wives, children, and relatives of Japanese immigrants already living in the U.S. to enter the country, while Japan itself would take measures to limit any further immigration to the United States. There was no official piece of legislation that resulted from this agreement, but it did limit the growth of Japanese-American communities.[32] Later, inspired in part by the events of the First World War, nativists became a dominant force in American politics, and anti-immigrant sentiment grew in popularity.[33] In 1917 the United States government passed an immigration act that created what became known as the Asiatic Barred Zone. Anyone from “any country not owned by the U.S. adjacent to the continent of Asia” was not allowed legal entry into the country. [34] The subsequent Immigration Law passed in 1924 reinforced the exclusion of all Asians.[35] The precedent set by the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882--the first piece of legislation to limit immigration from a specific country--was expanded upon to openly prohibit immigration from an entire region (excluding the Philippines, which, having been annexed by the United States, was not subject to the same restrictions).[36]

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Public notification of Franklin D. Roosevelt’s Executive Order 9066. “All persons of Japanese ancestry” were instructed to report for incarceration.

The period following Angel Island’s use as an immigration station was marked by two important things: Japanese incarceration during the Second World War, and the replacement of Asian exclusion with immigration quotas. Following President Roosevelt’s 1942 enactment of Executive Order 9066, people of Japanese descent living in the United States, U.S. citizens or not, were imprisoned in camps around the country. By 1945, 125,000 Japanese Americans--about half of whom were children--had been subjected to incarceration.[37] The other significant development during this period was the replacement of bans on Asian immigration with quotas, which took place in the 1940s. In 1943, the Chinese Exclusion Act was finally repealed; instead a quota of 105 visas per year for Chinese immigrants was established. This decision was directly related to the ongoing Second World War, in which China was an ally in the fight against the Axis powers, of which Japan was a major player. The repeal also led to measures in 1946 that allowed for immigration from the Philippines (no longer a territory of the U.S.) and India, albeit limited to a small number of visas as well.[38] In 1946, the War Brides Act was passed, allowing the Asian wives of American servicemen who had served overseas during WWII to come to the United States. [39] In 1952, Asian exclusion was completely ended with that year’s Immigration Act, although it established similar quotas to those previously in place for Chinese immigrants, severely limiting how many Asians could immigrate.[40] These more lenient, although still inequitable, policies ending exclusion are a product of the same era of the incarceration of the Japanese-American population.

The Immigration and Nationality Act--passed by Congress in 1965-- dramatically changed Asian immigration to the United States. The Act removed national-origin quotas, and stopped considering the nationality of immigrants altogether. It allowed for much higher numbers of Asians to enter the country than ever before. In 1960 Asians made up 5% of the foreign-born population; this number grew to 30% by 2014. Asia is now the second largest region of birth for foreign-born Americans, after Latin America.[41] There is no single dominant country of origin amongst Asian Americans; people of Chinese, Indian, and Filipino descent make up the greatest share, but there are also sizable Vietnamese, Korean, and Japanese populations throughout the country. There was a notable influx of refugees and immigrants from Southeast Asia in the years following the Vietnam War as well. Of the current Asian-American population, 59% were not born in the United States. Asians make up 13% of the unauthorized immigrant population of this country.[42] Although the rate of growth has slowed some, the number of Asian Americans continues to grow, and people of Asian descent have become a vibrant and prolific part of the United States.

There is a cycle to the history of Asian immigration to this country; an influx of Asian immigration tends to be followed by a negative reaction and, historically, attempts to curb further immigration. Xenophobia has been expressed not only in the immigration legislation of the day, but in laws governing the rights of Asian Americans, as well as in cultural depictions of Asians and people of Asian descent. This cycle of immigration and subsequent backlashes and animosity aimed at them drastically shaped the development of these diaspora populations as they exist today. Using the story of the Transcontinental Railroad as a starting point, The National Postal Museum’s new gallery cart allows visitors to explore and reflect on an important moment from the beginning of this long, complex history of the United States’ relationship with its population of Asian descent.

*EDITED TO ADD (December 3, 2021):
Media reports of the time often mention the role Chinese laborers played in the completion of the Transcontinental Railroad. However, these circulations regularly included racist undertones and "exoticisizing" of the immigrant workers was common. Though the Chinese laborers were absent from the Golden Spike ceremonies, this was unlikely a result of outright exclusion. The mobile camps that workers lived in were spread out over large areas, and at the time of completion, it is believed none were within walking distance of Promontory Summit. Much like events today, individuals present at the 1869 ceremonial activities included politicians, business managers, and people with influence, rather than the workers that made the event possible.


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About the Author
Meera Muñoz Pandya spent the summer as an intern at the National Postal Museum, thanks to a grant from the Smithsonian’s Asian Pacific American Center. As a part of her internship, she has assisted the National Postal Museum with a variety of projects, including the development of a gallery experience cart that uses material culture to explore the history of the first transcontinental railroad’s construction, created in collaboration with the National Museum of American History. She is currently working as an Education Specialist at National Children’s Museum.