Erased from history

WHEN the US celebrated the 100th anniversary of the railroad in 1969, John Volpe, transportation secretary under President Richard Nixon, gave the keynote address.

“Who else but Americans could drill 10 tunnels in mountains 30 feet deep in snow?” Volpe said. “Who else but Americans could drill through miles of solid granite? Who else but Americans could have laid 10 miles of track in 12 hours?”

As Volpe spoke, Philip Choy, then chairman of the Chinese Historical Society of America, sat in stunned silence. He couldn’t believe what he was hearing.

The workers were not Americans. They were Chinese. They had built one of the greatest projects of what historians came to call the American Century, but were forbidden by later United States law from becoming American citizens.

Over the years, the role of these railroad workers has always been a point of pride in the Chinese American community, even as it was ignored in the history books and even as the names of the thousands of workers were lost in the mists of history.

The names that survived were those of the Big Four – Stanford, Charles Crocker, Mark Hopkins and Collis P. Huntington – the men who organised and ran the Central Pacific. The Big Four began their enterprise in Sacramento but soon moved to San Francisco where they built grand mansions on Nob Hill. The Big Four became multimillionaires and grandees of the West.

Stanford became governor of California, Crocker a banker, Hopkins a patron of the arts and Huntington a developer and railroad tycoon. Stanford’s name lives on in the university he founded.

Chang sees a direct link between the Chinese and the school.

“If it wasn’t for their work, Leland Stanford could have been at best a footnote to history and Stanford University may not even exist,” he wrote.

Stanford is mounting a major project called Chinese Railroad Workers in North America to give voice to the thousands of men who built the railroad. Chang also published Ghosts of Gold Mountain a book about the Chinese workers, out this month.

The workers were recruited in southern China, shipped to San Francisco and then to the construction sites. They landed at the Pacific Mail Pier at the foot of Brannan Street, near the current ballpark. There is a small plaque to mark the spot but no mention of who the immigrants were or what they did.

The Stanford research shows that the Chinese workers were not the faceless, stolid, uncomplaining workforce of legend. The work was hard and dangerous. They worked with pick and shovel and blasting powder. The Chinese staged a mass strike, one of the first big labor disputes of the day.

But they also worked well and developed an expertise. They set a record, laying 10 miles of track in a single day.

“They had become experts at teamwork,” said Wendell Huffman of the Nevada State Railroad Museum, which is also mounting a big exhibition on the railroad.

“They were like a football team, where everyone knew exactly what to do.”

Ten miles in one day was unheard of back then.

“They didn’t have to do it, either,” Huffman said. “The end was in sight. They did it for pride. They did it to show what they could do.”

And when the job was done, the Chinese were not ignored.

James Strowbridge, Central Pacific’s construction superintendent, invited his top Chinese crew to his private railroad car for lunch after the ceremony. They were met with cheers on that May day 150 years ago.

But after that, the Chinese role was wiped from the books. “We use history to tell the story we want to tell,” Huffman said. And the story was the one Volpe told.

It was an American tale, all right. But he forgot that the Chinese were part of the American story. – San Francisco Chronicle/TNS

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