Giving voice to the Chinese railroad workers on the 150th anniversary of the First Transcontinental Railroad


Chinese Railroad Workers in North America Project team
Gordon Chang, Shelley Fisher Fishkin, Hilton Obenzinger, and Roland Hsu at the April 11, 2019 event "150th Anniversary of the Golden Spike: Chinese Workers and the Transcontinental Railroad." Credit: Sue Fawn Chung.

Tomorrow marks the 150th anniversary of the completion of the First Transcontinental Railroad. The tracks of the Central Pacific and Union Pacific Railroads met at Promontory, Utah, on May 10, 1869. In a ceremony, Central Pacific Railroad President Leland Stanford drove the last spike, now usually referred to as the “Golden Spike,” at Promontory Summit. What has largely been left out of the narrative of the First Transcontinental Railroad is the estimated 15,000 to 20,000 Chinese laborers who worked on the Central Pacific Railroad. They were paid less than the white workers and as many as a thousand lost their lives, and they eventually made up 90 percent of the workforce that laid the 690 miles of track between Sacramento, California, and Promontory. In a recent Stanford News article, Olive H. Palmer Professor in Humanities Gordon Chang, one of the lead scholars of Stanford’s Chinese Railroad Workers in North America Project, noted that “Without the Chinese migrants, the Transcontinental Railroad would not have been possible. If it weren’t for their work, Leland Stanford could have been at best a footnote in history, and Stanford University may not even exist.”

SPICE staff with Provost Persis DrellOn April 11, 2019, an event organized by the Chinese Railroad Workers in North America Project celebrated the labor of the Chinese workers and their role in U.S. history. Speakers included Stanford Provost Persis Drell, who underscored the significance of the Project and the momentous nature of the event, and Project co-directors Olive H. Palmer Professor in Humanities Gordon Chang and Joseph S. Atha Professor in Humanities Shelley Fisher Fishkin, who gave an overview of the Project and its findings. The Project’s findings are highlighted in two books, The Chinese and the Iron Road: Building the Transcontinental Railroad (edited by Chang and Fishkin) and Ghosts of Gold Mountain: The Epic Story of the Chinese Who Built the Transcontinental Railroad (authored by Chang). These books give the Chinese workers a voice.

At the event, SPICE Curriculum Consultant Gregory Francis and I gave an overview of the curricular component of the Project, which helps to make the Project’s findings and materials accessible to teachers and students. The four free lesson plans that SPICE developed bring all of the Project’s “bells and whistles” to high school students and help them understand this often-overlooked part of U.S. history.

The Chinese Railroad Workers Project lessons touch upon many key issues in the high school U.S. history standards, including the building of the Transcontinental Railroad, immigration to the United States, challenges faced by immigrants like the Chinese Exclusion Act, and the growth of the American West. SPICE worked closely with Chang, Fishkin, and Dr. Roland Hsu, Director of Research at the Chinese Railroad Workers in North America Project, to plan and write the free lesson plans, which are available for download from the SPICE website. Each lesson incorporates the Project’s scholarship and primary sources.

Lesson 1 focuses on the use of primary sources to understand and interpret the past. Students review resources and artifacts on the Project website, discuss whether each is a primary or secondary source, and postulate what questions the resource could help them answer. Students then read and discuss excerpts from Maxine Hong Kingston’s classic book China Men.

Political cartoon from one of the free lesson plans on Chinese railroad workers and early Chinese immigration

Lesson 2 focuses on racism and discrimination broadly and in the specific context of discrimination directed toward early Chinese immigrants in the United States. Students learn the history of Chinese Americans and attitudes toward them during various periods of immigration. They analyze U.S. political cartoons on Chinese immigrants from the 1870s and 1880s and read four short documents from different periods of time regarding issues of immigration, discrimination, and assimilation of Chinese Americans.

Lesson 3 uses photos to show students the physical and natural challenges to building the Transcontinental Railroad and asks them what they can infer from these photos about life building the railroad. Students then work in small groups to read oral histories of descendants of the Chinese railroad workers. They then write and perform a mock script for an interview between the Chinese railroad worker they read about and a group of reporters.

The final lesson explores the historical and cultural background of San Francisco’s Chinatown and its significance to the Chinese community in the United States over time. Students compare descriptions of Chinatown written by Chinese residents with those from non-Chinese visitors, view historical photos of Chinatown, and watch a lecture by Chang on the interdependence of Chinatown and the Chinese railroad workers. Finally, students encapsulate the legacy of the Chinese railroad workers by designing a memorial in their honor.

SPICE is currently publicizing the free lesson plans through our network of schools, and this summer we plan to offer teacher seminars on the East Coast and showcase the lessons at our summer institute for high school teachers at Stanford. In addition, SPICE will introduce the Project to students in the China Scholars Program, our national online course for U.S. high school students. Chang is a guest speaker for the course, and his book Fateful Ties: A History of America’s Preoccupation with China is a required text.

The SPICE staff hopes that these lessons will serve as supplements to the coverage of the First Transcontinental Railroad in standard U.S. history textbooks—some of which includes Chinese railroad workers—and that the Chinese contributions to the American West will someday become a significant chapter in the study of U.S. history. A recent San Francisco Chronicle article noted that when the nation celebrated the 100th anniversary of the railroad in 1969, John Volpe, Transportation Secretary under President Richard Nixon, gave the keynote address. He said, “Who else but Americans could drill 10 tunnels in mountains 30 feet deep in snow? 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?” One wonders if—by the occasion of the bicentennial of the First Transcontinental Railroad’s completion (2069)—such a “tunnel-vision” interpretation of U.S. history will be derailed in favor of a more inclusive historical narrative, and the once-silenced voices of the Chinese railroad workers will continue to be heard.

To access the free lesson plans on the Chinese railroad workers, click here. SPICE also offers several lesson plans related to this topic, including Angel Island: The Chinese American Experience, Chinese American Voices: Teaching with Primary Sources, Introduction to Diasporas in the United States, and Immigration to the United States: Activities for Elementary School Classrooms.