Ghosts of Gold Mountain, by Gordon H. Chang, is “the epic story of the Chinese who built the transcontinental railroad,” a book that combines faultless scholarship with compelling storytelling. (published by Houghton, Mifflin, Harcourt, 2019; available at your public library.)
Chinese men came to “Gold Mountain” in the 1850s to escape war and poverty in China and seek their fortunes in the goldfields. Thousands more arrived in the 1860s to labor on the monumental task of building the Central Pacific Rail Road from its western terminus in Sacramento to its meeting point with the Union Pacific in Utah. The challenges and hardships were beyond description — no words can adequately convey the blistering summers, the bone-chilling winters, and the back-breaking labor needed to conquer the Sierra Nevada range.
No diaries or letters survive from these men, although many of them were literate. Reconstructing their story takes deep digging in newspapers, payroll sheets, archeological digs, historical photography, and the business letters and speeches of men like Crocker and Stanford. The picture that emerges is one of men who were strong, intelligent, resilient, disciplined, and well-organized.
In a tunneling contest with Cornish miners, thought to be the best miners in the world, the Chinese team outstripped the men of Cornwall, and Charles Crocker reported that compared to white men, the Chinese showed “greater reliability and steadiness” with a tremendous “aptitude and capacity for hard work.” (p. 142) Nevertheless, Chinese laborers were always paid less than their white equivalents, and their lives were considered of little account. The number who died is unknown and all but a handful of their names are lost.
For anyone interested in California history, railroad history, or the Chinese presence in the United States, this is a must-read, the compelling story of the men who built the railroad. Too long forgotten, or hidden behind stereotypes, the “Railroad Chinese” finally get their due in Chang’s ground-breaking book.