Rep. Grace Meng calls for recognition of Chinese rail workers

WASHINGTON, D.C. — Railroad might not be the predominant, most efficient form of mid-range or long-distance travel, yet the role of immigrant laborers from China who helped laid rail across the United States in the 1860s should not be diminished. Recognizing and honoring the role of Chinese laborers in bringing the Transcontinental Railroad to life was the point of a resolution introduced on the House of Representatives floor, Feb. 28.

            Rep. Grace Meng, D-New York, authored House Resolution 165, or HR 165, as part of an effort to recognize the contributions Chinese laborers made in the growth of the United States. The resolution specifically calls for an estimated 12,000 Chinese rail workers who worked on the Transcontinental Railroad between 1865 and 1869 to be honored for their work.

            The Transcontinental Railroad was completed on May 10, 1869, meaning this year marks the 150th anniversary of one of America’s greatest advancements of the time coming online.

            “Approximately 12,000 Chinese immigrant laborers worked under extremely dangerous and challenging conditions to help construct the railroad, which connected the nation from coast-to-coast,” a statement out of Meng’s office said. “The workers are credited with playing an integral role in the growth of America, and being an important part of U.S. history.”

            H.R. 165 hailed the Transcontinental Railroad as one of the most remarkable engineering feats of the 19th century. The rail, which was built during and after the U.S. Civil War, took nearly six years to build and spanned 2,000 miles.

            The 12,000 Chinese immigrants who helped laid the rail made up more than 80 percent of the Central Pacific Railroad Co. workforce, the language of H.R. 165 continued.

            “Honoring the sacrifices [Chinese laborers] made for our nation is long overdue,” Meng said in a released statement. “It is time to finally pay tribute to their legacy and contributions to the prosperity of our country and the Asian American community.”

             Meng’s resolution stated Chinese rail workers laid rail amidst the toughest of circumstances but still managed to excel.

            “The Chinese railroad workers set a world record by laying 10 miles of railroad track in just one work day,” the resolution stated. “Chinese railroad workers were given the most difficult, dangerous jobs and were paid lower wages than other railroad workers. Nearly 1,200 Chinese railroad workers died from work accidents, avalanches, and explosions while working in the Sierra Nevada Mountains.”

            Those same workers were posthumously inducted into the Labor Hall of Honor in 2014.

            If approve H.R. 165 would acknowledge, honor and recognize the contributions of China’s immigrant laborers who helped construct the Transcontinental Railroad despite discrimination, unequal pay and deaths.

            The Transcontinental Railroad spawned from Pacific Railroad Act of 1862. Prior to then rail travel had mostly occurred east of the Missouri River. Enactment of the Pacific Railroad Act, however, opened the door for westward expansion of the U.S. rail network. Central Pacific started in Sacramento, California and built east. Building west from Omaha, Nebraska was Union Pacific.

            Work on the Transcontinental Railroad culminated at Promontory Summit, Utah Territory, on May 10, 1869, where and when the “Last Spike” – or “Golden Spike” – was driven in and officially connecting Omaha, Nebraska to Sacramento, California.

            Other ethnicities or groups to contribute to the building of the Transcontinental Railroad were the Germans, Irish, freed slaves, and former Union and Confederate soldiers.

            Completion of the Transcontinental Railroad changed the very fabric of the United States, what the new towns or cities popping up across the Great Plains and the country as a whole officially expanding into four time zones. Phrases such as “Time’s Up” and “Time’s a Wasting” spawned from the construction of the railway. Building of the Transcontinental Railroad helped speed up travel from the Eastern Seaboard to the Wild West and allowed for more efficient shipment of commercial goods across the country.

            Often overlooked, however, is the negative effect of the Transcontinental Railroad on Native American tribes in states such as Colorado, Nebraska and Wyoming.

            A Montgomery College research project on the Transcontinental Railroad stated tribes were displaced as Union Pacific laborers pushed west from Omaha to Promontory Summit.

            “The transcontinental railroad displaced Native American tribes who lived along the railroad route,” findings published in the Montgomery College research project stated. “The ‘subsequent boom towns, construction, and the influx of settlers [caused] the destruction of wild animals the native peoples depended on for their survival. This sparked friction between the Indians, U.S. troops, and settlers, which eventually exploded into full-scale warfare in the 1870s.’

            “Union Pacific crews were harassed by Plains Indians, ‘mainly because white hunters were slaughtering prodigious numbers of buffaloes to feed the construction crews,’” the Montgomery College research project continued.           

            H.R. 165 was referred the House Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure. Reps. Judy Chu, Ro Khanna and Ted Lieu were among the legislators co-sponsoring the resolution.