Influence Of Chinese And Irish Laborers On The Tra

This essay has a total of 2171 words and 10 pages.

Influence Of Chinese And Irish Laborers On The Transcontinental Railro


The Influence of Chinese and Irish Laborers on the Transcontinental Railroad

The Chinese and Irish laborers answered strongly when asked to help build the
Transcontinental Railroad that connected the Pacific and the Atlantic Coasts. During the
long process the immigrant workers encountered harsh weather and living and working
conditions. Their work produced the Great Iron Trail in an incredibly short time with
minimal resources and equipment. Their struggles are often overlooked and their overseers
credited with the building of the railroad. The Chinese and Irish found what entertainment
they could, often challenging each other to lay more track in one day than the other. Both
found a hostile country in the management of the railroad companies and the U.S.
government that rejected them from the work place and drove them to accept the poor
conditions presented by the railroad positions. The two groups couldn't have been more
different, yet they came together to create a revolutionary railway and opened a new era
in the United States. Their great influence may have made the completion of the
transcontinental railroad possible.


The Chinese and Irish were drawn to the land of opportunity in order to become successful.
They came from different ends of the world to end up at a common destination: California.
The Chinese were dreamers when they came to California; they hoped to profit from the Gold
Rush. They left a feudal system that restricted many aspects off their lives (Daley
14-15). The Irish had visions of a more stable future, coming to California in search of
steady jobs (Potter 621). They left Ireland for America to escape the Great Potato famine.


Long before the Gold Rush of 1849, the Chinese had known about the wealth that lay in
America, or "the Mountain of Gold" (Sung 1-4; Howard 225). Legend told of a place where
the precious metal was bountiful. They dismissed this until a few daring men found wealth
in America. Many were drawn to the prospect of easy money and by 1850 nearly 25,000
Chinese had immigrated to California (Sung 5; Daley 26-27). Some searched the deserted
land claims for overlooked gold, while other Chinese were hired by successful gold miners
as cooks, houseboys, gardeners, farmers, and laundrymen (Sung 10-11; Howard 224-226).
Unfortunately they were met with discrimination. Many were shut out of the workplace and
the Chinese in California quickly became beggars. The Irish had come from a hostile Boston
in search of a place in the job market. They found an equality they had been unable to
find in New England (Potter 670; Howard 225). Although they found jobs, few were very
successful. A majority still lived in shantytowns and poverty even in California.


The Civil War played a major role in who was hired and how the employees were chosen. The
Civil War began in 1861, two years before the groundbreaking to start the transcontinental
railroad and one year before the Great Railroad Act of 1862. The construction on the
transcontinental railroad was finished in 1869, four years after the end of the Civil War
and six years after the groundbreaking (Howard 126-143; website). The western and eastern
railroad companies had always depended on immigrant workers and with the start of the
Civil War, this dependency was even greater (Johnson and Supple 191). There was a shortage
of white Americans willing to work because they had either enlisted or been drafted into
the war (Hogg 71; Howard 224). The Chinese were forced into a servant's/slave's life. In
some cases, white men imported Chinese laborers in crowded ships, much like the African
slaves, and "hired" at auctions (Hogg 72-73). The Chinese were also looking for a way out
of poverty and slavery and saw the transcontinental railroad as a means of escape. During
the Civil War, the wealthy were able to buy their way out of the draft, leaving the poor
to fight. The Irish made up a large portion of those in poverty and were often drafted.
They saw this a way for the government to justify unjust social distinctions (Moynihan
64). As a way to avoid the draft, the Irish signed up to work to build the
transcontinental railroad.


The Chinese had a valuable asset that would contribute to the building the first
transcontinental railroad; they could adapt to many different jobs, communities, and
lifestyles (Sung 14; Howard 225; Hogg 72-73). Their diligent, efficient work surprised the
railroad contractors who were wary about hiring them. To overcome language barriers, the
Chinese would gather in groups of ten to fifteen, appoint a headman to translate work
orders, and work in those teams (Hogg 73). Similarly, the Irish were used to the hard
labor that laying railroad track demanded. They had done physical labor in the eastern
U.S., such as digging canals (Howard 225). As well as the Chinese, the Irish had a unique
working style learned in the industrial east coast. When laying track they would use a
system similar to the assembly lines found in factories (Howard 327).


The Chinese were underestimated when the contractors hired them. They took smaller shovel
bites into banks of earth, and their barrowmen took lighter loads than the American
workers. But, by the end of the day, the Chinese laborers had progressed further than the
American workers who had joked about them earlier. The Chinese worked methodically and
constantly, not taking breaks and almost always in silence. A younger worker would bring
hot tea to the men working, but as soon as their cups were empty, they went back to work.
The "coolie's," as the Chinese workers had been named, worked longer and smoother than the
white crews. Even after the white gangs had stepped up their own work pace and cut back on
the number and duration of their breaks, the Chinese still laid more track than any other
crew (Howard 227-228).


The Irish used a work technique picked up in the New England factories to manage their
backbreaking tasks. They used an assembly line approach while laying track. Each person
would be assigned a certain part of the task and would do it repeatedly as the group
progressed. This allowed each person to concentrate on a single task, to completing it
well and quickly. The groups moved along quickly when working, but still took the normal
breaks (Howard 227-228; Hogg 126).


It was a rare sight to see two groups working together so perfectly, but the Irish and the
Chinese, when they could get along, can be considered a human machine. They worked in such
perfect synchrony that their progress was smooth and quick (Howard 327). The Chinese would
lay and align the rails and the Irish would pound the heavy iron nails into the ground to
hold the rails in place. The Chinese used their ingenuity when moving the large rails by
making a human moving belt, sliding the bars across bouncing pieces of denim and large
Chinese hats. The Irish utilized their own techniques when driving the nails. Each man
would trade off blows on the nail, thus driving it into the ground quickly and
efficiently. Never was a machine used in the laying of the transcontinental railroad. It
was all done by manual labor. Unfortunately, competing companies the Union Pacific and the
Central Pacific did not hire from both groups and mixed crews of Chinese and Irish were
uncommon. The Union Pacific workforce consisted of primarily Irish laborers while the
Central Pacific workforce consisted of primarily Chinese workers (Hogg 126).


Unfortunately the two groups seldom got along. The Chinese success at building the
transcontinental railroad caused many a disturbance in other camps. The other railway
workers were upset that the "yellow" men worked more efficiently than they did and often
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