The western portion of the Transcontinental Railroad was built almost entirely by immigrant Chinese, 20,000 or so of them. I expect most of us are vaguely aware of that, and I expect most of us are aware this was hard, dangerous work. Begun in 1864, finished in 1869, this portion stretches from Sacramento across the Sierra Nevadas, to the desert scrub of Promontory Point, Utah, a distance of 690 miles. This is history we think we learned in eighth grade. Gordon Chang takes our tiny tidbit and returns a thoroughly human story, extensively researched and rich in detail.
There was an impression then, and I suspect now, that the “Railroad Chinese” were enslaved workers, but California (the Gold Mountain of the title) was a free state, so it was important that incoming Chinese laborers were not being traded as slaves. Most of these men were contract workers who came willingly, following opportunity. However, Chinese women were bought in China and sold here as prostitutes, primarily for the “Railroad Chinese” – hmmm, the sex trade, as old as time and still with us today unfortunately.
All the work was done by hand – men with hand tools, wheelbarrows, black powder (a Chinese invention), horse carts and supply trains as the tracks extended. Teams of three men using an eight-pound sledge hammer and a pole with crude bit-end could tap roughly three blasting holes a day, mile after mile, for roadbeds and tunnels. Avalanches, explosions and fire, rock slides, entrapment, maiming injuries that would, as likely as not, ultimately kill a man. We can only estimate the number of deaths, however. Complete and/or accurate records of workers don’t exist. The railroad united our country coast to coast, but, except for a scant few, we don’t even know who these men were – the survivors or the fallen.
After the railroad was completed, some of the “Railroad Chinese” went back to China as they’d planned to do. Some continued as railroad workers here, in Canada, and elsewhere. Some remained, took jobs or opened businesses, and their descendants live among us. However, federal law immigration law prohibited anyone born in China from becoming a naturalized citizen, and that law was not changed until 1943. Nothing brings today into focus as blindingly as history does, and so I offer you Ghosts of Gold Mountain, a thorough, scholarly work and a good read as well.
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Full Disclosure: A review copy of this book was provided to me by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt via NetGalley in exchange for an honest review. I would like to thank the publisher, the author and NetGalley for providing me this opportunity. All opinions expressed herein are my own.