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Charley Crocker’s Chinese workers died building the Central Pacific Railroad

Posted in America, Historical articles, History, Railways, Transport, Travel on Wednesday, 31 October 2012

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This edited article about the Central Pacific Railroad originally appeared in Look and Learn issue number 775 published on 20th November 1975.

Chinese railroad workers, picture, image, illustration

Many Chinese workers were killed by avalanches during the railroad’s construction by Peter Jackson

He was hardly a modest man, for he claimed to have grown up as “a sort of leader” and later boasted that he had built the Central Pacific Railroad. As for Charley Crocker’s No. 2, Harvey Strobridge, six-foot-plus and a born slave driver, he used to state truthfully but ominously: “Men generally earn their money when they work for me.”

But these men and their construction crews got the job done, the job being building the Central Pacific eastwards from California across the Sierra Nevada mountains to link up with the Union Pacific, heading across the endless plains and the rockies. Everyone knew that the C.P.’s task would be the tougher one. A mere 125 kilometres separated Sacramento, capital of California, from the high crest of the Sierra through which surveyors had decided the railroad must go, and only 50 kilometres out a 240 metre cutting had had to be blasted out with black powder. But already, early in 1865, most of the white workers had had enough. They had only signed up for a working trip to the gold and silver mines up in the mountains, and instead found themselves slaving as they never had before.

Crocker, against Strobridge’s wishes, decided to replace them with Chinese, the most hated people in California. They had come to seek their fortunes in the gold rush which had started in 1848 and continued through the early ’50s, but had been savagely persecuted because they were “different”, worked for less money than whites, and worked harder.

As for building railroads, Strobridge could hardly believe it. He liked tough Irishmen (most of whom had just deserted him), not straw-hatted little men in baggy blue pyjamas who ate bamboo shoots and rice, washed down by tea. But to his astonishment, his chief had been right, which was just as well as Crocker hired thousands of Chinese, even shipping them direct from China. They were formed into gangs of 20, with a cook and a headman who also acted as interpreter and paymaster, and soon the gangs, averaging under five feet, were surprising even Strobridge. “Crocker’s pets”, as they were called, were brave, tough, reliable and – marvel of marvels in the Wild West – sober.

They performed all the jobs except surveying, which had already been done by experts. To cut through the rock walls and granite of the Sierra they used picks and shovels, black blasting powder and, later, nitroglycerin, axes, ladders, and dumpcarts and wheelbarrows, and behind them other Chinese were hard at work laying the track itself.

As with the Union Pacific, this was a race in itself. Down the finished line to the end of the track a car carrying 16 rails sped, dragged by a horse. At the end two men seized the top rail and ran forward, the rest of a gang taking hold of it by twos until it was clear of the car, then placed it on the ties (sleepers). Four rails could be laid this way in a minute.

As soon as the car was empty, it was tipped off the track, then dragged back for its next load, while another raced up the track. Rollers on the cars made it easier to get the rails off, while each car also carried bolts, spikes and rail couplings to be attacked with a will by other workers, the gaugers, spikers and bolters.

92 kilometres from Sacramento, the Chinese finally proved themselves when a ledge had to be cut out of a 600-metre rocky spur, 400 metres over a river. In wicker baskets, workers were lowered down the cliff face equipped with iron hand drills, sledges and powder kegs, then, swaying against the mountain, they drilled 70 mm wide holes into the cliff face, filled them with powder and set fuses in them. As they were hauled to safety, the gorge resounded with explosions.

The Chinese got better and better at this dangerous work, enjoying making louder and louder blasts in order to frighten devils and imps away.

The tracklayers earned around $35 a month and the Chinese lived in tents and dugouts, their food being brought in from San Francisco. The whites who remained, mostly Irish, were allowed less freedom than their Union Pacific counterparts, for when drink pedlars appeared, Strobridge charged them more for watering their horses than they could make from their whisky sales.

It was the winters that made the C.P.’s building turn nightmarish. The terrible winter of 1866-67 found some of Crocker’s pets, now 6,000 strong, boring Summit Tunnel, over 2,000 metres high, others building more tunnels for the journey down from the summit. 44 blizzards hit the mountains that winter and 12 locomotives could not force C.P.’s first snowplough through the drifts. Winds of near-tornado force from the Pacific created snow cornices on the crests of the hills, and killer avalanches came roaring down on the Chinese, destroying their pitiful dwellings and many of their occupants. The survivors had to cut passages through the snow to get to work each day, work which at one stage, and despite continuous explosions, was down to a puny 200 mm a day. Not until nitroglycerin arrived could the hardest granite barrier yet be blasted to pieces.

Further back up the line from the 500 metres of solid granite that was Summit Tunnel before Strobridge and his valiant men had fought it and the snows and avalanches, other Celestials, as the Chinese were called – from the Celestial Empire of China – were working away in great teams of 500, hauling huge log sleds. On them were three locomotives, forty cars and 64 kilometres of rail, enough to cover the High Sierra stretch, and, meanwhile, the deaths continued.

A phrase was coined that nightmare winter: “Not a Chinaman’s chance.” And all the while the graders were ahead, following in the footsteps of the surveyors, hacking out cuttings and building embankments to prevent trains that would follow from having to climb and descend too sharply.

If Crocker was frequently to be seen up and down the line, Strobridge was everywhere. His Chinese called him “One Eye Bossy Man” after he lost his right eye impatiently wondering why an explosion had not occurred. But now he and his exhausted, ill-clad but indomitable little men were on the downwards slope of the Sierra. Everyone knew that the Union Pacific had made much more rapid progress across the plains and prairies, but they were now faced with the Rockies. For the C.P., the worst was over.

And at least Charley Crocker never had much trouble from Indians. The wilder tribes across the Sierra were cunningly dealt with. Crocker always made sure that chiefs were given life passes allowing them to ride in passengers cars whenever they wished, while sub-chiefs were permitted to ride freight cars free for 30 years.

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