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