This Week in Civil Rights History: The Anniversary of the Transcontinental Railroad’s Completion

Media 05.12,09

On May 10, 1869, the first transcontinental railroad in the United States was completed.  The railroad ran from Council Bluffs, Iowa to Sacramento, Calif. Though it was designed to connect the East and West coasts of the U.S., it wasn’t connected to the eastern U.S. rail network until 1872.

Chinese workers were recruited to lay the tracks for the Central Pacific Railroad’s eastward section of the railroad to keep labor costs down.  White workers were paid $35 a month (about $480 a month in 2008 dollars) and given housing, food and supplies, but the Chinese workers were only paid $25 a month (about $340 a month in 2008 dollars), and were responsible for their own housing, food and supplies.

Initially, there were concerns that Chinese workers wouldn’t be able to handle the physically grueling work because they were generally smaller than Whites.  But the Chinese workers were so efficient that they broke records for laying the track, working sometimes 24 hours a day, 7 days a week through the terrible winter cold and snowstorms in the Sierra Mountains and the summer heat of the desert.

The transcontinental railroad revolutionized travel in the U.S. and is considered the greatest American technological achievement of the 19th century.  By cutting down cross country travel from months to days, businesses could get their products all over the country much more quickly. 

Following the completion of the railroad, anti-Chinese discrimination led to a number of riots and eventually the passage of the Chinese Exclusion Act in 1882, which barred immigration from China and prevented Chinese immigrants in the U.S. from becoming citizens. The act was not fully overturned until the 1940s. 

In 1978, President Jimmy Carter signed a joint resolution to make the seven-day period beginning with May 4, 1979 Asian-Pacific Heritage Week, in honor of the Chinese workers contributions to the railroad and to commemorate the immigration of the first Japanese to the United States on May 7, 1843. In 1990, President George H.W. Bush signed a bill to make the entire month of May Asian-Pacific American Heritage Month, which became permanent in 1992.