Tuesday, May 10, 2016

The Golden Spike and the Golden State: Railroading in California


Joseph Hubert Becker (Artist), First Train Coming through the Central Pacific Railroad, c. 1869 (from his sketch The Snow Sheds on the Central Pacific Railroad  in the Sierra Nevada Mountains, 1869) 
Courtesy http://www.artistaswitness.com
“The angle from which you view any object, the perspective you bring to any subject, the way you perceive any issue or idea, conditions and regulates your judgment, attitude, or feeling about whatever is under observation. Indeed, everything depends on your point of view.” —Janet Fireman, “From the Editor: Point of View,” Railroaded, California History 89, no. 1 (2011) 
The story of railroads in the West is a complex stew, often fraught with contradiction, where one’s perspective of people, events, and the relative merit of a particular railroad shifts with time.

This month we note the 147th anniversary of the completion of the first transcontinental railroad, at the same that Californians grapple with the benefits—or not—of a new high-speed railroad that will link northern and southern California.

Computer-generated image of the proposed high-speed trains for use in California, 2008
Courtesy California High-Speed Rail Authority
The Atlantic magazine has called California’s new High-Speed Rail project “the most ambitious current attempt to change America's transportation infrastructure.” Construction on the railroad, which will ultimately link San Francisco to Los Angeles, was begun in 2015 and is slated to connect Merced with Bakersfield by 2019. At the completion of Phase 1, passengers will be able to travel from San Francisco to Los Angeles in 2 hours, 40 minutes. Although construction is well under way, the project has been plagued by controversy, with opponents arguing that the environmental toll will be great and that existing highways and air travel make a costly new railroad system superfluous.

On May 10, railroad buffs will celebrate a much older but no less controversial western railroad story: the 147th anniversary of the completion of the Transcontinental Railroad and the driving of the ceremonial “Golden Spike” at Promontory Summit, Utah. On that day in 1869, between 500 and 3,000 people—estimates vary greatly—gathered to watch as railroad magnate Leland Stanford ceremoniously merged the Union Pacific Railroad from the east with the Central Pacific Railroad from the west. Commonly known and celebrated as the first Transcontinental Railroad, the line actually linked Oakland, California, not with the East Coast but with Council Bluffs, Iowa.

Andrew J. Russell (Photographer), East Shakes Hands with West at Laying Last Rail, May 10, 1869
Courtesy CPRR.org 

The story of the Central Pacific Railroad begins, always, with the initial investors in the railroad, known as the “Big Four”—Mark Hopkins, Leland Stanford, Collis P. Huntington, and Charles Crocker—and their Herculean effort to link the isolated west with eastern markets via a direct, efficient railroad. The uniting of east with west by iron rail was viewed as progress for the nation, a manifest destiny of sorts, especially as it recovered from the devastation wrought by the Civil War.

“Most recently,” writes historian Eric Rauchway, “historians have clothed the magnates in heroic raiment, depicting them as giants in the earth, developing a great man, or at least a great-manager, theory of transportation history.”

The “Big Four”
Clockwise from top left: Collis Potter Huntington, Anasa Leland Stanford, Mark Hopkins, and Charles Crocker

Courtesy Wikipedia and http://railroadglorydays.net/the-great-national-experiment
For a number of years, the “great man” story of the Central Pacific overshadowed the critical role played by Chinese workers in the building of the railroad. Although there are no definitive numbers, it has been estimated that not long after the railroad began construction in 1865, there may have been as many as 10,000–15,000 Chinese men—90 percent of the laborers—working on the railroad at any one time. In an 1865 report to Congress, Leland Stanford noted, “The greater portion of the laborers employed by us are Chinese, who constitute a large element of the population of California. Without them it would be impossible to complete the western portion of this great national enterprise, within the time required by the Acts of Congress.” 

Carleton E. Watkins (Photographer), Secret Town Trestle from the West, 1877
California Historical Society
Because construction through the Sierra Nevada was the most treacherous of any segment of the railroad, as many as 1,200 Chinese laborers may have died during construction as the result of falls, landslides, snow slides, and accidents involving explosives used to blast through the granite rock. Chinese labor was almost exclusively responsible for the building of 15 mountain tunnels that are a hallmark of the Sierra Nevada line, as well as the 36 miles of distinctive “snow sheds” built to protect the tracks from heavy winter snows (and visible to travelers from Interstate 80 at Donner Summit.) 


Joseph Hubert Becker (Artist), The Snow Sheds on the Central Pacific Railroad in the Sierra Nevada Mountains, 1869;
Courtesy of The Bancroft Library, University of California, Berkeley

(Detail of snow sheds) Andrew J. Russell (Photographer), Summit of Sierra Nevada, Snow Sheds in Foreground, Donner Lake in the Distance, Central Pacific R.R., 1868
Courtesy Library of Congress
(Detail of postcard) In the Snow Sheds, Sierra Nevada Mountains, Ogden Route, S.P.R.R., 1907 
Courtesy Donner Summit Historical Society
Snow sheds, Donner Summit, California, 2016
Courtesy Alison Moore
Iconic images of the “Golden Spike” celebration at the completion of the railroad may be some of the best-known in the history of the West. Although there is significant photographic evidence of Chinese railroad laborers at work all along the western route, they are absent from the official photos taken at Promontory Summit—where a crew of eight Chinese workers helped to lay the final track—and have been largely excluded from the public celebration. 

Andrew J. Russell (Photographer), Stereoview #539, Chinese at Laying Last Rail UPRR, May 10, 1869
Courtesy cprr.org/Museum/Chinese.html
Once the railroad was complete, many Chinese workers returned to China, while others found employment elsewhere in California, sometimes on the construction of other railroads. One railroad project popular with Chinese veterans of the transcontinental involved the building of tracks linking northern California, specifically Sacramento, to Los Angeles.

No doubt, there were varying opinions on the merits of the railroad, and still are. In his 2011 book, Railroaded: The Transcontinentals and the Making of Modern America, Stanford University professor Richard White writes that the railroad’s construction may not even have been necessary, and that shorter, less expensive railroad lines would have served customers equally well—or even better—at a much lower cost to humans and the environment. Speaking in defense of White’s book, historian Stephen W. Usselman writes, “We have much more to learn from western railroads than the notion that we can summon extraordinary courage, subdue nature, and build great things.”

Chinese railroad worker exhibition, Donner Memorial State Park Museum, 2016
Courtesy of Alison Moore
Chinese Railroad Workers plaque, Donner Summit rest stop, Interstate 80, 2016
Courtesy of Alison Moore
Over time historical views of these momentous projects and events change. Those once in the spotlight often end up sharing the stage with people and events whose roles are forgotten over time. It will be interesting to see what historical perspectives emerge 150 years after the high-speed rail system is completed.

Alison Moore
Strategic Initiatives Liaison
amoore@calhist.org

Sources
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