Ghosts of Gold Mountain
The Epic Story of the Chinese Who Built the Transcontinental Railroad
Gordon Chang 2019  248 pages and then 60 more pages of notes and index.

There have been a lot of books written about the Transcontinental Railroad so one might think that all the interpretations of the topic would have been covered.  There have been no interpretations of the story focused on the Chinese, however, and given that they made up eighty to ninety percent of the work force, that’s a huge oversight and has been corrected by Dr. Chang’s Ghosts of Gold Mountain.

Without the Chinese the Transcontinental Railroad could not have been built.  Despite the difficulty of the work, the sacrifices they made, the Chinese did not get credit at the time or even one hundred years later.  With this book, one hundred fifty years after the completion, their contributions have been recognized.  In his introduction Chang says this is “the first book to attempt to fully address the inadequacy, amnesia, and insults, that for a century and a half, have relegated the Chinese workers to the margins of history.”

Chang does a marvelous job.

The introduction immediately personalizes the story with one known Chinese worker, Hung Wah.  That draws the reader in and bypasses the anonymous workforce of popular memory.  Hung Wah appears again and again throughout the text to focus particular aspects.

The Chinese were critical to the railroad’s building.  One of the few recognitions of their contribution came in an 1869 benediction by the Reverend John Todd who said, “The road could never have been built without the Chinamen.” That contemporary reference aside, the predominant view has been as Chang says, “the railroad Chinese remain silent spikes to this day.”  They left no letters, no diaries, very few stories, and very few pictures. Their individual names were not even recorded.  “This presents a formidable challenge to the historian today.  How does one give voice to the voiceless?  How does one recover a sense of lived experience if there is nothing from the central actors themselves?"  Chang gives them the voice by covering every conceivable aspect of the “railroad Chinese”.  Chang uses not only previously used history texts but adds a richer description with materials previously ignored or which were too challenging, such as Chinese language material from China, poetry, folk songs, interviews made decades after the railroad, missionary letters, Chinese language periodicals, Chinese officials’ diaries, and extrapolating and applying other Chinese experiences on other railroads to the transcontinental effort.  Putting it all together Chang calls the Chinese story “an epic story of dreams, courage, accomplishment, tragedy, and extraordinary determination.”  That kind of analysis has not been done before.

Most of the “Railroad Chinese” came from Guangdong in southeast China with about one quarter of the population of the province leaving for “Gold Mountain” (California) where a folk song encapsulated their hopes, “Marry your daughter to a Gold Mountain guest,/  They would come back home with glory and wealth.”  It wasn’t just wealth the Chinese were after though.  They were escaping a densely populated area of China where there were few prospects. Chang describes the area, the history, social connections of people, cultural interactions, events in China at the time, the Opium Wars, Taiping Rebellion, and the lure of gold in California.  “No other place in the world then possessed such unspoiled, wonders and attractions” than California.  So the Chinese, like other immigrants to California, came for better lives.  Many returned to China or sent money back. More stayed in California to live. Many died.

Chang covers the methods of going from China to California and elsewhere in the world. He covers the arrival in California. Describing the arrival of Huie Kin in California we get a sense of the hope the Chinese had.  He said he could “hardly contain himself” as he arrived in the “land of our dreams”.  “The feeling that welled up in us was indescribable.”  “Everything was so strange and exciting.”  He was helped by Chinese already there.  This sounds no different from other immigrants’ experiences but has not been described before and the focus on a particular immigrant humanizes the story.

Of course Chang talks about work on the railroad and how hard it was, no matter the occupation and he describes the camps in which the Chinese lived.  Talking about working conditions in the tunnels he vividly describes, “Imagine the noise, vibration, fatigue, and monotony but also the hellish confinement in those tunnels, lit only by oil lamp or candlelight! The air was thick with rock dust, acrid fumes lingered from previous explosions, water dripped and flowed from fissures in the cold rock and sharp heavy icicles hung down in the winter.  Air temperature ranged from cold to frigid. Rock fragments flew through the air and into eyes and mouths. A moment of distracted attention, mistiming, or simple error and there would be smashed hand, arm, or finger. Work in that great dark maw of the mountain never stopped.” 

Other books talk about or focus on railroad construction but Ghosts… goes into every conceivable aspect of the Chinese experience.  Chang talks about organization, the conditions Chinese faced, food, sex, population sizes, occupations, the histories of the few who can be identified, marriage practices, customs, recreational activities, health, festivals, spirituality and spirits, remedies, and even how things must have smelled.  Surprisingly the Chinese had many things from China, the result of extensive supply channels. The demands of the work are conveyed by the details of construction, diary entries by non-Chinese, and Alfred A. Hart pictures of construction and geography.  Looking at the few pictures of Chinese workers does not convey a sense of the work or the danger, but the evidence from photographs of “the massive amount of cleared ground, moved earth, and shaped roadbed evidences the stupendous effort expended” by the Chinese.  Pictures don’t lie.

One can’t talk about the railroad without focusing on Donner Summit in the high Sierra where the workforce was mired in tunnel construction for two years.  There are no written records of what the conditions were like with the many dangers and huge snowfalls.  Chang resorts to archeology though and various other records and photographs. From those we can glimpse life in the Sierra.

Talking about the Chinese strike on the summit gets into a discussion of relative pay, disparities in job skills and white-Chinese interactions.

One of the chapters in the book is titled “Truckee” which takes the story of the Chinese away from working conditions on the railroad to conditions in town, leisure activities, a description of Truckee, the numbers of Chinese, their occupations in town, games played, and the kinds of Chinese businesses.  This also gives us something that’s not been available in other studies.

One point of interest is Chang’s wading into the story of Chinese hanging from cliff faces to cut the roadbed and off explosions.    He gives the arguments against the veracity of the story which appeared apparently in some railroad publicity about 1927. He explains how it could not have worked and that “it was said” “There simply was no textual or visual evidence to substantiate the claim…”  That fits many modern historians’ analyses. Then Change reverses it completely and provides a number of contemporary sources validating the “legend” of the Chinese in baskets hanging over the cliffs at Cape Horn.  Isabella Bird, traveling across the country in 1873 mentions it for example in her book, “A Lady’s Life in the Rocky Mountains” (see our October and November, ’18 Heirlooms).  Chang also lists a couple of contemporary newspaper accounts.  Apparenlty the Chinese did hang in baskets.

Almost finally, the book talks about what happened to the Chinese after the railroad.   There were lots of opportunities as the Chinese spread across the country. Chinese went to work on other railroads, started businesses, and went into agriculture.  With their increasing numbers Chang offers quote after quote complimentary of the Chinese.  Then, at the end of the book, there is a discussion of the numbers of Chinese who died in the building of the railroad and then the late 19th Century growing anti-Chinese actions and sentiments including expulsion, the Truckee Method (of expulsion), murder, riots, lynchings, scalpings, mutilations, and other cruelty ending with the Chinese Exclusionary Act of 1882.  It was first vetoed by President Arthur because he recognized the Chinese contributions to the country in building the railroads.  Congress didn’t care about the contributions and voted to  over ride the veto.

That’s a depressing ending but then there is a conclusion that is more inspiring as it focuses on successful Chinese and their legacies, all made possible by the “Railroad Chinese.”