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Chapter 17

This webpage reproduces a chapter of
The Great Iron Trail

Robert West Howard

G. P. Putnam's Sons
New York, 1962

The text is in the public domain.

This page has been carefully proofread
and I believe it to be free of errors.
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Chapter 19
This site is not affiliated with the US Military Academy.

 p224  Chapter XVIII
Not a Chinaman's Chance!

We have seen it urged against the Chinese that they are bound fast in the swaddling clothes of superstition, from which they show no disposition to emancipate themselves. But who can expect them to do otherwise under the treatment which they received? The very name of Christianity must be disgusting to them with such examples of its fruits before them, as they are too often compelled to experience. Cling to their heathenism? They would be little less than idiots not to do so under the circumstances. Men may prate to them about American civilization, free and enlightened institutions, the spirit of progress and advanced Christianity until doomsday, but they will fail to respect or attach any value to these high-sounding phrases and professions while they are treated like wild beasts. . . . An editorial, "Chinese Labor in the West," Deseret News, Salt Lake City (May 26, 1869).

American mores dictated that a "foreigner's" road to liberty and the pursuit to happiness must struggle through ditches, slums, and sweatshops. For the Palatines, Huguenots, Scotch, and indentured servants of the eighteenth century, and the Germans, Scotch-Irish and Irish of the nineteenth century the process averaged 25 years. But the bias confronting non-Europeans  p225 was gigantic. The Negro did not gain acknowledgement of constitutional freedom until 250 years after Dutch traders landed the first shipload of slaves in Virginia. The Chinaman, socially ostracized by the nickname of "coolie," became the Pacific Coast's substitute for the Indian and Negro slave. Construction of the Central Pacific was his cross and his crown.

The 1849 gold rush drew thousands of Chinese to California. They were segregated to separate communities and separate jobs. Their shacktowns soon assumed the status of Europe's ghettos. The Irish migrants to California became their most vehement baiters — and for an obvious reason. The Irish immigrant had been the bogtrotter and shantytown work horse of the East Coast's industrial development since 1820. He had dug the canals, cleaned the outhouses, groomed the horses, and served as the butt of newspaper jokes and humorist-lectures. The California gold-rush country provided the Irishman with the first American locale where he was accepted as an "Anglo-Saxon equal." He responded exuberantly and, as a group, became the most despotic of all in bullying the non-whites.

The Chinese adapted so deftly to the white Californian's pace that the importation of male Chinese cooks, house boys, gardeners, and laundrymen was a thriving San Francisco business by 1855. British traders in Canton and other treaty ports profited from the operation. The word "coolie" was a British export out of India, with an original Hindu meaning of "porter" or "native unskilled laborer." On the eve of the Civil War, newspapers estimated that 42,000 Chinese labored in northern California. The majority were wiry sons of Yellow Sea fishermen, city laborers, or two-acre farmers. They averaged 120 pounds in weight; few were taller than 4′10ʺ. Their transportation across the Pacific, in ships as ancient and filthy as the Atlantic's "middle-passage" slavers, was contracted on a system similar to the "indentured-servant" technique of New England, Virginia, and Georgia during the seventeenth century.  p226 Chinese trading companies, organized by the socio-political "tongs," provided passage and food. In California the trading companies' agents located jobs and usually collected the salaries. The San Francisco Call, Sacramento Union and other newspapers which campaigned about the problem of "Chinese Human Traffic" during the 1860's contended that most of the Chinese workers in the state received only $4 to $8 a month, and that the bulk of their wages went to "the companies" in repayment for trans-Pacific passage.

This was only partially true. The Californians' segregation forced the Chinese into tight fraternal groups. The companies acted as insurance firms, bankers, marriage brokers, and concubine purveyors. California laws denied citizenship rights to the Chinese, limited their immigration to "male workers," and specifically barred Chinese testimony in any court. But every Chinaman in the state was forced to pay a Personal Tax, a Hospital Tax, a $2 contribution to the School Fund, and a Property Tax. The Chinese who worked the "tailings" and abandoned placer and hydraulic mines on the Mother Lode paid a Permission Tax of $4 per head, plus an annual Water Tax. The San Francisco Call on March 30, 1867, estimated that the state of California and its local governments levied taxes of "more than $2,000,000" on its 65,000–70,000 Chinese residents during 1866.

Economically, then, the white Californian had little reason to side with Secesh in the Civil War or fight to defend the "south's institution" of slavery. Slaveholding entailed expensive responsibilities; a sound, mature slave brought $1,000 on the Georgia and Louisiana auction blocks. The owner was responsible for the health, food, shelter, and creature comforts of his slave investments. But coolie labor in California involved little responsibility beyond the payment of $1 per day per employee to the companies. The Chinese provided their own "keep" and housing. They worked diligently from dawn to dusk, seven days a week. They could be fired from a job "on the instant" and employer responsibility would end then and  p227 there. When a Chinese worker died the companies shipped his remains home to China and another "Ah Kee" or "Lee" or "Chung" stepped deferentially into the job. Slavery could not have survived the Chinese labor competition in California. The California Legislature did pass a law in 1858 forbidding further importations of Chinese. But its only penalty was a $400‑$600 fine against the captain of the ship — a modest tax on the profit from a cargo of 100 to 150 seasick Celestials crammed into an aft hold. It was rarely enforced.

The Stanfords and Crockers, in common with prosperous California families, employed Chinese house boys and cooks. "As a class they are quiet, peaceable, patient, industrious and economical," Leland Stanford wrote President Johnson in his October, 1865, report on Central Pacific's progress. Both Stanford and Crocker turned to the Chinese companies when new mining booms at Eureka, Elko and Virginia City created a crisis in Central Pacific's work camps.

In June, 1865, Central Pacific's railhead was at Clipper Gap, 43 miles out of Sacramento. Ahead lay the grim job of blasting the roadbed up the cliffs of the Bear River gorge in order to reach the ridge rising to Donner Lake and the Sierra's crest. White labor had been used in every phase of the construction. But when news of new Nevada silver strikes spread, "signing up with the C. P." became the favorite method for free transportation to railhead; a week's work would stake the 100‑mile walk on to Nevada. For every 1,000 white workmen signed up in the Bay towns that spring, 100 stayed on the job longer than a week; the other 900 went "over the hill."

"Hire some Chinese," Crocker ordered. Construction Superintendent J. H. Strobridge bristled; Chinese might make good house boys and gardeners, but they were too puny for railroad work. Stanford backed Crocker. Strobridge grumped agreement to try out a gang of fifty. His foremen reported angry mutterings about working "alongside the Chinamen." Strobridge promised that the Asiatics would be organized in separate crews. A little work spurt by the whites, he hinted,  p228 could show up the "coolies" and end this crazy Crocker-Stanford idea.

The Chinese marched through the white camps like a weird procession of midgets, blue cotton pants flopping, dishpan-shaped hats shadowing grave faces, delicate hands hidden in billowing sleeves. The white crews catcalled, and went boastfully to work.

The first night's reports were disturbing. The Chinese shovelmen took smaller bites in a bank, and their barrowmen trundled lighter loads to the fill, but they worked methodically, without gossip breaks or time out for smokes. Two or three times a day a youngster plodded among them carrying two kegs slung over a shoulder at each end of a bamboo pole. The barrels held hot tea. Each workman sipped a cupful, then literally bounced back to job. By dusk, the coolies' right of way was longer and smoother than any white crew's.

[image ALT: A long wooden treslte railroad bridge curves leftward into the background of the photo, at the foot of a pine-forested hill. In the left foreground, a group of three men wearing flat wide-brimmed straw hats look on, and in the center foreground two others pull wheelbarrows. At the foot of the bridge on our right, a wide dirt platform is rising, traveled by over a dozen carts each pulled by two men. It is the retrofitting of a trestle bridge in the Sierra Mountains of California in 1877.]

The high Secrettown trestle in the California Sierras being filled with dirt in 1877. Note the meager tools with which the Central Pacific's coolies had to work. Southern Pacific Historical Collection

Then another strange heathen ritual occurred. As the "coolie" gang trooped into camp, every man jack shed his work clothes and stepped naked into line behind the sleeping tents. There the cooks had set out rows of whisky kegs — one for each man. They filled these with warm water, and stacked piles of towels and clean clothes beyond. The gang sloshed, soaped, rinsed, dabbed themselves with flower water, and slithered into the clean clothes. The rule was obvious: no bath, no dinner. Thereafter, none of them seemed the least bit tired. They sat beside their campfires late, humming songs or chirping like angry orioles around a fan-tan game.

Next day the whites stepped up the speed, cut down work breaks and voluntarily halved their lunch hour. The Chinese pecked methodically on, and by week's end had built the longest stretch of grade of any gang on the line. Grudgingly, Strobridge gave the word: "Send up more coolies."

By the time Schuyler Colfax, Samuel Bowles, and Elbert Richardson arrived at railhead in August coolie gangs were commonplace. The white laborers demanded a $2‑a‑day minimum, plus board. But the Chinese companies smiled  p229 agreement to $35 a month for a workman, then accepted responsibility for providing cooks and mess facilities if Central Pacific would pay for such supplies as "dried oysters, cuttlefish and bamboo sprouts, sweet rice crackers, salted cabbage, vermicelli, Chinese bacon, dried abalone, tea, rice, pork and poultry." Crocker's brother Clark was a partner in the San Francisco firm of Sisson, Wallace & Company that took Central Pacific's contract to import the foodstuffs.

In his annual report for 1865 Samuel Montague admitted that "the Chinese experiment has proved eminently successful," and added, "they are faithful and industrious and under proper supervision soon became skillful in the performance of their duty. Many of them are becoming expert in drilling, blasting, and other departments of rock work." The Chinese mastery of "rock work" was the cruelest blow of all to the white man's ego. Trackhead held at Colfax, 55 miles from Sacramento, for the winter of 1865‑6. Surveys had confirmed the route to Dutch Flat — which wound up the precipitous face of the American River gorge for 12 miles — as the most logical, even though it meant blasting into ledges rising a plumb quarter mile above the river bed. There were no trails; not even a goat path. In at least two places retaining walls would have to be built across gullies 100 to 300 feet wide. The white gangs had nicknamed the giant cliff "Cape Horn." Work on it was a challenge for steeplejacks, ex‑sailors, anyone who could dangle over that blue-black gulf hour after hour in a bos'n's-chair to hand-chip holes, tamp in the blasting-powder, fix and light the fuses before shouting, "Haul away‑y‑y‑y!"

A Chinese foreman clogged up to Strobridge one summer day in 1865, bobbed his hat, and awaited permission to speak. Men of China, he explained, were skilled at work like the big job on Cape Horn. Their ancestors had built fortresses in the Yangtze gorges, carved and laid the stones for the Great Wall. Could a Chinese crew be permitted to work on Cape Horn? If so, could reeds be sent up from San Francisco so that baskets might be woven?

 p230  The white crews sneered disbelief. At night the Chinese camp wove baskets like the ones their ancestors had used for high work since the Han Dynasty. The baskets were waist high and round. The eyelets woven into the top were located in the proper position of the Four Winds, and painted with symbols intended to repel the evil eye. Ropes ran from the eyelets to a central cable. Each basket would have a hauling crew at the precipice top.

As for gunpowder, little instruction was necessary. Gunpowder was a Chinese invention. Every boy set off firecrackers on New Year's and feast days and knew the latent dangers that could transform a handful of the gritty gray dust into a lightning bolt.

All through the fall and winter of 1865‑6 the wicker baskets bobbed like tiny gray kites against the skyline, the hand drills chattered a tom-tom beat, the powder blasts puffed flame. By spring the little men could walk four abreast up Cape Horn's face. That summer the Leland Stanford, the Collis P. Huntington, and the Theodore D. Judah engines chuffed pompously after them. Here and there in a foam-flecked back eddy of the American River floated the remnants of a wicker basket, the waterlogged top of a conical hat. Central Pacific did not keep record of coolie casualties.

After 1865, estimates indicate that an average of 15,000 Chinese a year landed in Pacific Coast ports. Ship captains and the companies obeyed the rule that only "male laborers" should be brought to San Francisco. But Chinese sex urges were as strong, and less inhibited than the white man's. Hundreds of "singsong" girls, and a few contract wives were smuggled in, most of them via Vancouver or the port villages on the Olympia peninsula. In 1867 the San Francisco Call wrote indignant editorials about "Chinese Merchants of Chinese Prostitutes," and the Grass Valley Union ran a series of alleged interviews with "Hi Ke," who was paying $550 in gold for each prostitute he imported. The price, contended Hi Ke, should not be over $200, because most of the girls died from consumption or  p231 mountain fevers. Even if they did survive a winter, the "upkeep is very high."

The Chinese also insisted on joss houses and priests to serve them. This "heathenish, idolatrous" practice shocked the Irish as much as the Methodists. But business was business; joss houses and Buddhist shrines appeared at the Central Pacific work camps. Huntington had fought whisky peddling to the white crews, but the Chinese work camps usually had a supply of opium, a rack of pipes and "yen she gow" scraper tools. After an eighty-hour week dangling over a cliff edge or hauling rock out of a tunnel mouth, their crew bosses reasoned, a man deserved his own kind of recreation. Crocker and Strobridge never asked questions. Possibly neither Huntington nor Stanford ever learned about the sickly sweet smoke and smiling "drunks" in the bunks on Saturday nights.

East from Colfax, Judah's gradients climbed 4,550 feet on the 42‑mile line to Sierra Summit, a 7,042‑foot elevation mark beside Donner Lake. The entire Sierra crossing called for 15 tunnels, 10 on the west slope and 5 on the east. The longest — 1,659 feet — would bore through the summit itself. Hundreds of gullies and ravines must be filled, and at least eight long trestles built. Specifications called for redwood and spruce construction on all trestles, with spans 38 to 60 feet high and from 350 to 500 feet long. The "power" available was two-wheel dump carts, wheelbarrows, axes, ropes, nitroglycerin, blasting powder, mules and Chinese.

Crocker sent 500 Chinese up the stage road with the engineers in the spring of 1866 to begin the bores on the Summit Tunnel. Montague decided to start the work from four faces: the east and west portals, plus a center shaft that would enable horizontal digs in each direction. The rock was so hard that blasting powder merely shot back out of the holes, with minor chipping of the surrounding rock. The pace averaged only 7 or 8 inches a day until the nitroglycerin factory went into production near Donner Lake. Even then the laterals weren't finished until December.

 p232  Union Pacific heard the story of the difficulties at Summit Tunnel and began to spread gossip along Wall Street that the job would hold up Central Pacific for years, thus assuring Union Pacific all of the trackage across Utah and Nevada to the California line. Two East Coast inventors launched another rumor that caused a series of angry letters between Stanford and Huntington. J. J. Couch of Philadelphia had invented a steam-driven power drill about 1849; J. W. Fowle, a Boston inventor, improved on it. Manufacture and promotion of the Couch-Fowle drill began soon after the end of the Civil War. Huntington sent a description to Stanford with the suggestion that it might be just the thing to speed work on the Sierra tunnels. The drill could deliver a blow of a second — five times as a prime hammerman.

Stanford was enthusiastic and sent the correspondence up the line to Crocker. Crocker rode over to Strobridge's office car and went through the Couch-Fowle folders with him. Strobridge sighed and shook his head. It had taken wagon teams six weeks to haul one donkey engine to the Summit here. The wheezy monster, nicknamed "the Black Goose," was the only steam-power machine between Dutch Flat and Virginia City. It was being used to pull buckets of blasted rock out of the central shaft. Using a steam hammer up there meant switching power off that hoist every time the hammer cut in. It wouldn't do.

Crocker grunted agreement and relayed the decision to Stanford. Stanford argued. Crocker stood by Strobridge's decision. The story leaked out. Durant sent a brochure to bankers and stock brokers boasting that "Union Pacific's engineers have modern ideas and are using the latest and best labor-saving devices to expedite speedy, accurate construction." Silas Seymour, writing the New York Times' series, slyly inserted the dig that while Union Pacific intended to reach Salt Lake City in 1869, "Leland Stanford, Esq. confidently anticipates that [Central Pacific] will be able to reach Salt Lake City during 1870."

 p233  Stanford might have made such a cautious estimate in a letter to Washington. But Crocker, Strobridge and Montague were building the railroad. And there wasn't a word in their rule book about delaying construction down the Sierra's east-slope canyons until the Summit Tunnel was finished. Strobridge might not want to fiddle around with that new-fangled trip-hammer way up there 75 miles from Nowhere, but dragging 2 or 3 locomotives, 25 flat cars, and 20 miles of rail up the stage road was another matter. Central Pacific would be in Nevada by '68.

Through the late summer and fall of 1866, Montague's surveyors staked out a right of way from Summit Tunnel's east portal down the Sierra's wall to the Nevada border. Up from Dutch Flat the Chinese laid redwood ties and iron along the ridge into Cisco, only 12 miles from Summit Tunnel's west portal. On November 24 the first trains wheezed into the new Cisco Station. They were loaded with rail, ties and chair irons, and had two engines to the train. Waiting for them were every logger rig, box wagon and car Strobridge could muster. An army of Chinese stood beside mounds of rope and tie chains. All that night the gangs loaded rail on the logging wagons, chain-passed the kegs of spikes and cases of tools into carts, then finally inched three of the locomotives off the tracks and atop skid sleds.

The procession toward Summit started on the morning of the 25th. Cars carrying nitroglycerin and blasting powder went first, with orders to keep at least a mile ahead. The wagon train followed, trailed by the logging wagons loaded with rail. At the rear, hundreds of Chinese tugged alongside the mule teams to skid the locomotives across the Sierra.

Two weeks before the locomotives were inched into Donne Pass, snowdrifts spumed ten feet above the road banks. Strobridge called off all work on the trestles between Cisco and Summit and ordered every Chinaman uphill to dig out the wagon road, spell the tow gangs on the locomotives, and keep  p234 a cart path open between Summit Tunnel's portals and the rock dumps.

The great log skids, swabbed with lard, carried the locomotives over the Summit sometime in January. Ahead of them, more than a thousand Chinese had cut a right of way 200 feet wide down the mountainsides as far as Truckee Canyon. "These are not Yankee forests," Assistant Engineer Clement reported to Crocker. "The trees are four, six, eight feet in diameter." The tiny lumbermen, swathed in padded-cotton gowns and fur caps, felled the giant redwood and spruce, sawed the trunks into 15‑foot lengths, slithered them off the right of way, blew out the stumps, and hacked the frozen earth into a semblance of roadbed.

But the blizzards won. From late January through April the crews between Donner Lake and Truckee lived and worked like arctic moles. The tunnelmen stayed in their rock bores and saw daylight only when they were ordered to poke through new airholes and smoke vents. On down the east slope, deep into Truckee Canyon, work camps were buried to the stove-pipes. "In many cases," the engineers wrote, "the road between camp and work was through snow tunnels, some of them 200 feet long. The construction of retaining work in the canyons carried on through the winter. A great dome was excavated in the snow, where the wall was to be built, and the wall stones were lowered through the shaft in the snow to the men working inside the dome . . . There were many snowslides. In some cases entire camps were carried away and the bodies of the men not found until the following spring."

It must be assumed that scores, and possibly hundreds, of Chinese froze to death or were killed in avalanches that winter between Cisco and Truckee. Fatalities were numerous, too, from the nitroglycerin blasts in the tunnels. Sometime during the spring of 1867, Strobridge went to Summit to inspect progress on the tunnel. A delayed nitro blast hurled rock slivers into one eye and left him half blind for life. Crocker allegedly gave the order to "bury all that damned stuff." If  p235 he did, it won't obeyed. Nitro blasts thundered in tunnels and rock cuts, and finally pulverized the frozen earth all the way to Promontory Point.

When spring did come to the East slope the survivors dug out the 10- and 15‑foot layers of wet snow and ice covering the right of way. Up toward Summit from Cisco hacked a new army of their countrymen, just shipped in from San Francisco. By the time the lupine blossomed across the slopes, 12,000 Chinese labored on the Sierra's crest.

The yellow man had proven his superiority at hard labor. He had endured scorching heat and howling blizzards in the canyons and worked stolidly month after month in ice caves and tunnels. Every gully trestle, blasted cliff and tunnel from Colfax to Truckee was a headstone for his unknown dead. The locomotives and flatcars snorting freight down the East Slope and the bores rumbling toward union beneath Summit earned him the right to become a California folk hero.

But in San Francisco on March 6, 1867, a raucous mass meeting in the American Theatre launched the Anti-Coolie Labor Association. Mobs of men and women howled through the streets, pelting Chinese with rocks and filth. All that spring the drunks and young "toughs" found their sport by setting fire to Chinese laundries and cigar factories, emptying chamber pots on the doorsteps along Grant Avenue, and howling indecencies at Confucian funeral processions. The phrase began to echo in newspaper editorials, sermons and street talk: "Not a Chinaman's Chance."

There were 100,000 Chinese in California that year. The Pacific Mail Steamship Company had just announced a routine schedule between San Francisco and Hong Kong. The young journalist Henry George studied the city's outburst of hate and fear and puzzled about the future. "What will happen," he wrote in his journal, "when the Pacific Railroad is finished, and Chinese labor is loosed upon the rest of America?"

Crocker and Strobridge weren't sociologists. They ordered  p236 more Chinese up the line. The telegraph reported that Union Pacific was on the move again, clanging iron at a two‑mile-a‑day clip. Then Union Pacific's deadliest summer succeeded Central Pacific's deadliest winter.

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Page updated: 26 Jan 10