Chinese-Americans’ contributions to America’s railroads celebrated during Golden Spike Conference

China 24

Friday, May 10 marks the 150th anniversary of the driving of the Golden Spike.

It is the completion of the transcontinental railroad that connected the eastern and western regions of the United States.  

It happened in the state of Utah, where locals and people from across the country are celebrating the moment while also learning about the historic role Chinese workers played.

CGTN’s Mark Niu reports.

At the state of Utah’s Capitol in Salt Lake City, an exhibit commemorates the 150th anniversary of the Golden Spike.

Elementary school students Brigham and William Ferry attend a Chinese immersion school and today are at the Capitol building learning how Chinese workers – at least 15-thousand of them — made up the largest portion of the labor force that built America’s transcontinental railroad.

”They blasted through the mountains and weren’t afraid of dying and that the mountain would collapse on them,” said Brigham as he looked at exhibit photos. 

It’s a history being retraced by the Chinese Railroad Workers Descendants Association, which is taking some special guests to see where their ancestors once labored and lived.

A three-hour drive outside of Salt Lake City and near the Great Salt Lake Desert, the group comes across a rebuilt trestle that once supported the original transcontinental railroad.

Leona Lau recently found out her great-great grandfather worked on the railroad.

“I’m very touched by the endurance of the men who came here from China,” said Lau. “They had no family with them and the years they spent working in these adverse conditions. It reached like thirty below during the winter and they were able to survive.” 

Census records show that 57 Chinese rail workers once lived in the town of Terrace.  There are still see signs of the rail system.  Down a crater is the location of what was once a turntable to turn the trains around.

“With this kind of situation where you had Chinese who were not English speakers that were in a place they were totally unfamiliar with, they set themselves aside in the construction camps,” said local archaeologist Michael Polk, who helped lead the tour. “So there isn’t a lot of information about them.”

Artifacts from the area help piece together the workers’ lives.

Local archaeologists show the group fragments of food jars and soy sauce containers and even vessels for Chinese liquor.

Pamela Kuczora’s grandfather worked for the railroads.

“It’s so interesting to me to understand where they were, how they lived. It kind of gets me,” said Kuczora while taking an emotional moment to reflect.

Raymond Chong’s great-great grandfather, Bein Yiu Chung from Guangdong Province, worked on the actual transcontinental railroad. 

“American history books were whitewashed. The transcontinental railroad was significant but didn’t talk about the Chinese at all,” said Chong. ”I’m just glad to be here in this moment. It reflects my heritage as an American and my heritage as a Chinese and to represent my great grandfather.”

The group arrives at the Pepplin Cut, just one of numerous places where Chinese workers likely risked their lives using nitroglycerine to blast through.

The descendants look on with wonder and admiration, knowing it’s part of a historic journey that helped unite America.

Shelley Fisher Fishkin discusses the Golden Spike Conference and the contributions of Chinese-Americans

CGTN’s Elaine Reyes spoke with Shelley Fisher Fishkin about the Golden Spike Conference and the contributions of Chinese-Americans.