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Chinese workers were critical in building western railroads

A typical day for Chinese railroad builders would start at dawn with a signal from a bell or bugle in a labor camp containing hundreds or even thousands of workers.

Half an hour later, they would assemble along the railroad route, using shovels to create a solid, smooth road bed. White workers would follow, laying down the rails, and the Chinese laborers would do the finishing work, according to local historian Larry Mullaly.

“They worked 11 hours a day, six days a week, month after month in all kinds of weather,” he said. “Millions of tons of earth had to be moved. It was all done a shovelful at a time.”

Mullaly will give his virtual talk “Persistence: Chinese Labor and the Southern Oregon Railroads” at noon Wednesday via Zoom videoconference. Registration for the free lecture is required.

To register, see jcls.libcal.com/calendar/jcls_event/WIT-Dec-2020. A recording of the program will be made available later on the Jackson County Library Services YouTube channel.

Mullaly will sprinkle his talk with historical photos.

In the 1800s, Chinese workers were critical in building railroads in the western United States — including the herculean five-year struggle to construct a railroad down through Southern Oregon and connect it to a railroad being built up from Northern California.

Back in China, society was deeply stratified, with merchants and shopkeepers considered to be superior to landless peasants, Mullaly said.

In America, railroad companies were on a building spree but couldn’t find enough cheap white laborers on the West Coast. Their response was to import landless Chinese laborers, who typically worked in groups of 20-30 people. The labor gangs were often clan-based and organized under a village head man, Mullaly said.

In Southern Oregon and Northern California, railroad companies had thousands of Chinese railroad workers who often lived in large camps. One labor camp south of Ashland had 1,000 men.

Jacksonville, in contrast, had fewer than 1,000 people, and Medford didn’t yet exist as a town, Mullaly said.

In China, laborers could make five to 15 cents a day. They could make five times as much working on the railroads in America, even though they were paid less than white workers. White workers typically had the higher-paid skilled jobs like construction engineering and bricklaying, Mullaly said.

Many Chinese laborers planned to work extraordinarily hard here, then move back to China, Mullaly said.

The United States was not a hospitable place for Chinese workers. There was already friction between white and Chinese gold miners during the 1850s along the West Coast, including in the Jacksonville area. That continued into the railroad building era, with white people viewing Chinese people as inferiors who couldn’t be assimilated into American culture.

Labor camps for Chinese workers were often located in remote areas along railroad routes. Other workers would live miles ahead of the oncoming railroad tracks, blasting out tunnels through rugged mountains. They dynamited and dug out about 16 tunnels just between Roseburg and Redding, California, Mullaly said.

“The poor Chinese workers were usually from very densely populated areas of China,” he said. “They were out in the wilderness doing this work. If they went into town, it was very inhospitable. Railroad camps were like safe havens.”

White workers saw Chinese workers as competition — willing to endure brutally hard working and living conditions for little pay.

Storekeepers resented the frugality of Chinese laborers, who sent most of their pay back to their families in China and spent little on themselves. Christians viewed the Chinese as evil heathens and pagans because of their different religious and cultural traditions, Mullaly said.

Newspapers largely ignored the Chinese and their contributions.

“The newspapers never talked about the Chinese unless there was a crime involved,” Mullaly said. “If there was an explosion that killed people, they would name the white men but never name the Chinese. They would just say, ‘Two Chinamen crushed.’”

Chinese immigrants had long faced discriminatory laws in America, including having to pay a foreign miners tax, being prohibited from voting and not being allowed to testify in court — even when they were the victims of crimes.

Then the federal Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 blocked Chinese immigration, cutting off a valuable source of labor for the railroads. In the months before the law went into effect, railroad companies imported thousands of workers, but still didn’t have enough, Mullaly said.

Railroad companies were economic powerhouses but didn’t have the political strength to stave off passage of the exclusionary act.

“Railroads were considered monopolies. Bigness was new. People were used to smalltown businesses, and then they were confronted by these monster railroad businesses,” Mullaly said. “They were politically very unpopular. There were a lot of anti-railroad politicians. It wasn’t easy for the railroads to resist the anti-Chinese feelings.”

On Dec. 17, 1887, Oregon and California residents celebrated the joining of the two railroad lines that connected the West Coast from north to south. More than 1,000 people cheered in Ashland as a wealthy railroad official tapped a golden spike into the railroad track with a silver hammer.

Notified of the event by telegraph, cities connected by railroad up and down the West Coast and throughout the country celebrated with gun shots, a cannon blast, firecrackers, fire alarms and church bells.

By 1890, there were few Chinese people left in Southern Oregon. Done with the railroad and pushed out by discriminatory laws, most had left for other parts of the country, China, Canada or Latin America.

But the Chinese railroad workers left a lasting imprint on the landscape, history and economy of the region, Mullaly said.

“They were really indispensable,” he said.

Mullaly is a retired educator who has written extensively on western railroad topics. He is the co-author of “The Southern Pacific in Los Angeles, 1873-1996.”

His lecture is part of the Windows in Time monthly history series presented by Jackson County Library Services and Southern Oregon Historical Society.

Normally done in person, the talks have moved online during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Past talks can be found on the Jackson County Library Service’s YouTube channel by clicking on “Videos.”

Reach Mail Tribune reporter Vickie Aldous at valdous@rosebudmedia.com. Follow her on Twitter @VickieAldous.

Chinese workers were critical for the building of railroads that connected the United States.