Skip to content Skip to navigation

The Forgotten History of the Chinese Who Helped Build America’s Railroads

Chinese workers on the Central Pacific Railroad.

Amon Carter Museum of American Art Archives, Fort Worth, Texas

New York Times Book Review by Andrew Graybill


The Epic Story of the Chinese Who Built the Transcontinental Railroad
By Gordon H. Chang

Shortly after the driving of the Golden Spike at Promontory Point, Utah, on May 10, 1869, James Strobridge — the construction foreman of the Central Pacific Railroad — held a celebratory meal in his private railcar. With the linking of the Central Pacific and Union Pacific railways, cross-country travel had been cut from several months to a single week. No less important was the symbolism: Only four years after the end of the Civil War, iron rails stitched the United States back together.

On hand at Strobridge’s gathering were a few Chinese, invited to stand in for thousands of others who had assembled the line. When they entered the car, a newspaper reporter wrote, the other guests “cheered them as the chosen representatives of the race which have greatly helped to build the road.” The good feelings would not last. As Gordon H. Chang relates in “Ghosts of Gold Mountain,” the “Railroad Chinese” and their countrymen soon became the most despised group in the West, before being largely forgotten. Chang’s book is a moving effort to recover their stories and honor their indispensable contribution to the building of modern America.

Chang, a historian at Stanford University, begins in the Siyi, a coastal region in southeastern China where social turbulence during the 19th century pushed waves of immigrants to North American shores. Many went to California (nicknamed jinshan, or “Gold Mountain,” because of the Gold Rush), and some found work in the state’s early railroad ventures. By the 1860s, officers of the Central Pacific, having abandoned ideas to recruit Mexicans or former slaves, looked to China to meet their enormous labor needs. Chinese workers eventually accounted for 90 percent of the company’s construction force.