From 1865 to 1869, Chinese railroad workers built the Transcontinental Railroad through the Sierra Nevada mountains. Approximately 12,000-20,000 Chinese railroad men making up to 90 percent of the Central Pacific Railroad workforce risked life and limb to cut and build railroad bed and dig tunnels in the most difficult and perilous terrain and weather of the entire Transcontinental Railroad project. The accomplishments of the Chinese railroad workers were a key contribution to the rapid economic development of the American west and the entire American economy. In 2014 Secretary of Labor, Tom Perez, at the ceremony that inducted the Chinese railroad workers into the Department of Labor Hall of Honor, liken this contribution to the creation of the internet in the way it transformed the US economy for decades into the future.
It is impossible to speak of the Transcontinental Railroad as a “great project” without erasing the histories of violence against marginalized communities which allowed the railroad to be completed. Not only were Chinese workers often subjected to horrific working conditions and severe labor exploitation, but the railroad’s construction further enabled the violent displacement and colonization of thousands of Indigenous tribes who previously inhabited the West Coast. To claim that the Transcontinental Railroad was a uniformly great project is to sanitize and minimize these histories — not only of the exploitation to which Chinese laborers were subjected, but of the violence against Native Americans that enabled the railroad’s completion.
Central Pacific Railroad (CPR) began work on the western portion of the Transcontinental Railroad in Sacramento on January 8, 1863. They encountered their first significant obstacle in spring of 1864: a long, tall ridge at Bloomer Ranch. This ridge, which was made of a rock suspended in clay, effectively formed a massive, natural concrete wall. Workers broke picks, shovels, and other equipment attempting to break through the ridge, and eventually resorted to using black blasting powder. Using 500 kegs of explosives per day, the crew began chipping away at the ridge.
The work was incredibly dangerous. One explosion blinded the left eye of the energetic and tall foreman, Harvey Strobridge after he attempted to prepare 50 pounds of powder. The Chinese respected Strobridge, and those who learned English called him “Stro” or the “One-eyed bossy man.” Strobridge respected the Chinese workers after working a month with them. He stated, “They learn quickly, do not fight, have no strikes that amount to anything, and are very cleanly in their habits. They will gamble and do quarrel among themselves most noisily – but harmlessly.” The chief engineer, Samuel Montague, stated “The Chinese are faithful and industrious and under proper supervision soon become skillful in the performance of their duty. Many of them are becoming experts in drilling, blasting, and other departments of rock work.”
Ultimately, workers removed over 40,000 cubic yards of material, completing the grade and tracks through Bloomer Cut in the spring of 1865. The first train reached Auburn from Sacramento on May 13, 1865, and Bloomer Cut was considered a great engineering feat to merit the title of the “Eighth Wonder of the World.” The concrete-like walls have preserved Bloomer Cut well, and the site today still looks much the same as it did in 1865.