Transcontinental Railroad & Summit Tunnel

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.