The Virginia General Assembly has designated May 10, 2019 to honor the 150th anniversary of the completion of the Transcontinental Railroad and particularly the efforts of Chinese workers who made up about 80% of the workforce building the tracks eastward.
The Transcontinental Railroad was initiated by President Abraham Lincoln signing the Pacific Railway Act in 1862 to fulfill a long held vision to bind the nation together from the Atlantic to the Pacific. The undertaking was America’s first major national infrastructure project.
The plan called for the Central Pacific Railroad Company to start building in Sacramento, California and continue east across the Sierra Nevada, while a second company, the Union Pacific Railroad, would build westward from the Missouri River, near the Iowa-Nebraska border.
To secure the huge numbers of workers that would be needed to build the western portion of the Railroad, industrialists like Leland Stanford and Charles Crocker recruited thousands of Chinese workers. They were joined in the effort by Irish immigrants, Mormons, Native Americans, Free Blacks, and others who labored together to build over 50 bridges and trestles and 15 tunnels over hundreds of miles through the rugged mountain terrain and under extremely harsh weather conditions.
The first Transcontinental Railroad was completed on May 10, 1869 by the joining of the two tracks with a symbolic “golden spike” at Promontory, Utah. In 2014, the U.S. Department of Labor awarded the Chinese Railroad Workers with a place on the Department’s “Hall of Honor,” the first time any Asian American had been so recognized.
It is difficult to overemphasize the impact that the Railroad had on 19th century life – it is not unlike the technological changes the United States and the world have seen since the advent of the Internet. Prior to the Railroad, the length of a journey across the United States took six months; after its completion, one week. The cost of travel was reduced from $1,000 to $150. Similarly, the Railroad transformed communications, commerce, and industry, facilitating the movement of peoples across the country, and greatly increasing the global presence of the United States.
As part of the commemoration of the Transcontinental Railroad, the General Assembly’s Resolution calls on schools across the Commonwealth to celebrate the extraordinary efforts of the Chinese and other workers who made this engineering and technological achievement possible.