Asian Pacific American Heritage Month: The First Transcontinental Railroad

May is Asian Pacific American (APA) Heritage Month—a celebration of Asians and Pacific Islanders in the United States.  The  APA Heritage Month originated in a congressional bill. In June 1977, Asian Pacific American Month started off observing the first 10 days of May.  By 1990 the holiday was expanded for the entire month by President George H. W. Bush. The month of May was chosen to commemorate the first Japanese immigrants to the U.S. in 1843 and to mark the anniversary of the completion of the First Transcontinental Railroad on May 10, 1869.

The First Transcontinental Railroad, built between 1863 and 1869, was the first railroad that linked both coasts of the United States. It is recognized as one of the greatest technological achievements of the 19th century. On the day the railroad began construction, a trip from Boston to Sacramento took 6 months.  On the day the railroad was completed, it took 8 days.  The railroad is known as one of the main instruments in the changing of America as people began to move westward and forming this country into the industrial power it is today.

Built in two sections of railroad, it was built by two railroad companies, the Central Pacific and the Union Pacific.  The Union Pacific began their stretch of railroad in July of 1862 at Omaha Nebraska, stretching west towards Utah. The Central Pacific began its stretch of railroad in January 1863 at Sacramento California, stretching east towards Utah to be eventually united with the Union Pacific line.

While the Union Pacific employed mostly Irish immigrants and ex Civil War veterans, the Central Pacific found it difficult to find employees.  At the beginning of 1864 it needed nearly 5000 workers.  It only had 600 on the payroll.

Chinese labor was considered as they had already worked on other railroads in California. The first Chinese were hired in 1865, at $28 dollars a month to do the extremely difficult jobs of blasting pathways through hard, tough granite that formed the high Sierra Nevada Mountains.  Work in the beginning was slow and difficult. After the first 23 miles, the Central Pacific faced the daunting task of laying tracks over terrain that rose 7,000 feet in 100 miles. To conquer the many sheer embankments, the Chinese workers used techniques they had learned in China to complete similar tasks. They were lowered by ropes from the top of cliffs in baskets, and while suspended, they chipped away at the granite and planted explosives that were used to blast tunnels. Many workers risked their lives and perished in the harsh winters and dangerous conditions. By the summer of 1868, 4,000 workers, two thirds of which were Chinese, had built the transcontinental railroad east over the Sierras and into the interior plains.

On May 10, 1869, the two railroads were unified at Promontory, Utah in front of a cheering crowd and a band. A Chinese and Irish crew was chosen to lay the final ten miles of track, and it was completed in only twelve hours, a single day record that stands today. A golden spike was used as the final spike to unify the two railroads as one.

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~ by daroldingram on May 13, 2010.

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