This year marks the 150th anniversary of the completion of America’s first transcontinental railroad. Between 1863 and 1869, two companies built a rail line across the United States. Union Pacific, starting from Council Bluffs, Iowa, built west, laying more than a thousand miles of rail; Central Pacific, starting from Sacramento, California, built east, laying nearly seven hundred miles of track. On May 10, 1869, work crews from the two companies met in the Utah desert at Promontory Summit to link their rails and hammer home the final spikes.

The labor of Chinese workers was instrumental to the transcontinental railroad’s construction. At any given time, between ten thousand and twelve thousand Chinese workers were employed on the project, largely by Central Pacific. But while their labor was crucial, the workers themselves have been largely forgotten. Gordon H. Chang, the Senior Associate Vice Provost for Undergraduate Education, Olive H. Palmer Professor in Humanities, and Professor of American History at Stanford University, co-directs the Chinese Railroad Workers in North America Project and recently published Fateful Ties: A History of America’s Preoccupation with China (Harvard University Press). In this interview, he reflects on the history of the first transcontinental railroad and discusses how he and colleagues have worked to bring the histories of Chinese railroad workers to light.

Sean Fraga: Let’s start with the big picture. Why did the United States build a transcontinental railroad, and why did it do so at this moment, in the late 1860s?

Gordon H. Chang: American leaders in the nineteenth century understood that the United States would have a great geographic advantage if the country was linked by rail line from east to west and west to east—if it had a rail line that would link the Atlantic Ocean with the Pacific Ocean, that would span this large country from coast to coast. In 1850, California became part of the Union, but California, as rich and as important as it was, was still far removed from the East Coast and even from the Midwest. The railroad would solve that problem. It would link, literally, New York City with San Francisco—the two great harbors in North America. American boosters and entrepreneurs envisioned a rail line as early as the 1840s. They pressed for its construction over the years, but the sectional conflict—between North and South, the slave states and the northern states—blocked agreement about where the route should go. With the outbreak of the Civil War, the stalemate was broken, and Abraham Lincoln signed a bill in 1862 to authorize federal support for the building of the line. The authorization supported two companies: the Union Pacific, which built from Omaha, Nebraska, westward, and the Central Pacific, which built from Sacramento, California, eastward. The line was envisioned as an important, strategic advantage for the northern states. There was already an extensive rail system, particularly in the North, before the Civil War, but this rail line would give the North even greater advantages. It was also understood, particularly by the boosters who pressed for this line early on, that it would open enormous political and economic potential by linking the East and the West, and by bringing the Far East—Asia—closer to the United States, via shipping lines out of San Francisco. So the rail line had both domestic importance as well as perceived international trade advantages.

You’re the co-director of the Chinese Railroad Workers in North America project at Stanford. How did the project come about, and what were its initial goals?

I’ve been long interested in Chinese railroad workers and trans-Pacific interaction. I’d studied and had written about those issues extensively in my earlier career, and finally, in 2012, I had a chance to co-found and co-direct this project, to recover the history of Chinese railroad workers. We formed the project to concentrate our resources and get researchers out there to see if we could find documentation on the railroad workers.

Why was the role of Chinese railroad workers something that had to be recovered?

Much of what we know—or believe we know—about History with a capital H, and American history more generally, are things that we can read in our history books. But there are so many things, still, today, despite the efforts of many scholars and writers to understand the past—there are so many things that we don’t know. The history of Chinese railroad workers, what they did on the railroad line, and how they lived the experience has been elusive, if not absent entirely, in the history of the railroad. And we wanted to correct that. There are many omissions and gaps in our understanding of history; the writing of history is ongoing task of recovery. To recover is to find information that speaks to those gaps and silences in history. Those gaps challenge us to do a better job to understand the past in a richer way.

What were the project’s most important findings, and what findings were you surprised by? What didn’t you expect to learn?

Previous historians had written about parts of the railroad experience of Chinese workers, but I was really surprised and excited to learn about so many new aspects of this five-year experience. The Chinese began working in 1864 and worked all the way through, to 1869, on the western portion of the railroad, which ended in Utah. I learned that 90% of the construction workforce on the Central Pacific, on the western portion of the line, was Chinese. They numbered anywhere from twelve thousand to fifteen thousand, at a high point, and maybe up to twenty thousand overall because of turn-over. They were really responsible for building the western portion of the transcontinental railroad, and without them, the railroad might not have been completed, and certainly would not have been completed in the time that it was. That’s one new, major issue: This was an immense contribution that Chinese railroad workers made, but they have not been honored or acknowledged for that effort. What they did was really quite astounding. They overcame great physical, climatic, and working conditions. They had to work year-round, even through the terrible Sierra winters. The Sierras is the toughest mountain range in the continental United States. They worked through horrendous snowstorms to build through California to Donner Summit and to get the line through these mountain passes. Then they carved out fifteen tunnels through granite, which required hand-tools, chisels, and blasting powder, to blast out the solid rock from these gargantuan mountains. Many died. Up to twelve hundred, or more, Chinese died in the construction of the railroad.

While we learned about a lot of big things, we also learned about small things. We learned what they ate—largely Chinese food. We learned about they did in their leisure time: They read, played games, wrote letters back home to their relatives and sent money back. And we learned that, after the railroad was completed, many of them continued to be railroad workers and went eastward to work on railroad lines throughout the entire country. There were Chinese railroad workers as far away as Tennessee or Alabama or New York, even out to Long Island, in the 1870s, 1880s, and 1890s.

You mentioned connections back home. The railroads changed the United States and North America. How did the construction of the railroads change China?

The money these workers earned in the United States was considerably more than what they could earn in China. Most of them had been farmers in the southern part of China, along the Pearl River Delta. There was not an extensive cash economy there. In the United States, there was this opportunity: They were paid in gold and sent the money back to China to their home villages and families, and this sustained the population in that portion of the country. Even today, some of these villages from which they came are still known as railroad villages.

What happened to these workers after the railroad was completed?

After they had completed the work, they had shown themselves to be extraordinary workers and were celebrated by many people. Entrepreneurs and employers around the country sought to employ Chinese to work on rail lines in other parts of the country and on other infrastructure projects. They became known as the go-to railroad workers, since they had experience and were good workers. But, simultaneously, there arose a movement that saw them as alien threat and an undesirable workforce. This negative sentiment was rooted in racial prejudice, as well as a sense of competition with them as workers, and a very violent and pervasive anti-Chinese movement developed across the country by the late 1870s and early 1880s, seeking to drive the Chinese out of the country entirely. This resulted in the passage of the Chinese Exclusion Act in 1882, which tried to keep Chinese people out of the United States altogether.

Did these Chinese railroad workers build communities in the United States?

Many of the Chinese railroad workers remained single their entire lives because they worked hard but didn’t have much money or the ability to start families. But a handful did, particularly the managers or supervisors or labor contractors who recruited the workers on to the rail line. And they became the foundation of what we would call today the Chinese-American community. Those who were able to save some money and establish themselves—maybe by starting a store after working on the railroad—were able to marry, either other people in America or Chinese women who came over from China. They started families and our project identified a good number of these families—maybe fifteen—who were descendants of railroad workers. We learned from them about family lore and what the railroad meant to their families today. Many of the Chinese communities that sprung up in the 1870s and 1880s and continued on were the result of the railroad workers dispersing across the country and people establishing themselves, and a small number starting families and having native-born Chinese-Americans in the United States.

How do these descendants tend to view the railroad today?

Many of the descendants we interviewed were very eager to come forward. They were very proud of their stories and very proud of their ancestors because the railroad is so typically American. What could be more American than working on the railroad? It just seemed to resonate, to be an important symbol of Americanization. The fact that their ancestors were railroad workers is something the descendants are proud of and would like to publicize. They’re very happy with our project, to make this history known.

How has the legacy of the transcontinental railroads changed over time? When we celebrate the 150th anniversary, what are we celebrating?

The descendants, to continue your question earlier, many are proud—but many are also sad or have been angry because the story of Chinese railroad workers had not been recovered or known before. It’s still relatively unknown among the American public. The descendants feel this is a woefully neglected chapter of American history. So they’re very happy, on the one hand, to have the story come forward, but still have deep feelings about why it’s taken so long for this part of American history to be known. With the 150th anniversary coming up, many are very pleased that the story of Chinese railroad workers will finally make it into the public’s consciousness, through public events and books and other work that the project has completed.

What are some resources for people who want to know more about Chinese railroad workers in North America?

There is lots of information at our project website: chineserailroadworkers.stanford.edu. On that website, you’ll find videos about the history and about our project. You’ll find images of research materials that we used, including payroll records and photos of the workers. You can find essays about the railroad workers, and information about other resources that are available, including school curricula: We worked with other Stanford folks to complete a K-12 curriculum unit that introduces the subject to students. Our website is reliable, easy to use, and can lead you to other resources.

And I should mention the two books the project produced. One is The Chinese and the Iron Road: Building the Transcontinental Railroad, a volume of collected essays by over twenty authors about various aspects of the railroad’s history, published by Stanford University Press. The second book is Ghosts of Gold Mountain: The Epic Story of the Chinese Who Built the Transcontinental Railroad, which I authored, published by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. This book tells the story from beginning to end, as well as describing what this experience means for us today. I hope that people who are interested will go find those books and learn much more than what we could cover here in this interview—there’s a lot of information that we didn’t cover at all.

Thank you so much for your time.

It’s been my pleasure to let people know about this. It’s a passion as well as an intellectual endeavor.

This interview has been condensed and edited.