Published April 22, 2019, 8:26 AM PDT
By Chris Fuchs
They thought this was their chance.
May 10, 1969, marked 100 years since the golden spike was hammered in at Promontory, Utah, signifying the completion of America’s first transcontinental railroad — a monumental engineering feat that linked together the nation’s coasts.
A ceremony commemorating the anniversary drew a crowd of around 20,000. Among the attendees were Philip P. Choy, president of the San Francisco-based Chinese Historical Society of America, and Thomas W. Chinn, one of its founders.
Centennial officials had agreed to set aside five minutes of the ceremony for the society to pay homage to the Chinese workers who had helped build the railroad, but whose contributions had been largely glossed over in history. Choy, Chinn and the others gathered at Promontory that day had hoped this would be the moment when the more than 10,000 Chinese who labored for the Central Pacific Railroad finally got their due.
“Who else but Americans could drill 10 tunnels in mountains 30 feet deep in snow?” then-Transportation Secretary John A. Volpe said in his speech, according to a May 12, 1969, San Francisco Chronicle article.
“Who else but Americans could chisel through miles of solid granite? Who else but Americans could have laid 10 miles of track in 12 hours?”
Volpe’s remarks referenced some of the backbreaking and deadly work done on the Central Pacific by a labor force that was almost 90 percent Chinese, many of them migrants from China, ineligible to become U.S. naturalized citizens under federal law.
But the ceremony featured nothing more than a “passing mention of the Chinese.” The five minutes promised to the society never happened.
Choy and Chinn were incensed.
“Short of cussing at those people … I was beside myself,” Choy, who passed away in 2017, recalled during a 2013 interview.
This May, for the 150th anniversary, descendants of the Chinese railroad laborers and other advocates have been working hard to ensure history does not repeat itself. Among the events planned around the sesquicentennial is the 2019 Golden Spike Conference, organized by the Chinese Railroad Workers Descendants Association, which will feature workshops, lectures, tours and a musical by Jason Ma entitled “Gold Mountain.”