How the Chinese Came into the Picture
Building the transcontinental railroad meant a new job force was needed. However it proved to be difficult: before the Chinese came to the picture, J.H. Strobridge needed 5,000 but he only had 800 permanent laborers. Prospective laborers were not attracted to the low wages but were turned on by gold mining. Two years after Lincoln signed the Pacific Railroad Act, they were only able to lay down 50 miles. Charles Crocker suggested using Chinese labor force, but Strobridge was against it: “I will not boss Chinese. I will not be responsible for work alone on the road by Chinese labor. From what I’ve seen of them, theyre not fit laborers. Anyway, I don’t think they could build a railroad.” To which Crocker responded: “they built the Great Wall of China, didn’t they?”
Desperate for more laborers, Strobridge hired 50 Chinese in the spring of 1865 giving them very simple tasks: filling dump carts. Then they graduated to driving the carts, then excavation. Each time, the Chinese proved to be adept at all the jobs.
The number of Chinese working in the railroad went up to 12,000. After they had exhausted the local talent, they scouted workers back in China.
These men were former gold miners, farmers, fishermen, and laborers, skilled in manual labor. There would be 20 to 30 men in one gang and within that gang they would assign a “head man.” This “head man” would receive an account of time credited which he would dole out to the individuals. He would also buy and pay for all the provisions needed to work on the railroad.
Originally, the Chinese were paid $26 a month and $13 of that would go towards their rations.
Much to the surprise of the other railroad workers, they found that the Chinese to be diligent, hard-working, quick, and industrious. They staved off dysentery and other illnesses by avoiding whiskey, bathing, drinking tea, while the white workers would gulp down cold water which was unclean and contaminated.