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The Golden Spike: The Chinese Build the Railroad

“What do you think? Will we win the bet for Crocker tomorrow?” asked Chin Lee. “They call us Crocker’s Pets because he brags about our good fast work.”

“Uncle, what’s the bet? Anyway, we’re not his pets. Pets are animals. Is that what he thinks of us? We’ll lay the track faster to prove we’re the best workers, not to help him win,” said the younger man, Song Chu. They sat smoking pipes outside their tent, watching the light fade in the west.

“Crocker bragged that we can lay 10 miles of railroad track in one day. A Union Pacific vice-president bet $10,000 that it couldn’t be done. Crocker agreed to the bet.” said Chin Lee. “The Irish workers on the other railroad won’t like being beaten by Chinese workers. They say we’re weak.”

“But Uncle, we are not.”

They look the same as when they arrived only now they wear miner's boots...

“Song Chu, you certainly aren’t weak. As a boy of 16, you were a basket man, the most dangerous job on the railroad,” said Uncle Lee. The railroad track had to go around a mountain, but there was nowhere to stand to build the shelf for the railroad tracks. “It was you who thought of the solution to the problem, the baskets.”

“Yes,” said Song Chu. “The company used my idea. Remember? We got reed cut from San Francisco Bay and wove large baskets, high enough to stand in. It was frightening being lowered by rope over the cliff. We chipped away at the mountain to make that shelf.”

Men were swung out into open space by ropes hanging from the cliffs high above. Inch by inch they cut and dug out the narrow shelf. They hung 2,000 feet above the river bed.

“I worried about you. Especially when you set dynamite in the cracks You’d light a fuse, then signal with a pull of the rope. We’d haul you up fast.” said Chin Lee.


In 1861, Congress voted to build a transcontinental railroad to join the eastern states to the west coast. Two railroad companies received contracts to lay the tracks. Starting in Nebraska, the Union Pacific Railroad Company built westward. The Central Pacific Company built eastward from California. The Union Pacific hired labor on the east coast, mainly Irish immigrants. The Central Pacific hired mainly Chinese. Fierce competition between them led to a contest to see which company could lay them faster. When the two companies joined, a ceremony was held and a “golden spike” was nailed into the track. This story is told by Chinese workers building the railroad.


On May 10, 1869, a golden spike was nailed into the tracks to celebrate the completion of the railroad. The Chinese were missing from the celebration. They had already left for other jobs. They gave their energy and talent and suffered greatly to build this railroad. A newspaper article in Sacramento noted a shipment to China of 20,000 pounds of accumulated bones. According to the article, those were the remains of about 1,200 Chinese who died building the railroad. They wanted to be buried in their homeland. At this time of a depressed economy the anti-Chinese attitudes of Euro-Americans exploded.

In general, they thought the Chinese were taking their jobs. Prejudice led to the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, the first federal law to exclude a specific nationality. It halted immigration of Chinese laborers for 10 years. It also formally prohibited the naturalization of the Chinese in the U.S. At that time no other nationality had been treated this way.


1. Is the railroad still important in this jet age?

2. Would you be willing to do manual labor? Can you imagine not having a choice about that?

“My crew was good,” said Chin Lee. “Some crews were too slow and basket men were killed by explosives. Remember how we checked and double-checked my ropes. But ropes broke sometimes. Then someone would fall. I’d cover my ears and hide my face when I heard a man falling to his death in the canyon below.”

“That was terrible. Let’s not talk about it. It’s in the past now. Work is easier here on these flatlands of Utah. Tomorrow, we won’t have any trouble breaking the Union Pacific record of eight miles of track in one day,” said Chin Lee.

A mile away in an elegant railroad car sat the boss, Charles Crocker. He checked final preparations for the next day’s race with his foreman, Strobridge. “Winning this race will be easy compared to what we did in the high mountains. That was an engineering miracle.”

“Yeah, that work was so tough, we had a hard time keeping men on the job.”

“Do you remember 1864?” asked Crocker. “Our newspaper ad for 5,000 men attracted only 1,000 men. I said ‘Hire the Chinese.’ You said: ‘They’re not strong enough.’ You surely were wrong. The Chinese were steady workers. They kept working, even when it seemed impossible. We couldn’t have built it without them.”

Strobridge said, “They look just the same as when they arrived. Their clothes are the same: blue pajamas, basket hats. The only change is that now they use miner’s boots. They’ve kept their own habits. They still shave the front of their heads and wear a pigtail down their backs. They still eat mostly rice.”

“The Irish will be angry when we win tomorrow,” said Crocker. “They say the Chinese work for less. Actually, they don’t bring wages down. The Chinese do the work the others won’t do.”

“Tomorrow we’ll have an army of 4,000 men working.” said Strobridge. “We carried the ties ahead and moved the rails from the rear. The trains are ready to advance.”

Crocker sat back in his easy chair. “I’m excited about the contest. Even the Chinese are excited. They’ll help me win my bet against the Union Pacific. They’ll prepare the road bed and lay the railroad ties.”

The next day proved Crocker right. The workers advanced a mile an hour, laying more than 10 miles of track. Crocker won his bet, but the victory caused anger among the Union Pacific workers. They took revenge. The day after the race, an unexpected explosion occurred on the Central Pacific tracks.

“Uncle Lee, are you hurt? What happened?” asked Song Chu.

“I’m all right, but two men died. Dynamite exploded on our track. I think the Union Pacific men did it. Strobridge went to complain.”

The next day, more dynamite exploded. Three more men died. The Central Pacific officials protested, but the Union Pacific leaders did nothing.

Working here is easy compared to what we did in the high mountains

“We must do something. We must act,” Song Chu said to his crew. “These men understand only violence.”

The next day there was an explosion on the Union Pacific tracks. Two men died. The Union Pacific men got the message. With no government in the area, no one ever solved the mystery of those explosions. But the feud ended there.

A week later, the railroad was complete. “Uncle, this job is over. Come with me to work on the southern railroad,” said Song.

“No, dear nephew. It’s time for me to return home. I’m lonesome for my wife and son. They want me home. I’ve learned no English, knowing I’d return. It’s different for you. You’re young. You’re not married. You can make a good life here. I’ve worked on the railroad a long time. I’ve spent enough time here at Gold Mountain. I sent money home, but I saved also. Now it is time.”


competitona contest in which people try to do better than their rivals
manualby hand, physical work
bragboast, to speak with great pride and try to impress people
fadeto disappear gradually
shelfa ledge or step-like projection
reedwater or marsh plant with tall straight hollow stems
frighteningshocking, alarming, scary
fusea length of easily burned material for igniting a bomb or explosive charge
breakthe record do better than anyone has done before
eleganttasteful, dignified in appearance or style, fancy, choice
miraclea remarkable and wonderful event
advanceto move forward
victorysuccess, achievement
revengeto punish or injure another in return for what one has felt or suffered
violencedisorder, injury, involving force
feudfight, argument
lonesomelonely, alone, isolated
Gold Mountainthe name the Chinese gave to California

The two ends of the railroad meet at Promontory Point



1. What is the main idea in this story?



2. Why is one national group prejudiced against another group?



3. Why did some Euro-Americans think that the Chinese were taking their jobs?




From the following list, substitute the word or words that are closest in meaning to the italicized phrase in the sentences below.

1. The light disappeared slowly when the sun went down.

2. Crocker boasted that his men were faster than the Union Pacific workers.

3. It was alarming to see others fall down in the baskets.

4. Crocker had a beautiful train car to live in where the track was being built.

5. Strobridge protested that someone was dynamiting his track and killing his workers.

6. Crocker’s men built 10 miles of track in one day and the race was a success for him.

7. When men stayed away from their families, they usually felt isolated.

8. Song Chu thought that the Irish workers would understand force.



Number the items according to time sequence.

1. _____ A. Uncle Chin Lee decides to return to his homeland.

2. _____ B. Crocker brags that his men are the fastest at laying railroad track.

3. _____ C. The transcontinental railroad is completed in 1869.

4. _____ D. Song Chu hangs suspended over the canyons in a basket.

5. _____ E. Crocker’s crew wins the bet by laying 10 miles of railroad track in one day.

6. _____ F. Crocker hires the Chinese in 1864.

7. _____ G. The Union Pacific crew is angry and jealous about the race. They set explosives.


Match two parts to make a correct sentence.

1. Working on the railroad

2. Song Chu did not like

3. The basket men lit

4. Laying track in the flatlands

5. The Union Pacific workers

6. Crocker’s workers advanced

7. Strobridge complained

8. Song Chu planned

9. Crocker’s men

A. that the Union Pacific men killed his workers.

B. took revenge on the Chinese for breaking their record.

C. being called a pet.

D. was hard manual labor.

E. broke the record for laying track the fastest.

F. fuses to dynamite the ledge.

G. is easier than in the mountains.

H. at a rate of one mile an hour in the contest.

I. to work on the southern railroad.


Students take parts. Plan the dialogue or improvise on the spot.

A. Song Chu and Chin Lee: Song Chu wants to dynamite the Irish workers; Lee is against violence.

B. Crocker and U.P. official: Crocker brags; official says he’s wrong about how fast his men work.

C. Song Chu and Chin Lee: Chu wants Lee to go to the southern railroad; Lee wants to go home.

D. Strobridge and U.P. official: Strobridge accuses U.P. men of killing his men; U.P. denies it.

E. Crocker & Strobridge, 1864: Crocker wants to hire Chinese; Strobridge refuses.


2. 1. faded; 2. bragged; 3. frightening; 4. elegant; 5. complained; 6. victory; 7. lonesome; 8. violence

3. l. F; 2. D; 3. B; 4. E; 5. G; 6. C; 7. A

4. l. D; 2. C; 3. F; 4. G; 5. B; 6. H; 7. A; 8. I; 9. E

The steam locomotive, or “iron horse”, is celebrated in this song. The locomotive linked California with the rest of the Union when the two ends of it were joined at Promontory Ridge, Utah, in 1869.

The Iron Horse

Make him room to come on
Grade the road he’s to run
Dig tunnels through the mountains
Turn the currents of the fountains
Bridges build, stations make
Lay the track he will take
For the steam horse is moving
With the train in his wake
Mighty horse, iron steed
Toward the plains let him speed
Until he links both oceans
And transport to us all notions
When it comes through our land
Let us all be on hand
To mount the cars together
Like a proud happy band

By Myrtis Mixon

From Americana Historical Spotlights in Story and Song

Submitted by Erin Bouma