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Gordon Chang on the Amazing Accomplishments of the Ghosts of Gold Mountain

by on May 23, 2019

Gordon H. Chang’s Ghosts of Gold Mountain: The Epic Story of the Chinese Who Built the Transcontinental Railroad is a phenomenal work of historical research, giving readers an unprecedented look at the daily lives of the Chinese workers whose ingenuity and perseverance led to the construction of the transcontinental railroad. Chang dives into the workers’ lives both in China and in the U.S., providing insight into what motivated the workers to move across the ocean as well as the unimaginable working conditions they faced once in the States. Critics have heaped praise on Chang, with The Wall Street Journal stating that “he has written a remarkably rich, human and compelling story of the railroad Chinese” and Publisher’s Weekly calling his work “vibrating and passionate.” Chang’s previous books include Fateful Ties and he serves as the Olive H. Palmer Professor in Humanities and Professor of History at Stanford University. He spoke to Brendan Dowling via telephone on May 3rd.

There’s not a lot of existing documentation about the lives of the Chinese workers. How did you overcome that obstacle?

We tackled the problem in two ways. One, we tried to find as much traditional documentation as possible. That meant locating and identifying what others had used before. We also did as extensive a search as we could with the advantages we had of having many researchers. We looked at lots of local archives and small libraries throughout California, Nevada, and Utah. We were always hoping to find some treasure trove somewhere. We found quite a bit of journalism from the time that spoke to our interests, and that material had never been used before by other writers.

We knew we had to be creative in looking for other non-traditional sources like archaeology. We partnered with a large network of archaeologists—there were eventually over a hundred researchers affiliated with our project. They found enormous quantities of material culture that spoke to the day-to day lives of the railroad workers along the line. They found labor camps and living areas. They found garbage they had left behind, and it was very interesting to hear their interpretation of this material culture. We contacted people in China to see if we could find letters or anything people brought back from the United States to their home villages. We reached out to descendants of railroad workers to see if material existed within individual families—memoirs, folklore, or stories handed down through the generations. Lastly, we closely examined historical photography from the time.

In terms of your work with archeologists, what were you able to tell about the lives of the workers?

This is historical archeology; this is not deep digs. This is stuff they found literally on the surface of the ground throughout California, Montana, Utah, and Nevada. As the camps moved along they would leave all sorts of detritus on the ground. The archeologists found day-to-day items of use: rice bowls, lots of shards of stuff, eating utensils, pieces of clothing, cooking utensils, gaming pieces, condiment bottles, and foodstuffs. It was pretty clear they had a lot of material and foodstuffs that had been imported from China. They ate rice, they ate from Chinese ceramics, and they replicated their daily lives in the United States in food ways. We saw the gaming pieces they had, which corresponds with other information from the time about what kind of leisure activities they had, including opium, gambling, and games of various sorts.

Who were the people who came over from China to work on the railroad?

What were they like?

We know from census records, ship manifests, and lore that they were young—most often somewhere between fifteen and late twenties. They were boys, adolescents, and they came out to make their fortune in many cases. Those who we count on the rail line were largely prime working age in their late teens and through their twenties. They all came from one region of China, down near Hong Kong and Macao. They did not come randomly from throughout China, but from a specific region that developed a culture of out-migration and sustenance from overseas remittances. They spoke similar dialects, not the Mandarin that we hear today, but more generically what is called Cantonese.

And once they were here, what kinds of work did they do?

Many of the workers who first joined the railroad project had been in California already. They had come in the 1850s and engaged in gold prospecting or mining. They worked as prospectors or for wage labor at different mining operations through the Mother Lode. Then they joined on the railroad as laborers.

The descriptions of what they had to do were so harrowing. What kinds of danger did they face while they were working for the railroad companies?

The work was really challenging. I think that’s one of the reasons why white workers didn’t join on as hoped by the railroad employers. It was not attractive, even with the wages they were offering. They were out here trying to strike it rich, and to end up working for wages at the time of 1860s was not something people aspired to. This kind of work included felling trees and clearing the way for the railroad. This is not open country. This is not prairies. There’s a steady rise out of the Central Valley into the Sierra foothills. At the crest you’ve got the summit, which is some of the most opposing terrain there is in the United States. You have to build a railroad line through all this. That means everything that’s required to clear the land, lay the track as flat and as straight as possible, and at an incline that would accommodate steam engines. You have the clearing of the forests, the filling of ravines, the spanning of ravines with trestles, and completing what were called cuts—hills that were dug through a channel, cut through the hills often for hundreds of feet in length—all by hand labor. Then you go over river channels and hit the High Sierra, which is the most rugged mountain range in the continental United States—it’s composed of solid granite. You have to get through that, snake your way through the passages and passes, and then tunnel fifteen tunnels through granite.

The workers were working year-round, correct?

Many of them did. Many were furloughed because the work season in the High Sierra is relatively short. Heavy rains can start in late fall and then you have the heavy winter snows. They’re legendary up there. Snow remains on the ground often until July. Some of the ski resorts up in Sierra near Lake Tahoe still advertise that you can ski in California on natural snow into early July, even now with global warming. Back then that meant peak work season was roughly late spring to middle of the autumn, maybe five months. The rest of the time was really difficult because of rain. I read in a lot of accounts that rain was sometimes worse than snow. The rain was torrential. It turned the ground into feet-deep mud and made living conditions miserable. Cooking was a problem. The mud was a problem because it sucked at everybody’s feet. You can’t walk on it. Horses can’t walk on it, they get stuck. Carts can’t travel over mud. With snow, you can still have sleds. When it’s not snowing, it’s still frigid, but you can still work in snow in many ways.

Besides the weather, what were the other dangers that workers faced?

I think we’re only just beginning to know. When I studied this, I was surprised to hear about things such as vermin. Living outside with mosquitos, snakes, and all the other creepy crawly stuff that you have out there, and you’re out there all the time. You’re exposed to the elements, including terrible winds that are desiccating. With the snow, of course, you have the danger of rockslides and especially snowslides, which came suddenly and swiftly and quietly, whooshing down and just sweeping everything out of the way, killing people along the way. Even things we don’t think about, like getting snow blinded. When you’re out there and the sun hits the snow, it’s blinding white light. In the book I quote these different observations made by people that they had to go out and buy as many snow goggles as possible. One of the big employers said, “Imagine that, building a railroad and needing snow goggles?”

In terms of how dangerous it was and the fact that so many workers died while building the railroad, what did it mean in regards to their spiritual life for one of the workers to die in the United States?

Their spiritual belief system was brought over with them from China. It had a heavy emphasis on reverence of ancestors and and having the remains of their ancestors close by, and that meant in their home villages. If they died in the United States, their beliefs absolutely required that their remains be sent back to China for final burial. Many of them died here. If their remains could be found, they were buried temporarily along the track or in cemeteries in Sacramento or San Francisco, and then at a certain point, repatriated. That was their existential requirement.

You explore the railroad workers’ strike of 1867. How has the strike typically been viewed and what did you find during your research?

The strike is either not mentioned at all, which is shocking, given that there is an extensive literature on American labor history. You can look at different books—which I did—on American labor history, and many of them mention nothing at all about this strike, which to that point and for many years afterwards was the largest collective labor action in American labor history. Even now, three thousand workers going on strike is a big enterprise. They organized themselves over stretches of miles of track in these separated labor camps and coordinated their actions, so they all worked simultaneously across the tracks. I don’t know if we’ll ever find out how they did it. Certainly they had internal organization, they had leaders, and they had a communication system. They struck for basic causes or sought improvement as most strikes do: improve working conditions, wages, and hours. These demands were listed in California newspapers at the time, reporters heard about them.

The traditional story is that they were forced to strike because they were desperate; they had been so mistreated and were beaten down that they lashed out. But why does anybody go on strike? They had grievances. First of all, we should understand this in traditional labor terms. This was a labor action, and as all labor actions are, a collective group feels aggrieved and they want improvement. I think the evidence is very compelling to suggest that they knew they were in a strong bargaining position. Given the timing of the strike and the location—this was the critical location for the railroad to get through the summit area—they struck at the height of the summer season. They were certainly angry, but also strategic in determining how to act when the railroad company might be most vulnerable.

What roles have the library and reading played in your life?

I grew up in the Oakland, East Bay area and I always loved books. It’s been said that it takes a while for us to realize our destiny and who we are. Growing up, I just really developed a love of books very early on. I didn’t think it was remarkable at the time, but looking back on it, it was unusual. I remember going to one of the main used bookstores in Oakland and seeing that they had special used books. For some reason—I still don’t know why—I bought a special edition of Vicar Wakefield by Oliver Goldsmith. Not particularly exciting, but I just loved that book.  I still have it somewhere. It was leather bound and had gilt edges. I spent all my piggy bank money on it. (laughs)

I loved going to the library—the public library, the school library. They were places of fascination. There was so much knowledge in them and the world was at hand. The library was always a special place for me.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.