In California in 1865, the Central Pacific experienced a severe labor shortage. By "labor shortage", what is meant is "a shortage of white laborers", as the Central Pacific had hired only white men (mostly Irish) up to this point in time. It was not a shortage of men, as there were many men in California, but a shortage of men willing to work on the railroad, especially after silver had been discovered in Nevada that year. After all, there was free gold (in California) or silver (in Nevada) to be had, if only one looked hard enough. In fact, it was the 1849 gold rush that brought thousands of Chinese looking for this "free gold" over from China. By the early 1860's, newspapers estimated that 42,000 Chinese labored in northern California [Howard 225].
The Chinese in California were segregated into separate communities with separate jobs [Howard 225]. They were derogatively called "coolies", which was a British term from India, which originally meant "porter" or "native unskilled laborer" in Hindu [Howard 225]. However, they adapted readily to the white man's way of life that many male Chinese were imported as cooks, house boys, gardeners, and laundrymen. They were brought across the Pacific by Chinese trading companies in such poor conditions as the Atlantic's slavers, and bought their passage under an indentured-servant plan, similar to the ones used on the east coast in the seventeenth century [Howard 225].
The Chinese trading companies located jobs for the Chinese men and usually collected salaries. They also acted as "insurance firms, bankers, marriage brokers, and concubine purveyors" [Howard 226]. Most of the Chinese men's salaries went towards repayment of their passage across the Pacific, leaving them with only $4 to $8 dollars per month. For reference, the railroad workers at this time were making around $30 per month, plus room and board [McCague 104].
Chinese segregation and discrimination in California extended beyond what is thought of as discrimination today. By California law, citizenship was denied to the Chinese and their immigration was limited to only "male workers". The law also forbade them from testifying in court, but stipulated that every Chinese man in the state "had to pay a Personal Tax, a Hospital Tax, a two dollar contribution to the School Fund, and a Property Tax" and, if he worked in the abandoned placer and hydraulic mines on the Mother Lode, a Permission tax of four dollars plus an annual water tax [Howard 226]. In short, the Chinese in California were greatly taken advantage of.
Charles Crocker conceived of the idea of hiring Chinese to work on the railroad, as a way out of the Central Pacific's labor crisis. The Irish the company currently had working for them were good laborers, but, convinced of their own indispensability, they demanded higher wages and would often strike, stopping the work on the railroad and leading to a slow movement of the end of the line [McCague 104]. To add to the labor situation, the men the Central Pacific would hire in Sacramento would get a free 43 mile ride out to the end of the line (which was in Clipper Gap in 1865), work for a week to earn money for the trip to Nevada, and then leave for the Nevada silver mines on foot. For every 1000 white workmen who signed up, 100 stayed on the job and the other 900 left after a week [Howard 227].
When Crocker told James Strobridge his idea of hiring Chinese to work on the railroad, Strobridge objected, saying the Chinese "were not masons" [Kraus 110]. Crocker countered with the fact that the Chinese had "to their credit, the greatest piece of masonry in the world -- the Great Wall" [Kraus 110]. Leland Stanford backed Crocker, and, eventually, Strobridge reluctantly agreed to hire 50 Chinese on a trial basis.
However, the Irish railroad workers were also against the hiring of the Chinese. They had, for years on the east coast, been the lowly laborers, taking the jobs nobody else wanted, and had also been the butt of other whites' jokes, but were finally treated as equal with the other white men on the west coast. So these west coast Irish became the Chinese's and other non-whites' "most vehement baiter", the "most despotic of all in bullying non-whites'" [Howard 225]. The mere thought of "competitive, cheap labor" was enough to scare them back into line [McCague 104].
Although the Irish were no longer striking or demanding higher wages, there was still a labor shortage, so the Chinese were still brought in to work on railroad grading. Although they knew nothing about railroad grading, once they were shown what to do and how to do it, "their diligence and uncomplaining endurance with pick and shovel and wheelbarrow put the whites to shame" [McCague 104]. They were paid $1 per day, not including room and board; the Irish were paid $2 per day, plus room and board. However, as part of the hiring contract, the Central Pacific agreed to purchase exotic foodstuffs to sell to the Chinese workers [Kraus 111].
The Chinese were organized into work gangs of around 30, under the supervision of an Irish "riding boss" [McCague 105]. These work gangs were separate from the white work gangs. Each work gang selected one man to collect all the wages and buy all the provisions for that gang. They extended this system to the hiring of an American clerk for the price of $1 per man per month to "keep accounts straight and to see that food costs were distributed fairly" [McCague 105]. The Chinese did not mingle with the Irish. They settled their own differences and made few demands on their foremen [McCague 105].
When they were on the job, the Chinese were, according to Stanford, "ready and apt to learn all the different kinds of work required in railroad building" soon becoming "as efficient as white laborers" [Kraus 111]. Although they dug out smaller shovel-fulls of dirt and carted lighter loads to the fill, the Chinese worked "methodically, without gossip breaks or time out for smokes" [Howard 228]. However, "for all his industry, endurance and willingness the Chinese was, essentially, unskilled labor. The grinding, monotonous, pick-and-shovel toil fell to him" [Howard 229].
With the Chinese taking over the back-breaking work, the Irish were left with the more prestigious jobs (besides being foremen for the Chinese gangs) of "expert track layer and iron handler" [McCague 106]. This made the Irish realize, in this new (and better) state of affairs, that with the Chinese workers, they were actually better off than without. However, this didn't stop them from ridiculing the Chinese. They called them "niggers" and "Charley Crocker's pets" and, even after they proved their worth, continued to look down upon them [McCague 105]. To the Irish, who had been the butt of jokes for many years, the Chinese were "a handy butt for good, soul-satisfying scorn" [McCague 105].
Eventually, the Chinese began to work on blasting the tunnels and the cliff face known as "Cape Horn". As gunpowder was a Chinese invention, little instruction was necessary. "Every boy set off firecrackers on New Year's and feast days and knew the latent dangers that could transform a handful of the gritty gray dust into a lightning bolt" [Howard 230]. They built waist-high baskets out of reeds that would be lowered down the cliff face so that they could slowly chip away at it to make holes for the gunpowder. Each basket had a hauling crew on top of the cliff [Howard 230].
In the tunnels, particularly the 1659 foot Summit Tunnel, it was Chinese work crews who were responsible for the blasting. The rock was so hard that only about seven to eight inches of progress were made in a day. That is, until they began to use nitroglycerin in 1866. With the nitroglycerin, progress was made much faster, but at a greater expense of life. Between the blasting on the cliff face and the blasting in the tunnels, numerous Chinese workers perished. The "Central Pacific did not keep record of coolie casualties" [Howard 230].
Work continued through the winters, which in the high Sierras were rough and cold and full of snow and blizzards. The work continued under the snow. The work crews lived like "arctic moles", only seeing daylight when they poked through new air holes and smoke vents [Howard 234]. The engineers wrote "In many cases, the road between camp and work was through snow tunnels, some of them 200 feet long. The construction of retaining work in the canyons carried on through the winter. A great dome was excavated in the snow, where the wall was to be built, and the wall stones were lowered through the shaft in the snow to the men working inside the dome... There were many snowslides. In some cases entire camps were carried away and the bodies of the men not found until the following spring." [Howard 234]. The snow became such a problem that numerous retaining walls and snow sheds were erected to allow trains to continue through the snowy sierras during the winter.
The construction crews worked "from sunrise to sunset, six days in the week. They spend Sunday washing and mending, gambling and smoking" [Kraus 217]. At the beginning of the work day, the men would head out to work site. To the Irish, the Chinese looked strange, with their "blue cotton pants flopping, dishpan-shaped hats shadowing grave faces, [and] delicate hands hidden in billowing sleeves" [Howard 228].
Once on the grade, the workers had a twelve-hour day of difficult, repetitive labor to look forward to. The only tools available to them were two wheel dump carts, wheelbarrows, axes, ropes, blasting powder, nitroglycerin, and mules [Howard 231]. To relieve their thirst during the day, the Irish drank water. The water was "not always the purest and, at times, despite all precautions, a source of illness" [Kraus 114]. Instead of water, the Chinese would drink "lukewarm tea, which stood beside the grade in thirty- and forty-gallon whiskey barrels, always on tap" [Kraus 114]. These barrels were refilled several times a day by a Chinese mess attendant, who brought the fresh tea "in powder kegs suspended from each end of a bamboo pole balanced on [his] shoulder" [Kraus 114].
After the day's work was finished, all the workers would troop back into camp. The Irish would eat their dinners, consisting of beef, beans, potatoes, bread, and butter [McCague 105]. Before they ate, the Chinese would bathe and change clothes. Each Chinese work gang had its own cook, "whose duties required that he not only prepare meals but also have a large boiler of hot water ready each night. When the Chinese came off the road, they filled their little tubs made from powder kegs, took a hot sponge bath, and changed clothes before their evening meal" [Kraus 111]. For this meal, the Chinese would eat such exotic foodstuffs as dried oysters, abalone, cuttlefish, dried bamboo sprouts, dried mushrooms, five kinds of vegetables, pork, poultry, vermicelli, rice, salted cabbage, dried seaweed, sweet rice crackers, sugar, four kinds of dried fruit, Chinese bacon, peanut oil and tea [Kraus 111].
After dinner, the Chinese would sit around their campfires, "humming songs or chirping like angry orioles around a fan-tan game" [Howard 228]. The Chinese tended to be habitual gamblers. They "wagered wildly and frequently argued fiercely over the results" of their fan-tan games [McCague 105]. However, they always kept the games and the bickering among themselves. On Saturday nights, the Chinese work crews would smoke opium. The crew bosses reasoned that "after an eighty-hour week dangling over a cliff edge or hauling rock out of a tunnel mouth, ... a man deserved his own kind of recreation" [Howard 231].
In addition to their exotic foodstuffs, the Chinese insisted on "joss houses and priests" to serve them. So, despite the objections from the Irish and Methodists among the workers that this practice was "heathenish [and] idolatrous", the Chinese set up joss houses and Buddhist shrines in the work camps [Howard 231].
The Chinese were a boon to the Central Pacific; without them, the railroad could never have been completed as quickly as it was. The populace of California, however, saw things differently. California laborers had never shown much more than "monumental indifference" toward the work done by the Central Pacific [McCague 106]. However, with the new Chinese labor force working for the Central Pacific, they became suddenly worried about their futures and, "incited by an indignant San Francisco press, leaders began to rais a passionate hullabaloo over this unfair competition by 'yellow labor'" [McCague 106]. These working-class people were now faced with an issue that seemed to be "bound up directly with their own bread and butter" [McCague 106].
In San Francisco on March 6, 1867, the Anti-Coolie Labor Association held its first meeting in the American Theater [Howard 235]. This was the beginning of bad times for the Chinese in California. "Mobs of men and women howled through the streets, pelting Chinese with rocks and filth" [Howard 235]. Drunks and "young toughs" set fire to Chinese owned laundries and cigar factories, emptied chamber pots on the doorsteps along Grant Avenue, and howled indecencies at Chinese funeral processions [Howard 235].
For months during this time, Stanford's public statements and notices to stockholders were "loaded with arguments and apologies aimed at justifying the Central Pacific's Chinese" [McCague 106]. Stanford declared again and again that "the company's construction deadline could not be met" without them [McCague 106]. Although this was most likely true, "it meant nothing to the agitators" [McCague 106].
"For years to come, the 'yellow-peril' would stalk California like a
chain-clanking, doom-croaking ghost in a haunted house. The Central
Pacific's public image would be blackened even more than it was already;
its successor, the Southern Pacific, would suffer touch relations with
organized labor far into the twentieth century for its parent's old,
alleged sin of having beaten good California citizens to their knees
with cheap imported Chinese." [McCague 106]