Cover Image: Ghosts of Gold Mountain

Ghosts of Gold Mountain

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Gordon H. Chang has written a fascinating account of the labor and technology involved in building the Transcontinental Railroad.  For seven years, two railroad companies raced towards each other across some 1,900 miles of the United States, completing a link between the East and West coasts.  It was a monumental task and featured the tireless work of an estimated 20,000 Chinese laborers, 90 percent of Central Pacific’s workforce, who toiled under brutal working conditions, particularly in the Sierra Nevada.  Their story is covered extensively in his “Ghosts of Gold Mountain.”

Chang is professor of humanities and history at Stanford University.  His work is impeccably researched with extensive notes taken from historical writings, ship manifests, payroll records, and archeological findings.   He admits to having little information at his disposal because records were not faithfully maintained which makes his accounting even more remarkable.  But it’s all here, the physical and economic struggle of completing over 1900 miles of track between Omaha, Nebraska (the edge of the existing eastern rail network) and San Francisco Bay.

On May 10, 1869, the Central Pacific, and the Union Pacific finally came together at Promontory, Utah.  The completed route made the transportation of goods and passengers considerably faster and less expensive.  Chang’s book is mainly focused on the efforts of the Chinese workers who, although initially considered unfit for the job due to their small stature and lack of experience, proved to be stalwart builders eventually winning much praise for their attitudes and the splendid results.  It’s interesting to note that they were not slave workers but were paid for their labors.

Chang’s efforts here are nearly as herculean as were the Chinese workers and, although somewhat familiar with the conditions under which they struggled, I came away with an even greater sense of admiration for their efforts.  Every obstacle they faced was overcome with innovation and determination and it is a fitting tribute to their contribution that the travel time from the east was reduced from about five months to a remarkable single week.

The workers had to blast and dig their way through solid granite, exist in horrendous climatic conditions, endure heat, dirt, choking dust, smoke, fumes, accidental explosions, falling rocks and trees, and freezing snow.  Every piece of equipment and all heavy building material had to be manually hauled and installed because of the remote location.  At the completion of the remarkable project, the high accolades for their enormous efforts were universal and well deserved.

Be prepared for a couple of weeks to recover after reading this exhausting study of a monumental project.

Schuyler T Wallace
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The western portion of the Transcontinental Railroad was built almost entirely by immigrant Chinese, 20,000 or so of them.  I expect most of us are vaguely aware of that, and I expect most of us are aware this was hard, dangerous work.  Begun in 1864, finished in 1869, this portion stretches from Sacramento across the Sierra Nevadas, to the desert scrub of Promontory Point, Utah, a distance of 690 miles.  This is history we think we learned in eighth grade.  Gordon Chang takes our tiny tidbit and returns a thoroughly human story, extensively researched and rich in detail.

There was an impression then, and I suspect now, that the “Railroad Chinese” were enslaved workers, but California (the Gold Mountain of the title) was a free state, so it was important that incoming Chinese laborers were not being traded as slaves.  Most of these men were contract workers who came willingly, following opportunity.  However, Chinese women were bought in China and sold here as prostitutes, primarily for the “Railroad Chinese” – hmmm, the sex trade, as old as time and still with us today unfortunately.

All the work was done by hand – men with hand tools, wheelbarrows, black powder (a Chinese invention), horse carts and supply trains as the tracks extended.  Teams of three men using an eight-pound sledge hammer and a pole with crude bit-end could tap roughly three blasting holes a day, mile after mile, for roadbeds and tunnels.  Avalanches, explosions and fire, rock slides, entrapment, maiming injuries that would, as likely as not, ultimately kill a man.  We can only estimate the number of deaths, however.  Complete and/or accurate records of workers don’t exist.  The railroad united our country coast to coast, but, except for a scant few, we don’t even know who these men were – the survivors or the fallen.

After the railroad was completed, some of the “Railroad Chinese” went back to China as they’d planned to do.  Some continued as railroad workers here, in Canada, and elsewhere.  Some remained, took jobs or opened businesses, and their descendants live among us.  However, federal law immigration law prohibited anyone born in China from becoming a naturalized citizen, and that law was not changed until 1943.  Nothing brings today into focus as blindingly as history does, and so I offer you Ghosts of Gold Mountain, a thorough, scholarly work and a good read as well.

Available from Houghton Mifflin Harcourt on May 7.

Full Disclosure:  A review copy of this book was provided to me by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt via NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.  I would like to thank the publisher, the author and NetGalley for providing me this opportunity.  All opinions expressed herein are my own.
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Throughout this work, author Gordon Chang rightfully laments the current lack of firsthand account from any of the Chinese migrants who helped construct the Transcontinental Railroad. However, if he hadn't called attention to this so plainly, I'm genuinely unsure if it's something that I would have been able to pick up on. That's because his drawing upon a diverse and wide range of resources and research, Chang is able to construct an incredibly thorough and detailed picture of who the Chinese workers on the Central Pacific Line were, where they came from, and what kind lives that they lived as they help connect America from coast to coast. "Ghosts of Gold Mountain" is nothing less than a fantastic feat of scholarship that not merely shines a spotlight onto a group that have nearly vanished from America's historical memory, but makes them all come alive again.
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