Golden Spike National Historical Site • The strains of taps drifted over the sagebrush of Box Elder County, honoring the workers who laid more than 1,700 backbreaking miles of track before fancy-looking white men in top hats put a hammer to a ceremonial golden spike in America’s first transcontinental railroad.
Ava Chin started to cry.
“I really felt like for the first time I’m included in something … so incredibly American,” Chin said of Thursday’s celebrations honoring the 149th anniversary of the railroad’s completion at Golden Spike National Historic Site near Corinne.
Chin is the great-great-granddaughter of Yoon Thlin, a Chinese rail worker who was forced back to China 30 years after he helped build the railroad because of anti-Chinese sentiments. Chin traveled to Utah from her home in New York City, joining several other rail worker descendants from around the country in what has grown into a popular celebration of Chinese American heritage.
That celebration is in part an effort to make up for the erasure of Chinese contributions to the railroad almost from the very beginning: No Chinese workers appear in the iconic photo of men jubilantly brandishing champagne from the noses of the locomotives Jupiter and Union Pacific No. 119 as they met on the tracks on May 10, 1869.
“That champagne photo … has come to symbolize the completion of the railroad, but it also became a symbol of our being erased,” said Sue Lee, retired executive director of the Chinese Historical Society of America, based in San Francisco.
Also on Thursday, Utah’s Rep. Rob Bishop and Sen. Orrin Hatch announced they were introducing the Golden Spike 150th Anniversary Act, which would redesignate the historic site as a national historical park and create a network of sites related to the Transcontinental Railroad.
American schoolchildren typically learn that Chinese workers were recruited for cheap manual labor. At least 11,000 Chinese immigrants built much of the Central Pacific line from Sacramento to Promontory Summit, Utah, where the track met with the Union Pacific line from Omaha.
What is less known, Lee said, is the extent to which Chinese laborers supported day-to-day life on the railroad, running camps with exceptional worker health and nutrition even though white workers were paid more and given food and housing. Chinese workers were largely responsible for some of the most perilous segments of the railroad, carving 15 tunnels through the Sierra Nevada mountain range.
“It’s amazing, the logistics,” Lee said. “I mean, they were geniuses.”
Chinese-American historians tried to bring attention to the workers’ role in centennial celebrations of 1969 at Golden Spike, but their speaking time was cancelled after John Wayne agreed to come, Lee said. Then, at the event, the Secretary of Transportation asked: “Who else but Americans could drill ten tunnels in mountains 30 feet deep in snow? Who else but Americans could chisel through miles of solid granite? Who else but Americans could have laid ten miles of track in 12 hours?”
The comments stung because in the late 1800s, the Chinese immigrants who had actually done those things were hardly considered “Americans,” Lee said. With the influx of Chinese workers during the 1850s and ‘60s, white labor leaders and politicians in California and elsewhere pursued an array of anti-Chinese laws, such as special taxes and restrictions on work and land ownership. The effort culminated in the Chinese Exclusion act of 1882, which banned Chinese workers from immigrating to the United States.
In 1999, Utah’s Chinese-American community again tried to crack into the Golden Spike celebration.
“I asked, how come every year that I’ve been here — I’ve been coming for 30 years — there are no Chinese people during the reenactment, despite that it’s well known that Chinese labor contributed so much to the railroad?” said Kuang Lee, who has lived in Salt Lake City since 1982. “This is one of the major contributions of the Chinese people. This part of history has been ignored for too long.”
Lee and nine other local Chinese Americans sewed traditional shirts and stood with the white actors. Then they performed a skit in which they compared Chinese rail workers to ghosts.
In 2002 and in 2014, New York City photographer Corky Lee enlisted scores of Chinese Americans for a “flash mob” photo to match the famed champagne photo of 1869.
This year, descendants like Chin visited in a tour with the Salt Lake City-based Chinese Railroad Workers Descendants Association, which is hosting a weeklong conference. Near the Jupiter and Union Pacific No. 119, Andrea Yee, her daughter Linn Lee and cousin Vic Lim bumped into Darren Parry, chairman of the Northwestern Band of the Shoshone Nation, and discovered a connection.
Yee, Lee and Lim, all from California, are the grandchildren of Lim Lip Hong, one of the few Chinese rail workers whose life is thoroughly documented, said Susan Lee, the historian. At 19, he left a mining job in California to join the rail crews and worked the Transcontinental Railroad all the way to Promontory Summit.
Parry’s great-great-great grandfather, Sagwitch, was a Shoshone chief when Lim Lip Hong was working in Utah — very likely under the protection of Parry’s own ancestors, who lived at Promontory Summit and were enlisted as guards for Central Pacific, Parry said. After finishing the railroad, Yee said, Lim married his first wife — a Shoshone woman.
Parry marveled at the coincidence of two families, whose ancestors started out a world apart, finding so much common history through an anniversary that traditionally has celebrated what Susan Lee described as the feats of “gazillionaires on the backs of nameless Chinese workers.”
“We just started talking … and they turned out to be the perfect people,” Parry said.
SEE THE RAILROAD, THEN AND NOW
In the 1860s, Alfred Hart photographed the building of America’s first transcontinental railroad. Inspired by his work, Beijing photographer Li Ju traveled across mountains, canyons and deserts to shoot the same sites.
Li Ju’s images have been paired with Hart’s photographs in a 60-panel exhibit, “The Chinese Helped Build the Railroad — The Railroad Helped Build America,” now being shown at the Utah Cultural Celebration Center.
The exhibit, produced by Li Ju and the Chinese Railroad Workers in North America Project at Stanford University, is free to the public until June 13. It opened this week as part of the celebrations for the 149th anniversary of the completion of the railroad in Utah.
The exhibit is presented by the Chinese Railroad Workers Descendants Association and celebration center, at 1355 West 3100 South in West Valley City.