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Remembering Chinese Laborers 145 Years Later

Chinese railroad workers

It’s been 145 years since the ceremonial “driving of the Golden Spike” connected the Union and Central Pacific railroads at Promontory Summit in Utah. In this year’s commemoration, the role of Chinese laborers in building the transcontinental railroad will be recognized and celebrated.

Credit Andrew J. Russell
“East and West Shaking Hands at Laying of Last Rail” (May 10th, 1869)

There is a famous photograph from May 10th 1869, called “East and West Shaking Hands at Laying of Last Rail”. In the picture, a crowd of people stands between steam locomotives facing each other, and two men shake hands in the middle. Ze Min Xiao, director for the Chinese Transcontinental Railroad Commemorative Project, says there are some notable faces absent in that photo.

“Chinese laborers [were] not included, and so this is a great way to acknowledge that 145 years later,” says Xiao.

Xiao says groups from California, New York and two delegations from a province in China will travel to Utah to take a new picture. Photographer Corky Lee will document the visit and take a group photo in front of the locomotives used during re-enactments. Xiao says about 11,000 Chinese workers helped to build the railroad.

“If you look back in history, many that sacrificed their lives were Chinese, and we just want to respect them with the Chinese blessings, so we’ll be doing some Chinese ceremonies to offer our respect to the dead,” Xiao says.

Margaret Yee has two ancestors who worked for Central Pacific Railroad as a chef and laborer. They later returned to China. Yee was born in Hong Kong, but she went to college at the University of Utah, and decided to stay. Yee says it was her ancestors that made her life possible.

“They give us courage because of their dedication, sacrifices and hard work,” Yee says. They opened the door for our generation to come over here. Now I’m the 4th generation, my kid is 5 generation, and my grandkid is the 6th generation here. They opened the door for us to be here in this great country.”

Yee says she will be bringing her daughter and grandchild to the ceremony at Promontory Summit on Saturday, and she hopes they will learn about what their ancestors have contributed.

CORRECTION: A previous version of this story incorrectly identified the sight of the ceremony as Promontory Point.

Andrea Smardon is new at KUER, but she has worked in public broadcasting for more than a decade. Most recently, she worked as a reporter and news announcer for WGBH radio. While in Boston, she produced stories for Morning Edition, Marketplace Money, and The World. Her print work was published in The Boston Globe and Prior to that, she worked at Seattleââ
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