Between 1865 and 1869, a major milestone in U.S. history was achieved as the first transcontinental railroad (originally known as the “Pacific Railroad”) was constructed. Finally completed in May of 1869, the railroad revolutionized transportation in the United States by allowing passengers to travel coast to coast affordably and efficiently.

Included among the workers who toiled to assemble the railroad, often in dangerous and dirty conditions, were more than 12,000 Chinese immigrants who came to America seeking better lives for themselves and their families. So when descendants of those workers assembled in Utah to attend the 100th anniversary of the completion of the railroad in 1969, they fully expected that the contributions of their ancestors would be honored. They were shocked, however, when the Transportation Secretary at the time, John Volpe, failed to mention in his remarks the vital role Chinese immigrants played in the construction of the railroad. In the decades since, details of their contribution have remained scarce. But now, nearly fifty years later, a new project spearheaded by Stanford University is seeking to remedy that.

In 2012, scholars at the university launched the Chinese Railroad Workers in North America Project. The goal is to collect the most comprehensive record to date of the Chinese immigrant experience in America during the construction of the transcontinental railroad. More than 100 experts from around the globe have used their expertise in history, anthropology, and architecture to build a digital archive that will highlight the diverse skills and knowledge of those immigrants, many of whom achieved prosperity in the business world after their work on the railroad ended. The project has had its challenges, though. Few official records exist of the thousands of Chinese workers who labored on the railroad, and descendants of the workers lament that their relatives rarely provided details of the rampant discrimination, low wages, and deplorable working conditions that they typically faced. San Francisco filmmaker Barre Fong, who has conducted interviews with several ChineseAmerican descendants of railway workers for the project, noted in a recent interview with The Los Angeles Times that he himself had a great-grandparent who worked as a cook on the railroad, but that “it was not a proud time in his life, so it was only mentioned in passing, never in detail. I’ve asked all my relatives, and they say he never talked about it.”

Fortunately, as recent generations of AsianAmericans have come to regard the contributions their ancestors made to the railroad as a point of pride, reluctance to discuss it is shifting, Gordon Chang, director of Stanford University’s Center for East Asian Studies, explained that “these workers were the ancestors of many ChineseAmericans today. Others see them as their forebears even if they’re not related to them. There’s a romanticism and a heroism around them now.” [See How the West was Built: Project Seeks Stories of Chinese Workers, by Julie Makinen, The Los Angeles Times, 21.Jun.2015.]

While the Chinese Railroad Workers of North America project is currently still under construction, a few samples of the research that have been compiled, including photographs, manuscripts, and artwork, are available on Stanford University’s website. Upon completion, the entire digital archive will be made available to the public. Scholars are hopeful that the project will educate viewers about a group of immigrants whose contributions to the transcontinental railroad, an iconic American symbol of progress and ingenuity, have been consistently overlooked. Filmmaker Barre Fong is optimistic that the project will help all Americans, especially recent immigrants to our nation, realize that “the way was paved by several generations [of ChineseAmericans] that really suffered and worked very hard…I hope projects like this help the newly arrived see this.” [See Chinese Railroad Workers at North America Project at Stanford University.]

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