New Perspectives on THE WEST
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The People
Empire Upon The Trails
Speck of the Future
Death Runs Riot
The Grandest Enterprise Under God
Fight No More Forever
The Geography of Hope
One Sky Above Us
Grandest Enterprise Under God


A Grand Anvil Chorus

White Man's Pipe

The Artillery of Heaven

An Instinct for Direction

One People

The Woman's Exponent

Walking Gold Pieces

Good Company

How do you like Nebraska?


A Wound in the Heart

THE WEST The Grandest Enterprise Under God

The Artillery of Heaven

Restored Wood-Burning Locomotive

While the Union Pacific moved west again across the Great Plains, in California the Central Pacific, after a fast start, had gotten stuck in the Sierra Nevadas. The mountains seemed impenetrable.

And to make matters worse, Charles Crocker, whose job it was to break through them, could not seem to hold on to his workers: three out of five stuck with him just long enough to get a free ride to the railhead, then set out on their own for the Nevada gold fields. His plans called for a work force of 5,000. He had fewer than 600.

Chinese Railroad WorkersDesperate, he suggested to his superintendent of construction, James Strobridge, that he try the Chinese, who were eking out a living working the gold and silver tailings abandoned by others. Strobridge was against it: he thought the Chinese were too small, too frail; they had no experience building railroads. Crocker told Strobridge to give the Chinese a chance. After all, he said, they had built the Great Wall of China.

The first Chinese began turning up in early 1865, eager to work. They were already organized into work gangs, each with its own headman.

Jack Chen"Crocker expected that these fellows would come up there in one's and two's like the other nationalities, and he found that the Chinese sort of marched up there as one group, and all he had to do was to deal with the foreman of that group. Of course, he would be the clan leader."
Jack Chen

Before long, 11,000 Chinese were at work on the Central Pacific and Crocker was advertising for more in China.

Tunnel No. 10 in the High SierraBut hard work alone was no match for the Sierra Nevadas. Strobridge worried that his Central Pacific was falling even further behind in their race with the Union Pacific, and soon armed the Chinese with black powder to blast their way through.

It took 500 kegs of it a day, week after week, to carve cuts through the foothills. And then they came up against a face they called Cape Horn: solid rock, nearly straight up and down, 2,000 feet above a raging river. There were no footholds, but the Chinese were told to make a ledge in the cliff wide enough for a train.

Maxine Hong Kingston"My grandfather was one of the people that they put in the baskets because he was small and light, and what they did was, they would be lowered over cliffs and they would drill holes, and then they'd set the dynamite in them. And then they'd light the dynamite, and then they'd pull them up by these baskets. And then they had to get out of there before the dynamite exploded."
Maxine Hong Kingston

Huge masses of rock and debris were rent and heaved up in the commotion; then... came the thunders of the explosion like a lightning stroke, reverberating along the hills and canyons, as if the whole artillery of Heaven was in play.

Before the Central Pacific could get through the Sierras, the crews had to gouge out fifteen tunnels. They worked in shifts around the clock, but averaged just eight inches a day. And they had to keep at in it every kind of weather.

Ronald Takaki"Charles Crocker had to punch the line through the Sierras that winter, the winter of '66, and the Chinese had to build the railroad, lay the tracks. So they built these tunnels under the snow to keep advancing the line. And sometimes there would be snow slides and entire crews of Chinese would be trapped under tons of snow. And their bodies would be left there and found the following spring. Sometimes the bodies were found with the picks and the shovels still in their hands."
Ronald Takaki

No one kept a precise count, but more than 1,200 Chinese died digging and blasting for Charles Crocker and the Central Pacific.

Jack Chen"When somebody died, you just didn't dig a grave for him and put him down in the grave. You went to a lot of trouble to get his remains back to the village that he came from, because a Chinese doesn't want to be buried anywhere. He wants to be buried where his ancestors were buried, because he wants to stick together."
Jack Chen

Finally, in 1868, after three long years of back-breaking, dangerous labor, the Central Pacific crews did what few had believed anyone could do: they broke out of the High Sierras.

Chinese Railroad WorkerJohn Chinaman, with his patient toil, directed by American energy and backed by American capital, has broken down the great barrier at last and opened over it the greatest highway yet created for the march of commerce and civilization around the globe. The Territorial Enterprise

The hardest part was behind them. The Central Pacific was back in the race.

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