In early 1865 the Central Pacific had work enough for 4,000
men. Yet contractor Charles Crocker barely managed to hold onto
800 laborers at any given time. Most of the early workers were
Irish immigrants. Railroad work was hard, and management was
chaotic, leading to a high attrition rate. The Central Pacific
management puzzled over how it could attract and retain a work
force up to the enormous task. In keeping with prejudices of
the day, some Central Pacific officials believed that Irishmen
were inclined to spend their wages on liquor, and that the Chinese
were also unreliable. Yet, due to the critical shortage, Crocker
suggested that reconsideration be given to hiring Chinese. He
encountered strong prejudice from foreman James Harvey Strobridge.
Strobridge's attitude changed when a group of Irish laborers
agitated over wages. Crocker told Strobridge to recruit some
Chinese in their place. Instantly, the Irishmen abandoned their
dispute. Sensing at least that fear of competition might motivate
his men, Strobridge grudgingly agreed to hire 50 Chinese men
as wagon-fillers. Their work ethic impressed him, and he hired
more Chinese workers for more difficult tasks. Soon, labor recruiters
were scouring California, and Crocker hired companies to advertise
the work in China. The number of Chinese workers on CP payrolls
began increasing by the shipload. Several thousand Chinese men
had signed on by the end of that year; the number rose to a
high of 12,000 in 1868, comprising at least 80% of the Central
Pacific workforce. "Wherever we put them, we found them good,"
Crocker recalled, "and they worked themselves into our favor
to such an extent that if we found we were in a hurry for a
job of work, it was better to put Chinese on at once."
The Chinese workers were punctual, willing, and well-behaved
-- sometimes referred to as "Celestials" in reflection of their
spiritual beliefs. They were quite unlike their Caucasian counterparts,
who quickly resented the growing competition and harassed the
foreigners. Crocker and Strobridge made clear to the Irishmen
that they could work alongside the Chinese crews or be replaced
by them. The ultimatum may not have cured the anger of the white
crews, but it sufficed to quell rebellion.
The Chinese teams were organized into groups of 20 under one
white foreman; as the difficulty of construction increased,
so often did the size of the gangs. Initially, Chinese employees
received wages of $27 and then $30 a month, minus the cost of
food and board. In contrast, Irishmen were paid $35 per month,
with board provided.
Workers lived in canvas camps alongside the grade. In the mountains,
wooden bunkhouses protected them from the drifting snow, although
these were often compromised by the elements. Each gang had
a cook who purchased dried food from the Chinese districts of
Sacramento and San Francisco to prepare on site. While Irish
crews stuck to an unvarying menu of boiled food - beef &
potatoes - the Chinese ate vegetables and seafood, and kept
live pigs and chickens for weekend meals. To the dull palates
of the Irishmen, the Chinese menu was a full-blown sensory assault.
The newcomers seemed alien in other ways: they bathed themselves,
washed their clothes, stayed away from whiskey. Instead of water
they drank lukewarm tea, boiled in the mornings and dispensed
to them throughout the day. In such a manner they avoided the
dysentery that ravaged white crews.
As work crews approached the summit, Strobridge continued to
doubt the suitability of Chinese to certain tasks. When a group
of Irish masons struck for higher wages, Crocker suggested using
Chinese men in their place. The foreman objected. Famously,
Crocker replied, "Did they not build the Chinese Wall, the biggest
piece of masonry in the world?" Strobridge acquiesced, and Chinese
crews were soon laying stone.
Toward the end of the line, Crocker was so convinced of the
skill of his Irish and Chinese workers that he decided to try
for a record by laying 10 miles of track in one day. April 28,
1868 was the appointed day, and Crocker had prepared well. "One
by one, platform cars dumped their iron, two miles of material
in each trainload, and teams of Irishmen fairly ran the five-hundred-pound
rails and hardware forward," writes author David Bain. "Straighteners
led the Chinese gangs shoving the rails in place and keeping
them to gauge while spikers walked down the ties, each man driving
one particular spike and not stopping for another, moving on
to the next rail; levelers and fillers followed, raising ties
where needed, shoveling dirt beneath, tamping and moving on...."
Watching the scene was a team of soldiers. Its commander praised
Crocker and his workers for their effort to lay so much rail
in so little time. "Mr. Crocker, I never saw such organization
as that; it was like an army marching over the ground and leaving
a track built behind them."