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Max Facts: The 19th century’s greatest engineering feat owed to despised and mistreated workers

Posted at 5:58 PM, May 10, 2019
and last updated 2019-05-10 19:59:05-04

The Golden Spike was pounded home by Leland Stanford, former Governor of California, and alternately described as a captain of industry and a robber baron.

Stanford showed the business know-how needed to capitalize on the federal drive for tracks spanning the continent, but most spikes not made of gold were driven by Chinese workers who made less money and were treated more poorly than their white counterparts.

In fact, before he needed them to work on the project that cemented his fortune, Stanford expressed the prejudice common in California at the time.

It was in 1962 when he was governor of California that he wrote: “To my mind it is clear, that the settlement among us of an inferior race is to be discouraged by every legitimate means. Asia, with her numberless millions, sends to our shores the dregs of her population.”

By 1869, those “dregs” had taken on one of the toughest engineering projects ever achieved.

They blasted through miles of rock, piled up giant berms of earth, and built trestle spans above canyons and ravines to form 690 miles of track stretching from Sacramento to Promontory, Utah.

They also died by the hundreds, perhaps thousands, but nobody has a number because their employer didn’t bother to keep track.

After the railroad was complete, and Americans could ride from the Atlantic to the Pacific, the U.S. Congress passed two acts meant to keep the West Coast free of too many Chinese people.

The Page Act barred Chinese women from immigrating because they were presumed to be prostitutes.

The Chinese Exclusion Act did just what the title suggests, excluding men and women not only from China but from all Asian countries.