Chinese Laborers on the Transcontinental Railroad

On this page, you will find information about the history of the Transcontinental Railroad, meet a content expert, and access a writing activity using an object from the Smithsonian collections.

The Transcontinental Railroad was completed on May 10, 1869 in Promontory Summit, Utah. In the American West, many Chinese laborers worked on the construction of the railroad and other hard labor jobs while facing racial discrimination. While we still have many more stories to learn today about Chinese laborers and the railroad, it is also important to continue learning more about how the railroad displaced Native American communities, and changed the natural landscape of the West.

This page includes:

• Q&A with Ting-Yi Oei, Director of Education from the 1882 Foundation

• Links to educational resources

• Learning Lab collection

• Writing activity using an object from the Smithsonian collection

To explore these resources and learn more about the railroad, keep scrolling down this page.

Ting-Yi Oei is the Director of Education at the 1882 Foundation, a non-profit organization broadening public awareness of the history and continued significance of the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882. Here, Ting-Yi talks about why the histories surrounding the transcontinental railroad are important to remember today.

Q: This year is the 150th anniversary of the completion of the transcontinental railroad, also known as the Golden Spike Anniversary. Why is it important for us to know the history of the railroad?

A: It’s been said that the Transcontinental Railroad’s impact in the 19th century is not unlike that of the internet today. We know that the railroads revolutionized commerce, communication, and travel virtually as soon as trains started moving along the rails in the late 1820s. But to be able to cross the entire country, Atlantic to Pacific, in only a week and for $150 was astonishing. Before the completion of the Transcontinental Railroad, that journey would have taken six months and easily cost $1,000! It marked the achievement of a long-held American dream to physically bind the nation together, especially after the Civil War had threatened to tear it apart. It’s also worth remembering that there was a disturbing downside to the railroad--by opening up the west to further expansion, it hastened the loss of Native American lands, their sovereignty, and their livelihood through the virtual elimination of the buffalo.

Q: As Director of Education of the 1882 Foundation, what are some recurring education themes that come up in your work?

A: The 1882 Foundation’s goals is to bring awareness to history that has been lost, forgotten, or never properly studied in the first place. I think Chinese and Asian Americans share similar goals with other minority groups who believe that in order to understand who we really are as Americans, we need to look more deeply at the content in the curriculum, not only in what is included or left out, but why the material has been included or left out. We want to challenge teachers to teach the “tough stuff” and not shy away from discussing aspects of our history that don’t get the recognition they deserve or that may make some feel uncomfortable. That doesn’t mean adding layer upon layer of facts but being more inclusive in addressing themes and topics in history, literature, and the arts that include representative examples from the Chinese or Asian American Experience.

Q: Why do you think it's important for K12 teachers to know the histories of Chinese laborers working on the railroad? What more do you want them to know?

A: The construction of the Transcontinental Railroad was a spectacular achievement in terms of both the engineering and in the efforts of the labor force, especially the Chinese workers of the Central Pacific Railroad moving eastward from California. The Chinese made up 80% of the western workforce and overcame some of the most grueling and challenging terrain imaginable--without power tools! Unfortunately, at the time of the laying of the ceremonial “golden spike” at Promontory, Utah, the iconic photo of that moment failed to include any Chinese workers, and subsequent history, until recently, hasn’t really given those workers their due. Not only is it important to remember their contributions as workers, but it’s also important to learn about how and why they came here, the sacrifices they made, how they lived and interacted with others, and what became of them after the work on the railroads ceased. Not very long thereafter, in 1882, the first of the Chinese Exclusion Acts were enacted, and a recent story about the Chinese in America in the New York Times had a headline that may have summed it up best: “Thanks for building the Railroad; now go home!” The Chinese Exclusion Acts remain today as the only time in American history that our nation denied entry and citizenship to people of a specific nationality. That has significance for us today.

These sites include curriculum, lesson plans, enduring understandings, resources, and more.

Writing What We See: Classroom Activity Ideas

Who is missing in our understanding of American history?

As we learned from Ting-Yi, many Chinese laborers worked on the Transcontinental Railroad while Native American groups were negatively impacted by its construction. With students, let’s travel back in time and imagine we are witnessing the construction of the railroad. Using Ting-Yi’s Q&A above, the 1882 Foundation resources, Native Knowledge 360, and the topical Learning Lab collection above, ask students to ponder what they might have seen in the late 1800s.

With students, look at the image of the Transcontinental Railroad 75th Anniversary Stamp below. Here are additional guiding questions as students look at its details:

What do you see?
How would you describe the landscape the railroad is being built on?
Who do you see? How are people portrayed?
Who might be missing from this image?
Ask students to infer what it means to be included in an image while others are not.  

Ask students to write a short letter to a friend describing what they would have seen, felt or heard during the construction of the railroad during the late 1800s. This activity can take anywhere between 30-45 minutes and be easily modified for upper elementary and middle school students.

This activity was created in collaboration with Jessie Aucoin at the National Postal Museum and Abby Pfisterer at the National Museum of American History

Resources & Opportunities

More ways to learn together!

Download our Culture Lab Playbook!

Internship Opportunities

Learning Together Archive