High Road

Bob told me, “Sure, the Chinese worked on the Union Pacific.” He was the museum director at Rock Springs, the site of the worst massacre of Chinese in US history.

At that point, I had read thousands of pages about the Chinese involvement in the construction of the US’s first transcontinental railroad. All sources had been clear – while the Central Pacific, building eastward from Sacramento, had employed primarily Chinese workers, the CP’s rival, the Union Pacific, building westward from Omaha, had employed largely Irish workers and no Chinese. Less than a week before, I had looked at original Union Pacific payrolls in Lincoln, Nebraska and had found no Chinese names.

“Do you mean the Chinese started after the transcontinental was completed?” I asked.

“No,” Bob said.


“You can believe me or not, but I know what I know.”

“It’s just surprising to me, because I’ve read a lot so far-”

That’s when Bob blew up at me. He had spent years in the archives, he said, and he knew he had read about Chinese helping build the original Union Pacific, though he couldn’t say exactly where, and who did I think I was?

I was researching the experiences of Chinese and Irish workers on the transcontinental for my senior history thesis at Princeton, but I was also interested in connections between past and present that wouldn’t fit into my 100-page thesis. I liked the idea of the dead speaking indirectly to the living, through written history and also more informal means, creating resonances and myths. A grant from Princeton to travel from Sacramento to Omaha and back not only allowed me to visit local historical societies, archives, and museums but also let me learn about the attitudes of museum staff and archivists, who generally told me more about their own perspectives than about the history I was researching.

But it wasn’t so easy to separate perspectives from the history, nor was I supposed to. A few years ago, I had figured out that in order to write a good history paper, I should analyze perspectives on events rather than the events themselves – then no one could say I was oversimplifying.

In this mindset, I listened as the archivist in Elko, Nevada explained that the Irish couldn’t be blamed too much for their intolerance of the Chinese – racism was biological. You see it in dogs, and even insects, she said. I had been finding that 1860s accounts frequently compared the Chinese to insects, “swarming” around work sites. I planned to research how such myths and metaphors – bug-inspired racist views and views about racism – were formed, and how they developed.

UPRR Museum in Council Bluffs, Iowa

My own myths about the railroad began early. On family vacations in the Sierras, my mother would point out tunnels in the mountains and tell me Chinese workers had built them; I learned about the Irish contribution from Laurence Yep’s young adult novel Dragon’s Gate. My Chinese and Irish ethnic heritage helped me remember the importance of both groups for the railroad. For a creative writing project at Princeton, I wrote about workers comparing fiddles and erhus (Chinese violin). For my Visual Arts minor, I painted these strangers’ bodies mixing in the earth.

With the research grant, I was excited to learn more of the actual history, follow in the workers’ dusty footsteps, and share their experience not just through documents but also through the very country where they had worked. I told a friend that it was going to be like cowboys and Indians, but more politically correct.

The problem was that the more PC the story became, the less of a story there was. My examination of different perspectives seemed to rob me of any coherent narrative. I was sure that in my thesis, argument and analysis would take the place of narrative structure – as made sense in academic writing – but meanwhile, my ideas about fiddles and erhus were deflating. I was ready for some excitement and almost jealous of the hard-driven workers, who didn’t have to deal with competing historical claims.

Dutch Flat, a Central Pacific semi-ghost town in the Sierras

Sources agreed that most Chinese who had come to California, the “Golden Mountain,” as it was known in Guangdong, shipped their bones back to China, making a final statement in death. Other stories were less verifiable. Did the rival companies’ teams of Chinese and Irish really try to explode each other with dynamite? The first such report appeared years after the two companies joined rails. I became increasingly skeptical. I had set out to find a Golden Mountain of information, and now I was so buried in my research, as the Chinese had been in the Sierras, that I couldn’t remember how large the whole mountain was or even whether I’d found it to begin with.

Rock Springs jolted everything back into perspective. By the end of my exchange with Bob about whether Chinese had worked on the Union Pacific, he was no longer shouting at me, but we were both tense. And I’d found that under a pile of differing perspectives and grey areas, I was certain of some facts: for example, I was sure that no Chinese workers had worked on the Union Pacific until the lines joined. Bob insisted he knew local history like no one else. Backtracking, we agreed to disagree.

“You know, it was really the Chinese who treated other Chinese the worst,” Bob said as I left. I decided not to reply.

When I returned to my hotel, I confirmed from my notes on Union Pacific correspondence that the UP had discussed hiring their first Chinese workers after the Golden Spike ceremony joined the two companies’  rails. I was relieved to be right but found it strange that my worst experience of the trip had occurred on the site of the worst Chinese massacre in US history – here was some resonance with history, which I’d craved, but it was hard to enjoy even petty resonance with a massacre. And my flawless paper plan to look at perspectives, not facts, was shot. I had stood up for what, from my perspective, seemed to be the facts. Or maybe I’d stood up for the facts themselves. I wasn’t sure.

Explore posts in the same categories: history, musings, random happenings in my life

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