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Presentation Immigration and Relocation in U.S. History

Struggling for Work

Laborers and Rocks: Near Opening of Summit Tunnel

Once they realized how difficult their situation was, the first generation of Chinese immigrants scrambled to find some way to earn a living wage. The vast majority of this first group, in the 1840s and 1850s, was young and male, and many of them had little formal education and work experience. Once in California, they had to find work that required little facility in English, and that required skills that could be learned quickly.

The railroads were tailor-made for this new pool of labor. In the middle of the nineteenth century, U.S. railroad companies were expanding at a breakneck pace, straining to span the continent as quickly--and cheaply--as they could. The work was brutally difficult, the pay was low, and workers were injured and killed at a very high rate. For Chinese laborers, though, it represented a chance to enter the workforce, and they accepted lower wages than many native-born U.S. workers would have. On the Central Pacific Railroad alone, more than ten thousand Chinese workers blasted tunnels, built roadbeds, and laid hundreds of miles of track, often in freezing cold or searing heat. When, in 1869, the final spike was driven into the rails of the Transcontinental Railroad, after a record-breaking five years of construction, few Chinese workers appeared in photographs of the event. But the railroad could never have been completed as quickly as it was without the toil of Chinese railway men--unknown hundreds of whom lost their lives along its route.

During and after the rail construction boom, Chinese immigrants found work in a variety of industries, from making shoes and sewing clothes to rolling cigars. Since language barriers and racial discrimination barred them from many established trades, however, they often created opportunities for themselves and launched new businesses. Many of the shops, restaurants, and laundries in the growing mining towns of California were operated by Chinese immigrants. Chinese immigrants also played an important role in developing much of the farm land of the western U.S., including the plantations of Hawaii and the vineyards of California.