NV Museum of Art Pays Tribute to Chinese Transcontinental Railroad Laborers

The 150th anniversary of the completion of the transcontinental railroad was on May 10 and the Nevada Museum of Art had a panel discussion and ceremony to commemorate it. Chinese laborers played a huge role in the construction and completion of the railroad and the celebration paid great tribute to them. Artists Zhi Lin and Hung Liu joined Ann Wolfe, deputy director of the Museum, in a discussion of their work (also on display at the museum).

Traditional Chinese instruments were played as the artists read the 800 known names of Chinese laborers who died building the railroad. On May 10, 1869 the driving of the “golden spike” into the final railroad tie was performed in a ceremony in Promontory, Utah, to celebrate the linking of San Francisco and New York. The event was immortalized in a photo that features railroad officials and selected employees, but no Chinese laborers.

In 1865, the Central Pacific Railroad (CPRR) was running behind schedule and desperate to catch up. They hired the first 50 Chinese laborers, who proved to be hardworking and reliable so they began hiring Chinese workers en masse. By 1866, almost 90% of CPRR’s workforce were Chinese and they worked around the clock, seven days a week for almost four years to finish the transcontinental railway. Chinese civic organizations retrieved the bodies of more than 1,200 deceased Chinese laborers, but there was never any record maintained of their death by the railroad.

“The completion of the railroad—which linked the United States from east to west—is often celebrated as the grand achievement of America’s Manifest Destiny and the 19th-century rallying cry for westward expansion of the United States,” wrote Ann Wolfe in a press release for the event. “Zhi Lin provides us with an important opportunity to connect with forgotten stories, and to broaden our knowledge of our region’s history.”

An exhibit of Lin’s work, “ZHI LIN: CHINESE RAILROAD WORKERS OF THE SIERRA NEVADA,” is on display at the Nevada Museum of Art through November 10, 2019. Join me for this fantastic exhibit about Nevada and U.S. History. We must never forget the hard workers who gave their everything to build these railroads.

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