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Influence Of Chinese And Irish

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Influence Of Chinese And Irish

The Influence of Chinese and Irish Laborers on the Transcontinental Railroad

The Chinese and Irish laborers answered strongly when asked to help build the Transcontinental Railroad that connected the Pacific and the Atlantic Coasts. During the long process the immigrant workers encountered harsh weather and living and working conditions. Their work produced the Great Iron Trail in an incredibly short time with minimal resources and equipment. Their struggles are often overlooked and their overseers credited with the building of the railroad. The Chinese and Irish found what entertainment they could, often challenging each other to lay more track in one day than the other. Both found a hostile country in the management of the railroad companies and the U.S. government that rejected them from the work place and drove them to accept the poor conditions presented by the railroad positions. The two groups couldn't have been more different, yet they came together to create a revolutionary railway and opened a new era in the United States. Their great influence may have made the completion of the transcontinental railroad possible.

The Chinese and Irish were drawn to the land of opportunity in order to become successful. They came from different ends of the world to end up at a common destination: California. The Chinese were dreamers when they came to California; they hoped to profit from the Gold Rush. They left a feudal system that restricted many aspects off their lives (Daley 14-15). The Irish had visions of a more stable future, coming to California in search of steady jobs (Potter 621). They left Ireland for America to escape the Great Potato famine.

Long before the Gold Rush of 1849, the Chinese had known about the wealth that lay in America, or 'the Mountain of Gold' (Sung 1-4; Howard 225). Legend told of a place where the precious metal was bountiful. They dismissed this until a few daring men found wealth in America. Many were drawn to the prospect of easy money and by 1850 nearly 25,000 Chinese had immigrated to California (Sung 5; Daley 26-27). Some searched the deserted land claims for overlooked gold, while other Chinese were hired by successful gold miners as cooks, houseboys, gardeners, farmers, and laundrymen (Sung 10-11; Howard 224-226). Unfortunately they were met with discrimination. Many were shut out of the workplace and the Chinese in California quickly became beggars. The Irish had come from a hostile Boston in search of a place in the job market. They found an equality they had been unable to find in New England (Potter 670; Howard 225). Although they found jobs, few were very successful. A majority still lived in shantytowns and poverty even in California.

The Civil War played a major role in who was hired and how the employees were chosen. The Civil War began in 1861, two years before the groundbreaking to start the transcontinental railroad and one year before the Great Railroad Act of 1862. The construction on the transcontinental railroad was finished in 1869, four years after the end of the Civil War and six years after the groundbreaking (Howard 126-143; website). The western and eastern railroad companies had always depended on immigrant workers and with the start of the Civil War, this dependency was even greater (Johnson and Supple 191). There was a shortage of white Americans willing to work because they had either enlisted or been drafted into the war (Hogg 71; Howard 224). The Chinese were forced into a servant's/slave's life. In some cases, white men imported Chinese laborers in crowded ships, much like the African slaves, and 'hired' at auctions (Hogg 72-73). The Chinese were also looking for a way out of poverty and slavery and saw the transcontinental railroad as a means of escape. During the Civil War, the wealthy were able to buy their way out of the draft, leaving the poor to fight. The Irish made up a large portion of those in poverty and were often drafted. They saw this a way for the government to justify unjust social distinctions (Moynihan 64). As a way to avoid the draft, the Irish signed up to work to build the transcontinental railroad.

The Chinese had a valuable asset that would contribute to the building the first transcontinental railroad; they could adapt to many different jobs, communities, and lifestyles (Sung 14; Howard 225; Hogg 72-73). Their diligent, efficient work surprised the railroad contractors who were wary about hiring them. To overcome language barriers, the Chinese would gather in groups of ten to fifteen, appoint a headman to translate work orders, and work in those teams (Hogg 73). Similarly, the Irish were used to the hard labor that laying railroad track demanded. They had done physical labor in the eastern U.S., such as digging canals (Howard 225). As well as the Chinese, the Irish had a unique working style learned in the industrial east coast. When laying track they would use a system similar to the assembly lines found in factories (Howard 327).

The Chinese were underestimated when the contractors hired them. They took smaller shovel bites into banks of earth, and their barrowmen took lighter loads than the American workers. But, by the end of the day, the Chinese laborers had progressed further than the American workers who had joked about them earlier. The Chinese worked methodically and constantly, not taking breaks and almost always in silence. A younger worker would bring hot tea to the men working, but as soon as their cups were empty, they went back to work. The 'coolie's,' as the Chinese workers had been named, worked longer and smoother than the white crews. Even after the white gangs had stepped up their own work pace and cut back on the number and duration of their breaks, the Chinese still laid more track than any other crew (Howard 227-228).

The Irish used a work technique picked up in the New England factories to manage their backbreaking tasks. They used an assembly line approach while laying track. Each person would be assigned a certain part of the task and would do it repeatedly as the group progressed. This allowed each person to concentrate on a single task, to completing it well and quickly. The groups moved along quickly when working, but still took the normal breaks (Howard 227-228; Hogg 126).

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