Advertisement

150 years ago, they were working on the railroad: La Mesan organizes celebration of Chinese laborers' record-setting day

150 years ago, they were working on the railroad: La Mesan organizes celebration of Chinese laborers' record-setting day
Chinese workers (foreground) on the transcontinental railroad. (Courtesy Chinese Railroad Workers Descendants Association)

A veteran hiker, La Mesa's Jack Shu often walks up mountains, across deserts, along shorelines.

Few strolls, though, can rival Sunday's route. In Utah that day, the retired state parks superintendent will hike into the past.

Advertisement

On April 28, 1869, Chinese laborers on the transcontinental railroad laid a record-setting 10 miles of track. The 150th anniversary of the route's completion, marked with a golden spike, will be celebrated May 10 at the Golden Spike National Historical Park in Utah with ample hoopla. The 10-mile day, though, was being overlooked.

A student of Chinese-American history, Shu had been following plans for the railroad's sesquicentennial. A reference to the 10-mile day jumped out at him for a personal reason.

"That's my birthday," said Shu, who will turn 67 Sunday. "This is a sign. How am I going to deal with this date and make it significant?"

His answer: take a hike. With the Chinese Railroad Workers Descendants Association and the National Parks Conservation Association, Shu organized Sunday's 10-mile walk along the record-setting route. While a National Parks Service marker is found along this path, little else is. Trains stopped rolling here long ago, and rails were torn up for scrap metal during World War II.

Today, it's hard to imagine the audacity and cost of this event.

Legend has it that Charles Crocker of the east-bound Central Pacific Railroad made a wager with Thomas Durant of the west-bound Union Pacific Railroad. No crew had ever exceeded a daily total of seven miles of track, yet Crocker bet $10,000 that his team could cover 10 miles on April 27, 1869.

An accident derailed that day's plans. Early the following day, though, eight Irish and thousands of Chinese started early. Working at a mile-an-hour pace, they passed the six-mile mark by noon. By day's end, they had laid down 25,800 ties and 3,520 rails, pounded home 55,000 spikes, fastened more than 14,000 bolts, lifted 125 tons of iron, covering 10 miles and 56 feet.

"This is a phenomenal human achievement," Shu said.

"These stories have a lot of resonance for ethnic Chinese, for Chinese-Americans, but there's a lesson here for everyone. We achieved so many things in this country through immigrant labor. We shouldn't forget what they did."

Advertisement
Advertisement