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Chinese Railroad Workers Project

The Chinese Railroad Workers in North America Project at Stanford (CRRW) seeks to give a voice to the Chinese migrants whose labor on the Transcontinental Railroad helped to shape the physical and social landscape of the American West. Between 1864 and 1869, thousands of Chinese migrants told at a grueling pace and in perilous working conditions to help construct America's first Transcontinental railroad. The Project began in 2012 and is a multi-year endeavor to conduct and support research in North America and Asia in order to publish new findings in print and digital formats, support new and scholarly informed school curriculum, and participate in conferences and public events. Publications as well as additional historical material are available at the project website. The galleries below shine a spotlight on the materials that with permission we are able to provide for pubic access and long term preservation in the Stanford University Libaries.

CRRW Digital Materials Repository Galleries

Payroll Records Gallery

The Payroll Records Gallery is a set of records from the payroll of the Central Pacific Railway Company. These records offer access to the economic history of the Chinese who helped build the Central Pacific railroad. The original paper copies of these payroll sheets are held in the non-digitized collection of the State of California Railroad History Museum. These have been digitized with permission and are here provided by the Chinese Railroad Workers in North America Project at Stanford.

Our descriptions that accompany each item in the Stanford collection highlight details that enable researchers and the interested public to explore a range of issues involving the Chinese in America from both U.S. and Chinese vantage points.

Between 1864 and 1869, thousands of Chinese migrants toiled at a grueling pace and in perilous working conditions to help construct America’s first transcontinental railroad. The Chinese who were employed to work on the railroad construction eventually numbered up to 12,000 to 15,000 individuals.

Scholars heretofore have found little evidence of how so many Chinese could be hired by one company, and in such a relatively short period of intense construction. How could the railroad company locate so many thousands of Chinese? What did it take to convince Chinese to commit to being employed in this line of work? Who helped the Chinese collect their pay for their work in railroad construction?

This digital collection of payroll sheets is curated to address such questions. With each item, the descriptions and metadata highlight key indicators that Chinese themselves formed enterprises to recruit and retain large numbers of Chinese workers. The interested public will see in these digital items the details that professional scholars in the Chinese Railroad Workers in North America Project at Stanford have identified to reveal the complex relationship between the Chinese and labor contracting. We invite interested visitors to open these items in our digital repository, and examine the details that we highlight. Names, dates, work locations, pay – per diem and in total – may be studied to gain new insight into the business that some Chinese formed to manage the payroll for many more Chinese to do the work of constructing the Central Pacific Railroad.

Archeological Artifacts Gallery

The Archeological Artifacts Gallery offers open access to visual records of original items unearthed at field sites of historical camps of Chinese railroad workers.

While scholars have thus far not found diaries to document the Chinese workers’ voices, archeologists have unearthed material evidence of how the workers’ experienced daily life. The items in this gallery are each individually curated with descriptions that highlight details perceived by professional archeologists, and used to reveal elements of the Chinese railroad workers’ material life, workplace conditions, leisure activities, medicinal treatments, and material ties to their homeland.

The Archaeology Network of the Chinese Railroad Worker History Project is a transnational collaborative research endeavor based out of Stanford University. The Archaeology Network of the Chinese Railroad Worker History Project was created at the request of the project organizers, Gordon H. Chang and Shelley Fisher Fishkin, to connect the project with the large community of archaeologists who have been researching Chinese railroad workers and who are involved in managing the sites, collections, archives, and other materials that evidence that history. Dr. Barbara L. Voss, Associate Professor of Anthropology at Stanford University, is coordinating the network as a service to the project. Archaeological evidence and research plays a key role in reconstructing the lives and histories of those who built and maintained the railroads.

Oral Interviews Gallery

The Oral Interviews Gallery offers public access to video interviews with families who include among their ancestors the Chinese who helped build the Transcontinental Railroad. The interview videos and synchronized transcripts are accessible on our Chinese Railroad Workers in North America Project Oral Histories pages.

Thousands of Chinese workers crossed the Pacific Ocean to build the Central Pacific Railroad. Absent from the historical record is any indication that the employers or the general public welcomed the Chinese to make their homes, raise families, and integrate into local communities.

The Chinese Railroad Workers in North America Project at Stanford is finding ways to give the workers a voice through interviews with families who trace their lineage in China and North America to the Chinese who helped build the railroad. The coordinators of the oral interviews, Connie Young Yu and Barre Fong conducted nearly fifty interviews from early 2013 through Spring 2018. The project includes conversations with descendants three, four, and five generations after the period of the workers who built the railroad. During the interviews, family members share documents, mementos, and stories that have formed their family collective memory. The interviews reveal personal insights and feelings of those who count among their descendants Chinese who helped build the Central Pacific Railroad.