Iron Horse Road: a Tale from Gold Mountain recounts one of the great untold epics of American history: The story of the Chinese laborers–neither truly enslaved nor truly free–who built the most rugged stretches of the Transcontinental Railroad.
More than 150 years ago, these Gold Mountain Men tunneled through mountains, dangled over cliffs, and dragged entire trains over alpine summits where other Americans feared to tread. The prosperity of the gilded age was founded on their blood, sweat and grit, but their story has long been suppressed, minimized and forgotten.
For Iron Horse Road, the father/son team behind Blood on Gold Mountain retrace the steps of these workers from the Sacramento hills to the snows of Donner Summit. Equal parts history and travelogue, Iron Horse Road uses binaural 3D audio to transport the listener to deep canyons, echoing caverns and windswept peaks–a world where adventure is always around the corner, and the past is carved in blood and stone.
I mention that Cantonese was a common language among the Railroad Chinese. This Is true, however, it is important to acknowledge that other dialects, such as Toishan, and languages, such as Hakka, were spoken by large numbers of Chinese laborers in the old west.
Importance of Transcontinental Railroads:
Union Pacific vs Central Pacific
When John Henry was a little baby
sittin on his daddy's knee,
He picked up a hammer and a little piece of steel
said "Hammer be the death of me, Lord, Lord,
Hammer be the death of me."
So begins the ballad of John Henry, the legendary Black railroad worker who embodies the values of physical power, indomitable spirit and personal sacrifice at the heart of the American story. My Dad used to sing that song to me, back when I was a little baby. I can still hear the way his voice rumbled in the rafters of our little house way up in the Colorado Woods.
I first read accounts of the so called “Railroad Chinese” while doing research for Blood on Gold Mountain. Yo Hing, the Chinatown Gangster who staged the kidnapping of Yut Ho and her lover Li Yong, seems to have gotten his start as a railroad worker.
Along with thousands of other laborers from the Sze Yup or Siyi region of southern China, Yo Hing swung a hammer just like John Henry to drive steel through some of the most rugged terrain in America. But while John Henry is known to many Americans from schoolchildren to country singers, Yo Hing and his fellow Railroad Chinese are notably absent from the mainstream of American Mythology.d in West Virginia during the:
At the same time, US propaganda regarding people of Asian descent was falling into a pattern of degradation, emasculation and dehumanization. The narrative framed Asians as the Antithesis of American Values: Weak, dishonest, unscrupulous and conniving. This government-sponsored hate campaign started with the Japanese and then moved on to the Koreans and Vietnamese as the roster of disastrous American “land wars in Asia” grew ever longer. The more vigorously and successfully the “Asian enemy” resisted American invasions, the more insidious and “below the belt” Anti-Asian propaganda became until, at the start of the 21st century, false and hateful narratives about the physical and moral character of Asian people – including Asian Men – were generally accepted by a depressingly large portion of the US population.Even in:
But that’s exactly what happened.
I’m Micah Huang, and you’re listening to Iron Horse Road: a tale from Gold Mountain.
Well John Henry said to his captain,
"A man ain't nothin' but a man,
"But before I let that steam drill beat me down,
"Ill die with my hammer in my hand, Lord, Lord,
"Die with my hammer in my hand."
So who were the Railroad Chinese?
The term was coined by Historian Gordon Chang, who wrote a book on the subject called Ghosts of Gold Mountain. Cool title, right?
To tell the whole story would be beyond the scope of this special, but here are some key facts:
Number 1: Most of the Railroad Chinese were Cantonese-speaking people native to the region called Sze Yup or SiYi. It’s a part south China that’s culturally and ethnically distinct from the populations of northern cities like Beijing.t exactly free either. In the:
These wars killed between 20 and 50 million people. Most of the Railroad Chinese were refugees displaced by the conflict.ican Slavery was abolished in:
A first-hand account by a white man called Daniel Cleveland describes the unloading dock in San Francisco, where Chinese Laborers “are taken possession of by their White owners, and are treated like slaves… a small squad of resolute white men, armed with heavy bludgeons, which they are not slow to use, keep vigilant watch over the Chinese to prevent their escape”
Number 3: If Chinese laborers did try to escape, it was perfectly legal for a White overseers to shoot and kill them. This was good news for the railroad company.
In the words of then-congressman William Holman, the planned route “Could never be constructed on terms applicable to ordinary roads…it is to be constructed through almost impassable mountains, deep ravines, canyons, gorges, and over arid, sandy plains.”
No labor force would willingly undertake such a task.
But the Railroad Chinese… well, let’s just say they didn’t have a lot of options.In the spring of:
My plan: to retrace the steps of the Railroad Chinese, capturing soundscapes at historical landmarks along the way.
Before heading north, though, I made a stop to pick up the largest compendium of subversive Chinese American history in the LA area: my dad.
You see, reading about history is all well and good
But in order to really feel it,
In order to bring the dead to life,
you have to stand in the place where they stood.
See what they saw.
Touch what they touched.
You have to get your hands dirty.
Well John Henry stood upon the mountain
Lookin up the mountain side;
The rocks so tall
John Henry so small
that he laid down his hammer and he cried, "Lord, Lord,"
Laid down his hammer and he cried.
The farmlands around Auburn California are incredibly beautiful. For those of you who remember the Lord of the Rings movies, this land is kind of like the Shire except sunnier. More golden.
This is where the story of the Railroad Chinese begins.
The man who started it all was called Hung Wah. In some ways, Hung Wah was kind of like your typical Northern California entrepreneur: 20-something, with a gift for languages, and a questionable past.In:
Legend has it that Hung Wah placed an advertisement in the local paper, which caught the eye of railroad boss Charles Crocker.
Crocker had problems.
At Auburn, His small, mostly white labor force had run into their first major obstacle: a massive excavation called Bloomers cut.
The rock there was harder than anything they had dealt with before, and many of his workers abandoned the project after their foreman, James Strobridge, lost his left eye in a blast.
In his ad, Hung Wah’s offered to recruit 50 Chinese laborers for mining, logging or construction. Crocker eagerly accepted. Despite his youth, Hung Wah must have been very well connected, because he delivered on his offer and, just like that, changed the course of American History.
The Chinese laborers would ultimately remove more than a million cubic feet of stone from Bloomer’s cut. At first, though, their Anglo overseers were skeptical of their ability to do such heavy work.who arrived at Bloomer Cut in:
At that time, People from Northern China referred to themselves as Han people, while southerners referred to themselves as Tang people. Nowadays, this practice is discouraged by the Chinese Government, but it persists in some circles.
Han people from places like Beijing are fair-skinned and share the same average height with Black and White Americans.
Tang or Cantonese People, on the other hand, are indigenous to South China and Hong Kong. They tend to be darker skinned and more compact in build. This was the case with most of the railroad Chinese. They were also, on average, extremely young, mostly in their teens and twenties.
All these factors led the White railroad foremen to “racially profile” the Chinese Laborers, and to assume that they were not as strong as white men. However, they were also desperate for labor, so One-eyed Strobridge devised a series of tests to gauge the Chinese Workers’ physical strength and endurance.
By the end of the tests, Bloomer’s cut was finished. The Railroad Chinese smashed through the stone the way their rebellious Tang cousins had smashed through the Han imperial army back in China. To his credit, Strobridge abandoned his initial prejudice and ordered another 50 Chinese laborers from Hung Wah. Before long the number grew to hundreds. Then thousands.At the end of:
John Henry would have fit right in with the Railroad Chinese–not least because Steam Drills were not used in California. He also could have taught them a thing or two. About self respect. About Representation.
But most of all,
about how if you’re a person of Color in America,
You might be the strongest
But the Man will still find a way
To work you to death.
When the men drove steel into the mountain
Falling rock would strike down two or three.
He said, "It’s so far down, I can barely see the ground”
"And it's gonna be the death of me, Lord, Lord,
"Gonna be the death of me."
Cape Horn Promontory is named after the infamously deadly crags at the tip of South America.
It’s located a few miles north of Colfax, Ca. in the western Sierra Nevada mountains. You can see it clearly from the back porch of a biker bar called the Red Frog, where we stopped for a drink before attempting the climb.
In the days of the Railroad Chinese, there was no biker bar, and no town of Colfax. There were only the mountains, rugged and sheer.degrees… more than:
Nowadays, a service road runs from the valley floor up to the Cape Horn railroad line. Unfortunately, the Prius I drove here from LA isn’t rugged enough to make it all the way.
We pull over on a shady spot and my Dad stays with the car while I climb up the last 200 feet. Thankfully, the slope here is a bit less intense-maybe 50 degrees instead of 70. Even so, I sometimes have to use my hands, grabbing onto trees that start off sideways before curving upward toward the light. There’s poison oak everywhere.
It’s 90 degrees out, and when I finally reach the tracks, they’re swimming in heat mirage. Still, I’m grateful that it’s only May. The highest temperature recorded while the Railroad Chinese were working here was a mind-boggling 120 degrees Fahrenheit. That’s 49 degrees Celsius. Hot enough to kill.
These tracks are still in use. While I’m recording, a train goes by carrying a load of cars, probably for the Midwest or East Coast markets. If you live in New York or Chicago and own, say, a Tesla Model 3, there’s a good chance it passed over Cape Horn on its way to you from the Bay Area factory–or the port of Los Angeles.
The tale of how workers were lowered over the cliff in baskets is one of the most striking–and controversial–in Railroad Chinese lore. Over the years, a laundry list of Anglo commentators have objected that such a feat was impossible–absurd even.red in a wicker basket over a:
How could we know what it was like?
The sensation of swaying in the wind, with the void at your feet and your life literally in the hands of a few men, far above. The ache in your arms, the numbness in your palms as you drive the steel home. The deafening roar, the shockwave as the powder explodes, sending massive blocks tumbling down and deadly shrapnel slicing up towards you. How well do you know those men at the top of the cliff? Do you trust them to pull you up in time?ederick Bee, who testified in:
“I have built railroads,” he said. “I have hung them over the sides of rocks where no white would trust himself, as the Pacific Railroad has done.”
Well the captain said to John Henry
I think the tunnel’s caving in
But the only thing that John Henry could hear
Was the sound of his hammer and the wind lord lord
Sound of a hammer in the wind
Based on our map, and things I had seen on the internet
I thought it was going to be easy to get to the summit tunnel.
Which… goes to show that what you see on the internet is not always what you get in real life.
I don’t know if I’ve ever even seen a 20 foot snow drift before. Maybe once, in the Cascade mountains, in the middle of winter. This is California and it’s May.
It’s hard to believe it, even after I clamber out of the snow cave, but there it is. The Summit tunnel is 30 feet tall, and we can barely see the top of it over the snow.
We’re standing in the western shadow of Donner Summit, where the sun doesn’t appear until well after noon. As a result, the snow is especially deep here. According to the map, the more exposed eastern end of the tunnel should be nearby. After all, the tunnel is only a little more than a quarter mile long.
A quarter mile long, thirty feet tall, gouged out of the living mountain one hammer-stroke at a time.
After some deliberation, we decide to drive east to the top of Donner saddle and get our bearings. There’s an entry point for the Pacific Crest Trail from which it should be an easy hike to the eastern end of the tunnel–or at least, that’s how it looks on the map.
We pull up underneath a sign informing us that the elevation here is 7,000 feet. Then we sit and wait for 15 minutes, because a gigantic Snow-Destroying machine is trying to clear the road which, according to the map, leads to the PCT entry point where we’re trying to go.
When the machine is finally finished, we try to drive down the road which now resembles a miniature canyon. The snow is like a pair of blue-white walls, ten feet high on either side. If there’s a marker for the PCT, we don’t see it. It’s completely buried.
Eventually, we turn around and go back to park under the sign. It’s frustrating, but we’ve come this far and we’re not ready to give up yet. The PCT might be blocked, but that doesn’t change the fact that the tunnel is literally right beneath our feet. The other entrance has to be east of here, and it can’t be more than a quarter mile away.
This time, I leave my gear with my Dad, so I can have both my hands free. Then I climb up the side of a snowdrift and set out eastward, walking on the crust on top of the snow.
It's beautiful up here, in an epic, otherworldly kind of way. To my left, a snarl of boulders the size of office buildings poke through the snow like teeth. To my right, towering cliffs rears up black and white against the sky. As I reach the top of the saddle, the sun comes out and Truckee valley opens at my feet. At the bottom, two miles away and a thousand feet down, Donner Lake sparkles like polished steel.
Closer at hand, I can just discern the tiny figures of rock climbers, sticking to the precipitous face of the southern ridge. Above them the railroad line hugs the side of Donner Peak, a black slash in the vertical white expanse.
And then I see it.
Not the summit tunnel, but a smaller one further east along the line. The eastern end of the summit tunnel is concealed from me by snowy rock formation, but it has to be there. And, just as the map said, it’s technically only a few hundred yards from where I’m standing.
The thing is, the map doesn’t make the topography clear. The tunnel entrance is only a few hundred yards away, as the crow flies, but it’s at least 200 feet down including a sheer drop, piles of boulders, and a snow-covered slope that sweeps down past the tunnel to the valley below.
We’re going to have to find another way.
It’s getting late by the time I get back to the car, and we decide to go back to Soda Springs, where we’re staying in a converted train station that’s been renovated to look like the hotel where they filmed The Shining. It’s warm though. We make ourselves dinner and settle in for some rest.
We’re going to need it.
Because since we can’t climb down to the Summit Tunnel’s eastern end, we’re going to have to climb up to it.
There’s really only one place that we–and our gear–can do that.
It’s the place where the Chinese workers finally rose up, in defiance of the Railroad Company.
The China Wall.
Well John Henry said to his captain,
“I’m as good as any other man”
"and I want equal pay 'cause I’m out here every day
"With a nine pound hammer in my hand, Lord, Lord,
"A nine pound hammer in my hand."
The China wall of the Sierras is located directly east of the summit tunnel. As it turns out, we were wrong about its height. Underneath all the snow, the wall stretches 75 feet from its base on the valley floor up to the railroad line. That’s the thing about building a railroad through the Sierras: Not only do mountains have to be hollowed out, but gorges have to be filled in to keep the track level.construction In the summer of:
It had been a rough year.
Work on the summit tunnel was almost complete, with teams working inward from the Eastern and western ends, as well as outward from the center. The railroad company was in such a hurry that they had a team of workers tunnel straight down from Donner summit to hammer and blast in total darkness at the heart of the mountain.
Another bid to make the railroad Chinese work faster was more insidious: a force of elite miners from Cornwall were brought in for the express purpose of conducting a competition along racial lines. These miners were considered the best in the world at tunneling through stone, having perfected the craft over hundreds of years. The Chinese, by contrast, had never been underground until the construction of the railroad line.
The Chinese and Cornish were assigned to different work sites, with their respective progress measured at the end of each week. However, the Cornish were soon sent home: the Chinese had beaten them every time.
The previous Winter, the railroad company had made the decision to move ahead with construction east of the summit. There was just one problem: the tunnel wasn’t finished yet, so all the construction materials were stuck on the western side.
To solve this problem, the company ordered the Chinese to build gigantic log sledges, onto which they loaded three steam engines, 40 railroad cars, and enough iron to build 40 miles of track. Hundreds of Chinese workers were then harnessed to each sled, like huskies in a grotesque Iditarod. Foot by foot, step by step, they manually hauled the trains and hardware through the snow and over the crest of the Sierra.
According to American heritage, so many workers died that year in explosions and avalanches that a new saying entered the lexicon of the American West.
If a game or system was rigged against you
All you had was “a Chinaman’s chance”,:
In the words of the Sacramento Daily Union newspaper, the strikers protested “the right of the overseers of the company to either whip them or restrain them from leaving the road when they desire to seek other employment.”
Any Railroad Chinese who chose to stay wanted wages equal to those of white workers. They also wanted to be paid the wages due to them, which was not company policy at the time.
According to Leland Stanford, the wages due Chinese laborers were actually paid to “American or Chinese merchants who furnish them their supplies of food, the value of which they deduct from their monthly pay.” The remainder was then “divided among them…according to the labor done by each person.” In other words, the company didn’t pay the Railroad Chinese. Instead, each worker’s wages were paid to a so-called merchant who owned their contract. The merchant deducted fees not only for food, but for clothing, shelter and in many cases, the price of transporting the laborer from China plus 300% interest.
It is possible, probable even, that some of the Railroad Chinese received a small portion of their wages. However, the paper trail ends with the merchants. Despite years of searching, not even Gordon Chang has not been able to find evidence of a single Chinese laborer making a purchase or opening a bank account with money they earned working on the railroad.The workers who struck in:
The strike lasted for several weeks.
In the end the railroad company decided to cut off the striking workers’ food supply. Railroad boss Charles Crocker took credit for this brutal strategy, claiming “John Chinaman don't make laws for me; I make laws for Chinamen.”
In reality, the outcome was anything but certain. Crocker’s brother, another railroad boss, put it simply, saying “the prospect has been that we were not likely to get what we wanted.”
By an ironic twist of fate, it was Hung Wah who ultimately broke the strike. Remember how the Chinese laborers wages were actually paid to “American or Chinese merchants” instead of to the laborers themselves?
Well, the most influential of those American merchants was Charles Crocker, and the most influential of those Chinese merchants was his business partner, Hung Wah.
Each of them would lose thousands of dollars each month if the strikers’ demands were met.
The solution was simple:
A massive famine was sweeping through South China, where the port cities were packed with desperate, starving men.
All Hung Wah needed to do was charter some steamships and his contacts in Guangzhou would take care of the rest: packing each hold with refugees for special delivery to the Central Pacific Railroad company.
The plan worked. Soon laborers were arriving “from China in large numbers.” In July, a satisfied Crocker opined regarding these new workers “we shall soon have all that we can work to advantage.”
On August 3 of that year, the morning sun shone for the first time down the full length of the summit tunnel. The man whose hammer struck the final blow was one of the Railroad Chinese: still the strongest labor force in the West, and still not truly free.
John Henry hammered on the mountain,
With the strength of a thousand men
He hammered so hard that he broke his heart,
And he died with his hammer in his hand lord lord
Died with his hammer in his hand
The summit tunnel is a contradiction in blood and stone.
On the one hand, it’s a triumph of immigrant labor; an epic underdog story that changed the course of history.the point where the US by the:
On the other hand, the Pacific Railroad was a Death trap for unfree workers; a breeding ground for Hungry Ghosts.
For them, it remains a road to nowhere, achingly far from home.
There’s a level on which the Summit Tunnel is a kind of meta-political sculpture; a chilling commentary on a capitalist system hell-bent on the destruction of humans, of nature, of everything.
On another level,
maybe a deeper level,
It's also an undeniable testament to the raw power of these men–These Chinamen–who moved literal mountains through sheer muscle and grit.
It’s the legacy of an ultimate feat of strength, unprecedented and never surpassed.
Proof positive that on that pure physical level which matters so much in America,
Asian Male bodies,
Asian Male People
are good, and strong, and matter
Just as much as the best
of Black and White.
That on some level
someone like me
Can look in the mirror and see
This production was brought to you by the Holmes Performing Arts fund at Scripps College.
If you want to hear more about the Railroad Chinese, stay tuned and follow @hungryghostnote on Instagram. A full-length story about Yo Hing and his adventures on the Railroad is currently in development.
In the meantime, we invite the hardcore history buffs to check out the show notes for an in-depth bibliography. Thanks for listening to Iron Horse Road: a tale from Gold Mountain.