Transcontinental Railroad & Immigrant Labor

1862 — 1870

United States

Labor & Economy

The construction of the Transcontinental Railroad was an effort that relied heavily on Chinese and Irish migrant labor and also resulted in the physical divide of many Native American Territories. When completed, the Transcontinental Railroad greatly increased westward expansion fueled by both native-born and immigrant settlers, shortening what had previously been a journey of many months into just several days.

In 1862, President Lincoln signed the Pacific Railroad Bill, spurring a competition between the Central Pacific Railroad Company and Union Pacific Railroad to complete the Transcontinental Railroad. With a massive demand for workers, the two companies heavily recruited migrant labor to complete the dangerous and grueling tasks. Many of the Chinese workers had come to the U.S. earlier, pushed by the British Opium Wars and drawn by the California Gold Rush’s economic opportunities. However, anti-Chinese laws (see also:Chinese Immigrants Face Exclusion,1875-1882) and decreasing amounts of gold forced Chinese miners out. By the 1860s, ninety percent of Union Pacific Railroad workers were Chinese, forced to work for lower wages than their European counterparts. The Central Pacific Railroad started track-work in Missouri and relied primarily on Irish immigrants to supply labor.

The railroad construction cut through many Native American territories, breaking up communities and decimating a primary food source, buffalo. The break-up of Native territories paved the way for the Indian Appropriation Act (see also: Native Americans no longer independent, 1871), which no longer recognized Native American nations as separate from the United States.