Laying nearly 1,900 miles of track across the nation’s frontier was an incredibly difficult job. Workers used picks and shovels to level the land. They chopped down trees. Then they laid out the heavy metal rails and hammered in spikes to hold them in place.
“Workers were out there from sunrise to sunset,” says Lucas Hugie, a park ranger at Promontory Summit’s Golden Spike National Historical Park. “It was heavy labor all done by hand,” he explains.
Most of the people working on the Central Pacific line were Chinese. Many of them—or their parents—had arrived during the California Gold Rush, which began in 1848. Victims of racism, the Chinese were banned from almost all jobs. With limited options, up to 20,000 Chinese people agreed to take the grueling, dangerous railroad work that few white Californians would accept. Even so, they were routinely paid less for longer hours than white workers.
As they progressed eastward, these laborers were confronted with an incredible challenge: the Sierra Nevada mountains. The workers had to dig 15 tunnels through the peaks, most at high elevations and almost completely with hand tools. To loosen the rock, they would chisel holes into it, fill the holes with explosive black powder, then light a fuse and rush to take cover.
While blasting was risky work, the Central Pacific crews were in even more danger from avalanches, which could strike in the mountains at any time. When the snow thawed after the especially hard winter of 1867, bodies of workers who’d been swept up in snowslides were found with their tools still in their hands.