As the sun beat heartily down on the dry desert prairie land, the pangs and grunts of workers defined the atmosphere. The Railroad tycoons from San Francisco had recruited work-desperate gold-rushers and Chinese immigrant laborers in to build the rails that would carry civilization from East coast to west. Having seen the effects of the “boom towns” as a result of gold discovered on the Panhandle, Blue collared men sought out the labor-adapted specialty of men from among the hard-working gold seekers. The bridge of the East to the West by way of the Steam engine train would undoubtedly be a monumental success. The wages paid out to railroad constructors was of virtually no consequence. “UGHH!” Came the sound of five burly men hoisting a 30′ length of steel up to waist height from the stock pile to the presently-unfinished track, laying it down on the left side, on top of the thick wood ties. The grade was being developed by another group a couple miles ahead.
The year was 1866, and President Lincoln had his hand’s chalk full with the war, and arousing Congress to pass bills for the benefit of the people in America, the massive move into the northwest known as the “Oregon Trail”, and the discovery of gold actually laying on the ground in the resource-rich land of California in 1849. Lincoln felt pressured to grant statehood to the occupants of California, lest they unite together and form a coalition, of which the results could clearly be imagined in light of recent events. America had been propelled into a massive ‘growth spurt’ with the industrial revolution. The mechanical ingenuity of the steam engine permitted the steam locomotive to give a dramatic, and provocative new overhaul to what had begun as such a simple union of individual state communities. What would the other nations think as they now saw the adventurous, and rowdy American’s expanding their expression of liberty by taking advantage of the great landmass beneath them?
Flannels were drenched with sweat as men produced the means of eventual locomotion. Men on horseback oversaw production, and inspected the finished track to ensue in met Southern Pacific Railroad specifications. “Casper says the contractor is on a strict deadline. He might push us right on into the night…” Mendez told his sun-beaten friend Carlson. “Well, then we can expect some decent overtime pay.” Mendez and Carlson returned from their lunch break along with the other fifty men on the sight of one of the greatest train track construction projects known in the United States. “What’ll you do with your pay when this is over, Carlson?” Carlson looked up to Mendez to imply work couldn’t happen with Mendez’ vocal cords. Mendez took two railroad ties in each arm and followed Carlson and Casper to the sand-based foundation laid out on the ground in a neat fashion for the next phase of track assembly to take place. The contractor, Daniel Fergeson, a blue-collar man on horse back from San Francisco hailed the men by putting two fingers to his mouth and releasing a whistle to be heard as far as a mile and a half away. “LISTEN UP BOYS! OUR EMPLOYER, SOUTHERN PACIFIC RAILROAD, IS ASKING US TO MEET A DEADLINE. OVERTIME PAY WILL BE GIVEN.”
Days were spent at this aggressive endeavor persisted by the pursuit of success by the entrepreneur, pay for the worker – but progress for American society. The workforce approached a mountain. The Sierra Nevada Mountains. The surveyor’s had know of this complication, and the hard rock was being slowly penetrated. “PROGRESS WILL SLOW ON OUR TRACKS MEN… WE WAIT ON THE MINER’S NOW…” Jinsu and Wong braced the inner-lining of the newly-created cave. “Nician Maiguran…” Jinsu knew the power of gun-powder – and not just because he was instructed to use it by his Southern Pacific Railroad task master. Jinsu came from Shenzhen, in the Guangdong province of China. His father worked with gun powder by trade, making “Chunjie” (Spring Festival) paraphernalia. Times became tough for Jinsu’s family, as the Qing dynasty was crumbling, and the Opium wars were ever present. Word had reached China that work was available in America, and a ship had come to recruit workers. The American’s had seen the reliability of Chinese workers in the extreme conditions of summer heat. The Chinese were also willing to work for less then American’s were.
The Gold rush adventures of the American west was not the opportunity to turn down for Jinsu and his family. “When you find wealth -bless your family with sending some back…” Wong had come from the larger city of Shanghai. He had been a bachelor, working in the marketplace. He had owned his own business making all kinds of steamed snacks. He had been playing Mahjong when the call came from the ship captain recruiting working for the American railroad. He was told that he would be able to manage a labor crew himself. He relished the opportunity for experience of that magnitude. The voyage took a month at sea. The ship was filled to the brim with Chinese. The American’s dress was different, but as was expected from people half-a-world away. Jinsu and Wong had met on the ship. Dynamite was the method used to expedite the passage through the rock in the path of the railroad. The danger was felt in the instability of the dynamite. There were plenty of stories of men handling the dynamite near cigarettes, or Opium pipes – and then ludicrous hollering as limbs were strewn all over.
Once the remaining tunnel was lined with metal bracing to hold it up against the impending explosion (and 4×4’s of lumber as backup) Wong selected two red sticks of TNT and lodged them carefully in the center of the would-be tunnel. Jinsu meticulously pushed the fuses the into the tightly-packed gun-powder, and rolled the fuse line backwards out to the daylight. Jinsu gave an affirmative nod to the contractor: “dynamite set – ready to blow…” His English he picked up quick, but not without great challenge, beginning on the voyage into America. “Let ‘er rip…” The contractor nodded towards the dynamite fuse pump box. POW! The massive sound reverberated out of from within the cave sanctum. Smoke proceeded to billow out like dust-insulated clouds. It took a good five minutes for the opening to clear for the crew of eighty men to peer inside to witness the result, good or ill, of the explosion. “Henry, check it out.” Henry was another Chinese worker, his real name being “Hoi”, he had come in on a previous ship, and spent time working in the mines when work was halted on the railroad. The smoke was still marginally pouring out of the top of the tunnel. Henry acknowledged the instruction, and moved in slowly, mentally assessing the structural integrity as he moved inwards. “Holding…” Henry stated in a monotone, mechanical response.
Across the desert, Men in three-piece suits discusses the anticipated operation of the Southern Pacific Railroad. Another group was sent a telegraph to continue construction of train tracks west from New Orleans. “Do you know what this means Higgins?” Chief Executive Officer of Southern Pacific Railroad in San Francisco was wide-eyed with anticipation. Higgins had been questioning the economical reasoning behind the construction of the railroad from coast-to-coast. After all, the Central Pacific Railroad had already been completed from New York to Sacramento. A complete line to the East had been made. “This will bring business in from the East. It will mean better coordination with Major cities of the South. It will open up the exposure of American trade on a whole new level. There are three parts in this nation right now, Higgins – the North, the South, and the West. And the west is leading construction the bridge of that gap.”
Meanwhile, Carson city was seeing a boom due to the exposure that California had brought in. But Nevada had attracted individuals on it’s own, due to the raw beauty of it’s vast, rugged country, yet also so near civilization. Carson city had also had to railroad bring new visitors like never before. Hotels were being built, dance halls were going up, civil government buildings were finding the necessity to be presence among the massively-growing population. Departments of every part of society found their place in and around Carson city. Factories producing grain, clothing, beef, and others spawned as demand for them came. Homesteaders had come in by wagon train, and some by the exposure of the land by the beef processing for the ranchers that sought the satisfying pay per single head of cattle.
The railroad track progress moving through the Sierra Nevada mountains had once again resumed, the workers spending several weeks bracing the interior of that ancient American mountain range. The transportation arteries of the nation had nearly been laid, though the partnership of individuals of foreign origins would come to an end, and interacting with one another in a more intimate setting was going to be the next big breakthrough America would make. The war over the legality of slavery was over, but the ethical perception of foreigners in the land known to all as “Land of the free, and home of the brave” would be questioned.
© Copyright Zach Baldwin. All Rights Reserved.