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Utah State University
Chinese immigrants work on the transcontinental railroad. As many as 15,000 Chinese immigrants helped build the railroad.

SALT LAKE CITY — The 150th anniversary of the meeting of the rails at Promontory Summit on Friday honors more than just that monumental time in U.S. history, it is also a celebration of the men who endured back-breaking days building the railroad, the frequently forgotten and overlooked workers.

The transcontinental railroad married the East with the West, and it melded a variety of cultures — from the estimated 15,000 Chinese workers to the 10,000 Irishmen.

There were also freed slaves, Civil War veterans, other immigrants and as many as 4,000 early Latter-day Saint settlers who put down track along the route.

Andrew J. Russell, Utah State Historical Society
Union Pacific Railroad track layers, including Irish workers, circa 1863-1868. Men like these spiked down 425 miles of track in 1868.

"One point I think should be given some attention is that the Irish and the Chinese were fleeing civil war, persecution, political turmoil, unemployment and famine. They were refugees," said Gerald McDonough, of the Hibernian Society of Utah.

"They were political asylum-seekers, really. They were economic migrants who came to this country seeking a better life. And when they got here, of course, they were met with prejudice and bigotry."

Chris Merritt, Utah's deputy state historic preservation officer, believes this year's celebration will rightfully, finally shine the light on the transcontinental railroad workers, and begin to pay homage where it was earned.

"This year is fixing a lot of historical slights," he said. "It's been a long time coming to get to the recognition for their contribution from these workers."

Merritt said Utah is proudly home to the country's largest Chinese Railroad Workers Descendants Association, which is active in this year's celebration.

"I think what you are seeing for the 150th anniversary celebration is a true recognition of the largely immigrant labor that constructed the transcontinental railroad," he said.

Fifty years ago, it was a different story, Merritt said.

The leader of the Chinese historical society was slated to speak at that year's commemoration, but was bumped in favor of a speech by movie actor John Wayne.

They preferred the actor's input.

Utah State University
Chinese immigrants work on the transcontinental railroad. As many as 15,000 Chinese immigrants helped build the railroad.

This year, multiple events and exhibits celebrate the Chinese workers' role in the historic feat, acknowledging that 600 miles of the most hazardous part of the Central Pacific route was mainly built by the thousands of the men brought in to fill a labor void.

Cui Tiankai, Chinese ambassador to the United States, will give remarks via video at Friday's ceremony — a telling point in the recognition of sacrifice.

On Thursday through Saturday, "Crossroads of the West, Connections of the Oceans," is happening at the Little America Ballroom with a shoutout to the workers during the U.S.-China Summit on Education, Innovation, Trade and Business.

A Stanford University professor, Shelley Fishkin, will provide details of a collaborative, transnational and bilingual research project on Chinese workers during a presentation from 6 p.m. to 8 p.m. Tuesday at the Union Station in Ogden.

More events are listed at spike150.org

Merritt said Chinese history and descendant associations have organized and tried hard to tell the story of the role of the Chinese in the transcontinental railroad.

The Irish, too, are unraveling their story in the epic, West-changing accomplishment.

This year, in fact, will celebrate the launch of the New York University's "Irish Railroad Workers in North America Project," to gather more information on this nexus between the Irish and trains.

Barry McCarron will elaborate in an event that begins with traditional Irish music and appetizers at 5:30 p.m. Tuesday at the Rio Grande Depot in Salt Lake City. McCarron is a faculty fellow with the Center for Irish and American Studies at New York University.

Utah State University
A Chinese tea carrier for the Central Pacific Railroad circa 1863-1869.

His area of focus includes the global Irish and Chinese in the United States.

And in a first, the Irish ambassador to the United States, Daniel Mulhall, will be at Promontory Summit for the commemoration.

In addition to exhibits featuring historical photos, a musical group called the Black Irish will perform Friday at the Box Elder County celebration, sure to sing an original song written in honor of the historic, near unimaginable accomplishment the Irish and Chinese forged side by side.

"Eight Irish Workers," is about the Irishmen, working in tandem with 2,000 Chinese workers, who laid 10 miles of track in a single day.

McDonough boiled it down in prose that picked apart the numbers, and the teamwork required on that day: April 28, 1869.

The Chinese began unloading 16 carloads of ties, rails, plates, and kegs of spikes and bolts.

"Waiting to receive them were crews of Irish tie placers, track layers and smithies. When all the pieces were in place, the huge construction army strained into motion. With choreography perfected over six years of close practice and rehearsal, the Chinese unloaded the trains and fed the crews with lumber and iron."

McDonough goes on to describe how the eight Irish track layers, four to a rail, moved backward and forward, stooping to lift the 392 pound shaft of iron with their gandys, walking them into position.

Chinese workers placed the spikes into position, and the spikers would drive them home.

"With 10 pound sledge hammers that rang with rhythmic tolling above the sound of thousands of trudging feet," McDonough writes.

Andrew J. Russell, Utah State Historical Society
Masons and assistants, including Irish workers, place a stone abutment on the Union Pacific railroad at Green River Bridge, Wyoming Territory, after May 10, 1869.

The accounting of that day, he notes, read like a litany of impossibilities: 240 feet of track put down every 75 seconds, 25,800 ties placed, 28,168 spikes positioned by the Chinese to secure 3,520 rails.

McDonough said the history books, until more recently, traditionally depicted a relationship between the Irish and the Chinese during the transcontinental railroad construction as one continually punctuated with racial strife.

Not always, he said.

"The Mormons, the Chinese and the Irish worked quite well together."

5 comments on this story

There is another story with the Irish that goes down in the history books when it comes to the transcontinental railroad.

The Irish, while laying track, decided to "adjust" the notorious behavior of the Union Pacific Railroad for not paying workers by kidnapping the head of the company, Thomas Durant, and holding him for "ransom" until they were paid for months worth of work.

Durant telegraphed for the money and was released, delaying the joining of the rails by a couple of days.

Payday came in Echo, Utah.