This year marks the 150th anniversary of the completion of the transcontinental railroad, a massive undertaking that employed thousands of Chinese immigrants. In this installment of “Time & Place,” historian Alicia Barber explains some of the challenges faced by the Chinese residents of the Sierra Nevada after the railroad was finished.
As a warning, this segment contains historical accounts of physical violence fueled by racism and may not be suitable for children.
The construction of the Transcontinental Railroad brought Chinese immigrants to the American West in record numbers. At its peak, the Central Pacific Railroad was employing 10,000 - 15,000 Chinese workers at a time. Their jobs ranged from the treacherous—boring tunnels and handling explosives—to highly skilled fields like blacksmithing and carpentry, to the backbreaking monotony of laying track.
After the railroad was completed in May of 1869, hundreds settled in the tiny town of Truckee, California, where they worked in the lumber mills, as wood choppers, teamsters, cooks, doctors, shop owners, and more. A few owned substantial amounts of property along the railroad tracks—just one of the factors that led to increasing resentment of the Chinese population throughout the West.
The decline of the Comstock mines meant less work at the mining sites and for the logging companies that provided them with materials. Suddenly, the jobs traditionally held by the Chinese looked a lot more appealing to those who used to look down on them. Racial prejudice added more fuel to the fire, and in 1882, Congress passed the Chinese Exclusion Act, which banned the immigration of Chinese laborers to the U.S. for 10 years.
But that wasn’t enough for many western communities, who also wanted their existing Chinese residents gone. Joe Mosconi moved to Truckee in 1905, when he was just 5 years old. Interviewed in 1983, he recounted how some of his relatives who had moved there earlier got swept up in the local campaign to forcibly intimidate Truckee’s Chinese residents into leaving.
“But I remember my Uncle--Uncle Jim—they handed him, one day handed him a gun and said, ‘Come on, Jim, we’re driving all the Chinamen out of Truckee.’ ”
In 1885, Truckee’s white citizens had approved a resolution to boycott all Chinese-owned businesses as well as any company that employed Chinese workers. They called it “The Truckee Method." The platform was supposedly nonviolent but other efforts weren’t.
Anti-Chinese factions dynamited a water tank built to provide water to Truckee’s Chinese community, set fire to a sawmill that employed Chinese workers, burned their cabins, and sometimes attacked them personally. Whether mostly out of fear for their lives or for their livelihood, the Chinese community soon fled. By 1900, Truckee had approximately 2,000 residents and only two were Chinese.
Even as a child riding the train through the area, Joe Mosconi distinctly remembered how the town continued to impose restrictions on who could enter.
“I remember that the conductor, before the train approached a certain community, why he’d walk through the train and [say] 'The next station is Verdi, Verdi. We will stop here five minutes' or 10 minutes or whatever it is. And before he’d get to Truckee, he’d say, 'No Orientals allowed off of the train.'"
The town of Truckee eventually came around, but changes to federal policy took a lot longer. After a series of extensions to the national ban on Chinese immigration, the United States finally repealed it in 1943, as a gesture of goodwill toward its World War II ally. At that point, a small number of immigrants from China would be allowed in—105 per year.
Historian Alicia Barber is the author of Reno’s Big Gamble: Image and Reputation in the Biggest Little City. Oral history clips for this segment were provided by the Special Collections Department of the University of Nevada, Reno Libraries.