Interpretative observation building the transcontintental railroad by Haow Lee (AKA Thao T.)

Working on the Transcontinental Railroad


When I was young, my uncle took me in. His name was Hai Tran. I never knew who my parents were because they left me when I was only a year old. They left me in front of Uncle Hai's cottage. When my uncle found me, I was wearing a necklace. On it was printed, "Hoaw Lee, the blood carrier of the Lee family." Remembering the story about how I was found, I would always try to think how my parents could leave without me, their only blood carrier! Time passed and now I'm 16 years old, still puzzled about the fact that I was left in an orphanage.

January 29, 1869

Something strange was going to happen, I told myself, but yet I didn't know what. That afternoon, something did really happen. A white man came to see Uncle Hai. I was poor at English, so I couldn't really understand what they were talking about, but near the end of the conversation, I could tell what they were saying. The white man was called Judah. He wanted my uncle to come to America to help blow up mountains so other workers could build a railroad track. If he wasn't needed for blowing up mountains, he could help build tracks, too!

Uncle Hai insisted that I should go too. Judah took a long time to answer, but as he got up he said he would try to make arrangements for me. Judah greeted my uncle once more and walked out the door. After he left, I immediately asked my uncle to tell me what was going on. He told me to mind my business and pack my things.

February 28, 1869

This morning Judah came again, but this time he wasn't only visiting Uncle Hai. He came to tell him that I could come to America with him, but he would not pay me my salary. He would give Uncle Hai a payment of between $20 to $40 each month. Judah also said the boat for the trip would be here at noon the next day. Then he left. I wasn't sure if I wanted to leave China, my home country.

All day long, I was not thinking about anything else but America, the place everyone said was a country where people could earn money for their families. I knew of many men who had gone to America. All night I stayed up to think if I was going or not, but whatever I did I couldn't think straight. There were still many problems and things in my head that I couldn't even eat. At midnight my uncle told me to take a rest. He said that everything would be okay in America. Not that I was trying to disobey my uncle, but I didn't want to sleep.

As dawn broke through the darkness I then realized that I was taken care of and was treated like a real son by my uncle, so I should do what he wanted. Without him I wouldn't even have lived to this very day.

March 1, 1869

Leaving home was hard to do. As we stepped up and into the small crowded boat, I felt as if the boat trip was a journey to hardships and punishments! We could not find a good and comfortable place to rest for the month trip across the sea. The food portions were very little. We had to share our food in order for it to last for that month trip. At night my stomach would growl and growl. The only noise heard through the night was the growling noise from everyone's empty stomach. I was wishing only that I could stay home instead of going to America. Tears fell down everyone's checks as they remembered the good times they had with their families and friends. Listening to everyone's good times and memories, I wished that I could just for once have a good time with my mystery parents.

March 18, 1869

The days were getting colder and colder! Everyone had on only thin clothes. We had to sit closer together, so the body heat would make us warmer. Some died because of the traveling and the cold days and nights. Everyone was tired and starving! Some wished that they hadn't agreed to go on this trip. During the days I would think of how many more punishments we would have to face! During the night I would think about how I could live in America. Lucky for us this winter wasn't that cold so those of us on the boat could manage the coldness across the sea.

March 31, 1869

When I woke up, the whole boat was surrounded with cheers. The captain of this boat had just announced that he saw land. Once the boat was anchored in San Francisco, everyone stepped out and stretched their bodies. Everyone was sweaty through the long trip. As my uncle and I walked by some Americans, who we called "the white men," they immediately covered their noses and gave out an impression with the word or the sound "ewe" or the phrase "They stink!"

We immediately went to the railroad recruitment headquarters where we signed up to work as the crew going to Nevada. I knew the trip would be very long and make us very tired. Unlike other people who came here to own land, we came to work and earn money to send back to our families. There were lots of strange people. Most of them were white. Most of them were British. There were a few Irish and also black men, women, or kids.

April 4, 1869

A wagon train took us from San Francisco to Sacramento. From there we were to help lay the tracks to Nevada Territory. We knew that we were in for hard, hard work!

When the wagon train stopped, the same man that had asked my uncle to come to America, Judah, greeted us. He showed us to our tent which we shared with other Chinese men. We introduced ourselves to the other people in the tent. We took our rest because tomorrow we would get to work right away.

April 5, 1869

As I woke up, I found American, Irish, British, and Chinese men working on the tracks. Why didn't anyone woke me up, I questioned? I got dressed and hurried from the tent. I realized that to many of these Americans, I was a coolie. I wasn't sure what a coolie was so I asked my friend, Trung. He told me that coolies meant the people from China who were not trained to do anything. That wasn't true. The only reason why they needed Uncle Hai was to blow up mountains. We could do many things too.

April 6, 1869

First we had to build the ties. The ironmen brought the 560-pound and 30-foot-long rails. Four men on each side were needed to be able to carry the rails. The head leader of the ironmen would give the other ironmen the directions about where to lay them. Next we Chinese would load fishplates, nuts, and bolts into the baskets and toss it near the rails that were laid so the other men could just grab the ironware. The men met the rails together, and another team would fasten the fishplates loosely with nuts, and bolts. A team of men measured the rails to make sure they were exactly 4-feet 8 and a half inches apart. Then the spike setters would position each rail with 2 hits by the hammer. We repeated the same jobs over and over again. The main team had to use crowbars, shovels, and tamping bars to pack the ground around the rails.

April 19, 1869

I wasn't assigned to do anything. When I tried to help, some workers would push me to the ground and say no coolies or celestials. I also tried to help the other Chinese, but some of them even yelled at me and said that all I was doing was getting in the way. Luckily Uncle Hai and his group appreciated me.

April 20, 1869

The Chinese men needed drinks. They drink tea so I finally got a job! It is to bring tea to the Chinese workers. Carrying tea every day isn't that hard, but the tea baskets are very heavy so my shoulders hurt and at night they ache. I carry basketfuls of tea to the workers when they are thirsty. I am running about all day long. Sometimes I even carry water for the Americans, the Irish men, and the British men.

April 31, 1869

All the workers came to get their payments. The leader of our group who is in my uncle's group, got more money than us. Trung only got $25 and the rest got $20. The Americans got $40, the Irish got $38, and the British got $38 too. For the entire group there was only $5.00 difference from the leader and the workers. After they all got their payments, except for me, they all took a break in a big, big tent. There we got our lunch. We all got the same kinds of foods, but we did not like the food the white men ate.

May 17, 1869

This morning the ironmen asked me for help so I put down my basket of teas and started helping them. Carrying the rails were much harder than carrying baskets. The weight of the iron rails was like four-big, fat, strong men jumping on me. An American accidentally put his foot in the wrong spot. So once the rails were dropped on to the ties, the American's foot got stuck between the ties and the rail. He screamed for help from other men.

The leader of the ironmen yelled out, "Everyone stop what you are doing and go help Paul!"

The Chinese did not know English so they didn't pay any attention. But a Chinese man named Yung Vu saw what happened and told those Chinese men who were near him what just went wrong. All of us ran over to where the accident happened and just watch. Paul's foot got loose and he was now resting in his tent and Judah is trying to contact a doctor.

Now I will take his place, as an ironman. Sometimes when all the ironmen was taking a break I would not rest and went outside to help the rest of the workers who couldn't take any break yet.

May 18, 1869

We could see that up ahead was a mountain. All the Chinese men gathered together all the dynamite. They also prepared the ropes and baskets to get ready. We were still building the railroad until we almost reached the mountain. That's when we stopped. Uncle Hai tied the ropes to the baskets. A few Chinese men climbed up the mountain first holding the end of the ropes, and the ropes lead to the baskets still on the bottom. Uncle Hai with other Chinese workers climbed on to each basket. The men on the mountain pulled the rope up a little so the workers in the basket could dig a hole small enough to fit a few sticks of dynamite in it. They lit the fire on the wick of the dynamite. The men on the top neither pulled the basket up or lowered it down.

A Chinese man on the top took a long time to pull up Uncle Hai's basket. I guess the Chinese man on the top was either to skinny and too weak to pull it up or to lower it down or was not paying attention with so much weight in there. The dynamite blew up right when Uncle Hai's basket was about to land on the ground. Both the Chinese man and Uncle Hai got blown up and are now dead. We could not believe our eyes! We will have to make some arrangement for the family of the Chinese man and Uncle Hai to know what happened. Judah called out a meeting in the lunch tent. He said that after what happened, it would give everyone a warning sign that next time we should be more careful.

July 30, 1869

We only have a few more miles until we finish our part of building the transcontinental railroad! We never take any breaks. Finally we made it!

My work was done on the railroad. I took the money I hade earned and went back to China. There I found my true love. We got married and had one child, a boy. We decided we would go to America, so we took a ship and went to America. We arrived there in California on July 30, 1869.

As I end my journal, I would like to thank Uncle Hai for all his care. I have made a beautiful new generation with my wife and children.

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