OGDEN, Utah (AP) — Michael Kwan can’t help but think about what life was like on a daily basis for his great-great-grandfather in the 1860s, working 12-hour days in California’s Sierra Nevada mountain range on the Transcontinental Railroad that would reshape the American landscape.
“You’re not talking about 12 hours sitting at a desk or sitting on a bench. You’re talking about 12 hours of lifting and hammering and blowing things up,” said Kwan, a judge in Salt Lake City. “And I complain when my trainer says we’re going to add 10 pounds.”
Kwan and other Chinese Americans are pushing for these workers — some of whom lost their lives building the Western portion of the railroad — to get more than a token mention in history books. This week marks 150 years since the completion of the Transcontinental Railroad, and several days’ worth of events are planned. Kwan, who is president of the Chinese Railroad Workers Descendants Association, and his group are participating as part of a drive to be more involved in railroad celebrations and long-term projects.
“We haven’t really pushed the envelope and insisted that these contributions be recognized until fairly recently,” Kwan said.
On Thursday, group member Margaret Yee helped tap a ceremonial spike alongside Utah Gov. Gary Herbert and a descendant of Union Pacific’s chief engineer on the project at an event in Ogden. Several thousand people attended the anniversary celebration, which featured a pair of restored 1940s-era steam engines.
“They say the Chinese built the railroad. The railroad built America,” Yee said.
Chinese laborers were often the most exploited. They contended with racism, pay disparity and dangerous tasks in grueling terrain. At an elevation as high as 7,000 feet on the Sierra Nevada range, they were ordered to blast through solid granite using nitroglycerine. Some suffered brutal deaths in explosions. Avalanches also took lives.