Friday, June 5, 2020

People: Chinese Railroad Crews

Most railroad companies have their secrets and those that operated in Santa Cruz County were no different. When railroad fever hit California shortly after the Civil War, it coincided with a lack of viable and affordable workers to build the many dozens of planned routes throughout the state. Famously, the Central Pacific Railroad arranged the importation of thousands of Chinese workers to construct its route through the Sierra Nevada and across the Great Basin to Promontory Summit, Utah where it connected with the Union Pacific Railroad, thereby creating the first transcontinental railroad. They were not the first Chinese in the state—several thousand had moved to San Francisco and the Gold Country in the late 1840s and throughout the 1850s—but they were the largest influx in the region's history. As soon as the railroad project was done in 1869, Chinatowns and Chinese villages popped up in every moderate-sized settlement in Central California and cheap manual labor flooded the market.

Chinese workers making a cut along the Monterey Extension Railroad near Pacific Grove, 1889.
[California State Library – Colorized using DeOldify]
Central Pacific quickly realized that their dream of connecting the continent was only the first step in a grand plan to dominate the Western United States, including Santa Cruz County. Acting quickly, Central Pacific bought the Southern Pacific Railroad in 1868 and immediately relocated some of its Chinese workers to San José, where they were employed in building the Santa Clara & Pajaro Valley Railroad to Gilroy between 1868 and 1870. Following that project, they continued on by grading the California Southern Railroad, which became Southern Pacific in October 1870. It was this route that first brought the railroad within range of Santa Cruz County and allowed for the plausible construction of a railroad line along the county's coast to the town of Pajaro.

The Chinese fishing village at China Beach (New Brighton State Beach), 1880s.
[Santa Cruz Public Libraries – Colorized using DeOldify]
Like most California coastal towns, Santa Cruz had Chinese fishermen from early on, and they had a small settlement within modern-day New Brighton State Beach. Chinese laundries popped up in Santa Cruz and Watsonville as well, and at least one Chinese fruit dryer was active in the 1870s in Watsonville. These businesses formed the nascent cores of Chinatowns that arose in Santa Cruz and Watsonville in the 1860s, places where the local Chinese community congregated, traded goods, and often lived. Initially, they were almost entirely composed of working men and prostitutes, but over time families transformed these crude neighborhoods into insular villages within predominantly white towns.

The Front Street Chinatown beside the San Lorenzo River in Santa Cruz, late 1880s. [Colorized using DeOldify]
Racism forced these communities to be transient at times, with them often relocating as necessary to protect their residents. The first community in Santa Cruz was located on Pacific Avenue (Willow Street) between Lincoln and Walnut Streets. When the street was renamed around 1872 and the business district moved down from the Upper Plaza, Chinatown moved to Front Street, where it remained throughout the 1870s and 1880s. Following the relocation of the Santa Cruz railroad depots to the freight yard in 1893, Chinatown relocated beside it, between Chestnut Street and Neary Lagoon. The Watsonville Chinatown was initially located at the corner of Maple and Union, but it was forced to move across the Pajaro River to along Brooklyn Street in 1888.

Chinese workers working along the Monterey Extension Railroad near Pacific Grove, 1889. [California State Library]
California was geographically the nearest state to China and, as such, received the vast majority of Chinese immigrants into the United States. As the numbers of Chinese grew, so too did anti-Chinese sentiment, especially in the Bay Area where the population was the highest. As early as 1850, the Chinese were driven out of the gold industry and in 1858, a law was passed barring the entry of any Asian person into California, but this was overturned by the state Supreme Court in 1862. The depression of the 1870s led to further anger at the Chinese, whom many saw as stealing white people's jobs despite no evidence that this was actually the case. Indeed, the only reason the state government continued to allow Chinese to settle in California was because of their taxable income. By the late 1870s, Asians made up a quarter of California's wage-earning population but used almost no state resources since most were relatively young, healthy men without families. The final straw came in 1879, when California included the exclusion of Chinese in its new constitution, a decision that was expanded by the federal Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882. But this did not stop opportunists like the railroads from employing Chinese workers in their construction efforts. With so many veteran workers of the transcontinental railroad stranded in California, it was worth the risk of fines and public censure for companies to hire cheap Chinese labor to affordably build their railroads.

In 1870, the population of Santa Cruz County was mostly poor and agrarian and had no time or money to build railroads, despite the need. The wealthy were more optimistic, but lacked the clout and money to hire locals to build their dream railroads. Thus, Chinese workers were brought into the county to do the work. It is unknown whether the grading for the San Lorenzo Rail Road, begun in 1868 but halted shortly afterwards due to property disputes, used Chinese laborers, but it seems likely considering the fact that all other railroads built in the county until the end of the century used them. The first railroad to be successfully built in the county, the Santa Cruz Railroad between Santa Cruz and Watsonville, certainly employed Chinese to do the grading and track-laying. A tent city was built beside the right-of-way in the vicinity of Live Oak where crews slept and enjoyed evenings before working long days at the end of track as it slowly progressed southeast toward the Southern Pacific tracks at Pajaro. These workers did not come from the established local Chinatowns and did not live in them, although they would visit them on their days off to buy food and enjoy the pleasures that such a community provided. Lotteries held in the Chinatowns advertised to the workers and runners collected bets in the morning and returned the next day with any prize money, undoubtedly taking a sizeable percentage for the trouble.

The Chinese worker village either along the Loma Prieta line or the Valencia Creek line, 1880s.
[Pajaro Valley Historical Association – Colorized using DeOldify]
Sandy Lydon in his book Chinese Gold outlines the forms of compensation that workers of the Santa Cruz Railroad received. These figures and benefits, with minor variances, can be assumed for all of the local railroads regardless of the company. On average, crews worked ten-hour days, six days a week at a rate of one dollar per day. Two dollars were deducted per week for food and another dollar was usually lost to pay for clothing, recreation, and upkeep, leaving workers with around three dollars per week in income. The railroad companies did provide tents and spaces to pitch them, but offered few other amenities. One benefit—or so it seemed at the time—was that any medical expenses for injuries sustained while on the job were covered by the railroad company and living expenses would also be paid for men unable to return to work. Since workers rarely had families with them at this time, no provisions were given for the care of wives and children.

The second railroad project in the county and the first to be completed was the Santa Cruz & Felton Railroad between Santa Cruz and Felton high along the west bank of the San Lorenzo River. For eight intense months from late 1874 to mid-1875, Chinese workers scaled the sides of San Lorenzo Gorge cutting an at-times tenuous path along the hillside. It was these workers that built the first railroad tunnel in the Santa Cruz Mountains through the Hogsback of Rancho Rincon near today's Paradise Park. No worker died in these endeavors, although minor injuries were common. Since the city of Santa Cruz was staunchly anti-Chinese by this time, it did not allow construction crews to operate within the city limits, so construction of the Mission Hill Tunnel was done by Cornish miners while the Railroad Wharf and other bridges along the line were built by the all-white Pacific Bridge Company. Non-Chinese workers proved costly and a good portion of the overall cost of construction was to pay the wages of these workers.

Even before the Santa Cruz Railroad was completed, construction had begun on the South Pacific Coast Railroad along the East Bay. Like all the other railroads in the state, the company used Chinese workers extensively in the construction of its line from Alameda Point to Santa Cruz. The reason for this was sheer practicality, proven by the recent cost overruns of the Santa Cruz & Felton Railroad: Chinese workers could be employed cheaply and were, in the eyes of their employers, entirely expendable and replaceable. Through political bargaining and Comstock Lode money, the South Pacific Coast was able to safely ignore prohibitions on employing Chinese workers in the railroad industry and push to build its route through the Santa Cruz Mountains.

By 1878, 600 of the South Pacific Coast Railroad's 700 construction workers were Chinese. Crews working for the company were mostly from the Ning Yeung Company of San Francisco, which specialized in finding jobs for out-of-work Chinese manual laborers. Most work crews were composed of twenty to thirty men under a Chinese contractor, with a white site supervisor in charge of relaying tasks from the general manager. Rather than paying workers directly, the South Pacific Coast paid the Ning Yeung Company, which then sent funds to the supervisors to pay to the employees. Attempts by Santa Clara County to tax the workers mostly failed largely due to threats to the tax collectors' lives by the workers. The workers did everything from grading and track laying to tunneling and ballasting. The only thing they didn't do was build the bridges, which was handled by the Pacific Bridge Company.

Injuries were common in railroad construction projects and the Chinese workers received the brunt of the injuries. On the Santa Cruz Railroad in its final months of construction, several workers were maimed and severely injured and one man was killed when the construction train's brakes failed and ran over a group of workers. Indeed, for every mile of railroad built in Santa Cruz County, a Chinese worker died. And the deadliest place to work in the region was in the Summit Tunnel along the South Pacific Coast route along Los Gatos Creek.

A Chinese laborer outside the worker shanty at Wrights, c 1883.
[Bancroft Library – Colorized by Derek R. Whaley]
Wrights had been established around 1877 as a worker camp with around four dozen Chinese living outside the tunnel's north portal. A similar settlement arose on the opposite side along Burns Creek so that the tunnel could be bored from both ends. The tunnel crossed the San Andreas Fault and leaked methane and petroleum from a deep coal vein on the Wrights side. Initially, this threat was dealt with by regular burn-offs of the gas and oil, but more accumulated as crews dug deeper. The first major incident occurred on February 13, 1879, when a burn-off ignited a pocket of oil and fire roared out of the tunnel, singeing worker and timber alike. The intensity of the heat caused the tunnel to act like a cannon, blasting away machinery and structures near the entrance. Around a dozen workers were severely burned and five eventually died from their injuries, with many of the rest sent to San Francisco for treatment.

Chinese workers, white supervisors, and train crew working outside the Summit Tunnel, probably in early 1880.
Fear of returning into the tunnel led to several fights between supervisors and crew. The crews were briefly replaced by Cornish miners in late March, but these workers were even more problematic and new Chinese crews were convinced to work at an increased rate of $1.25 per day. Still, fear and animosity persisted between supervisors and workers, with Nick Borrosey shooting and killing a worker in June 1879. Despite adopting many different techniques to alleviate the gas and oil problem in the tunnel, disaster struck again on November 17. A stick of dynamite unexpectedly exploded igniting a massive cloud of gas and oil. Twenty-one workers and two supervisors were in the tunnel at the time, and another twenty workers ran into the tunnel to rescue their friends following the explosion. But the worst was yet to come. A second explosion followed shortly after the first, and twenty-four Chinese workers were killed instantly. The remainder as well as the supervisors were badly burned as they hobbled out of the tunnel portal into the smokey night air. Seven more workers died from their injuries after being transported by rail to Chinatown in San Francisco.

By January 1880, a permanent fire was alighted at the source of the gas leak in the Summit Tunnel and work resumed. Although new Chinese workers were coaxed into resuming construction, their efficiency and morale were so low that the railroad decided to bring back Cornish workers and reassign the Chinese workers to the other end of the tunnel, which had not experienced the same problems. This finally worked and the two crews raced each other to complete their ends. With the tunnel completed, air could flow through it regularly, dispersing the gas and reducing the risk of further fire and explosions. An out-of-the-way cemetery was established near the tracks at Wrights to mark the graves of the two dozen men who died there in November 1879, but the markers have long since disappeared and the location is now lost. No further workers died while building the line to Santa Cruz.

While the disaster in the Summit Tunnel was certainly the worst felt by Chinese railroad workers in the county, a mudslide in Felton in 1881 was a close second. Following the completion of the South Pacific Coast route, worker camps were established across the line, especially in the mountains, to maintain the trackage, top up ballast, and repair tunnels and bridges. Around twenty workers lived north of Felton, probably along Zayante Creek, when a mudslide fell on their settlement during a winter storm in February 1881. A dozen bodies were found in the slide but many more are thought to have been washed down the creek and river or been left buried.

Chinese crews heading out to work on the Loma Prieta Railroad, 1882.
[California Historical Society – Colorized using DeOldify]
When the Southern Pacific Railroad took over the Santa Cruz Railroad in 1881, it brought in thousands of Chinese workers for the dual task of standard-gauging the railroad and building a new branch line up Aptos Creek for the Loma Prieta Lumber Company. Broad-gauging took two years and in mid-1883, crews were redirected to the redwood forest of Aptos Creek to cut a crude railroad into the heart of the mountains. After reaching the new town of Loma Prieta, crews turned to the northeast and reached the narrow gorge nicknamed Hell's Gate, which proved to be the only obstacle in Santa Cruz County that required workers to hang on ropes from above to cut a grade in the cliffside. While major construction along the line ended in 1888, a reduced crew remained to oversee the continuous expansion of trackage deeper into the mountains.

The slide zone on the Boulder Creek Branch near Brackney were some Chinese workers died cutting the grade, 1885.
At the same time that the Loma Prieta Branch was under construction, the South Pacific Coast Railroad was building a new route up the San Lorenzo Valley from Felton to Boulder Creek. Most of the workers were veterans of the railroad's main route through the Santa Cruz Mountains. The route to Boulder Creek was less troubled than that through the mountains, but the difficult terrain in the Brackney area required careful construction and several Chinese workers died in the effort. These men may have been the last Chinese lives lost for the cause of Santa Cruz railroading. When the branch was completed, most of the crews were transferred to the Almaden Branch.

Chinese crew carving out the Valencia Creek grade, 1886. [Aptos Museum – Colorized using DeOldify]
Three private railroad projects were the last to utilize Chinese labor in the county. In 1886, Frederick Hihn hired Chinese crews to build a narrow-gauge railroad along Valencia Creek between Aptos and his mill three miles to the north, as well as the tracks' extension into the forests beyond the mill. Meanwhile, north of Boulder Creek, the Santa Clara Valley Mill & Lumber Company likely used Chinese labor in early 1888 to build a low-budget narrow-gauge railroad on the San Lorenzo River. And in the Pajaro and Salinas Valleys in the early 1890s, Claus Spreckels employed multiple crews of Chinese workers to construct the Pajaro Valley Railroad along the Monterey Bay so that sugar beet farmers could more easily get their products to the large Western Beet Sugar factory in Watsonville.

Chinese workers on a flatbed car on the Monterey Extension Railroad near Pacific Grove, 1889.
[California State Library]
The mass employment of Chinese by the railroads ended around the turn of the century. By this point, the Chinese Exclusion Act had been in force for two decades and adherence to it had become more societally expected than in the boom days of the 1880s. Most of the Chinese men living in the state had been doing so since the 1860s and were now considered too old to work efficiently. Furthermore, outbreaks of plague in Chinatown in San Francisco beginning in 1898 led to further negativity toward the Chinese which added to the public opinion that the Chinese were unclean and diseased. Thus, when the Ocean Shore Railway and Coast Line Railroad projects to build a route along the coast between San Francisco and Santa Cruz were initiated in 1904, both companies chose not to employ Chinese workers. Chinese men and their families continued to live and work in several industries throughout the county, but their time as a labor force for the railroad was at an end.

Citations & Credits:
  • Lydon, Sandy. Chinese Gold: The Chinese in the Monterey Bay Region. Capitola, CA: Capitola Book Company, 1985.
  • Whaley, Derek W. Santa Cruz Trains: Railroads of the Santa Cruz Mountains. Second edition. Santa Cruz, CA: Zayante Publishing, forthcoming.

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