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Ghosts of Gold Mountain: The Epic Story of…

Ghosts of Gold Mountain: The Epic Story of the Chinese Who Built the… (edition 2019)

by Gordon H. Chang (Author)

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Title:Ghosts of Gold Mountain: The Epic Story of the Chinese Who Built the Transcontinental Railroad
Authors:Gordon H. Chang (Author)
Info:Houghton Mifflin Harcourt (2019), Edition: 1st Edition, 320 pages
Collections:Your library
Tags:history, Asians in America, transportation history, Northern California history

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Ghosts of Gold Mountain: The Epic Story of the Chinese Who Built the Transcontinental Railroad by Gordon H. Chang



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Most Americans learn in school that there were Chinese workers on the transcontinental railroad project, but that’s usually where it stops. Chang, professor of humanities and of history at Stanford, the director of the Center for East Asian Studies and co-director of the Chinese Railroad Workers in North America project, has gone to primary sources to shine a light on the lives of the some 20,000 workers who came from China to work on the tracks.

When the Transcontinental Railroad project was put together, a competition arose between the Union Pacific railroad working from the east and the Central Pacific railroad working from the west. They started in 1864 and finished in 1869. Union Pacific had it fairly easy; they covered a lot of fairly flat states. Central Pacific, on the other hand, started at Sacramento and went right up into the Sierra Nevada Mountains. There were no machines to do any of the work; it was all done with shovels and picks, moving rocks and soil in buckets. Differences in elevations had to be smoothed into easy slopes, sharp curves had to be made wider. Once the rail beds were done, ties and steel rails had to be laid. They went right on up through the Donner Pass, working night and day, summer and winter. It was dangerous and horribly hard work. They were paid submarket wages and were treated badly by the whites, especially by the settlers they worked around- settlers afraid the Chinese would want to stay there once the railroad was down.

Not all the Chinese in the project were railroad workers; some were vendors, while some made livings farming and providing familiar foods to the RR workers. While there were very few Chinese women involved in the project, what there were tended to be enslaved as sex workers.

Sadly, no first-hand account has ever been found. Chang has had to resort to ship manifests, immigration lists, business records of the Chinese community, old newspapers, family stories, and oral histories. He’s put together a solid history that, while dry, is good and fairly easy to read. There were sections that I found slow and boring, but most held my interest well. Four stars. ( )
  lauriebrown54 | Aug 19, 2019 |
This was a very informative book, although clearly difficult for the author to write based on first-hand accounts of the Chinese experience on building the transcontinental railroad, since there are few first-hand accounts that have been preserved. The author presents much of his material from inference based on similar experiences of Chinese in other situations. Nonetheless, there is nothing apparent that would indicate that these inferences cannot be assumed to be correct.

The book clearly presents the case for how vastly important (and for the Central Pacific, highly critical) the individuals from China were to the construction of the railroad. Since the CP’s work force was overwhelmingly Chinese, the RR would either have not been built at all, or the trackage that the CP was able to complete versus the Union Pacific would have been significantly less, and in all likelihood, the transcontinental RR would have taken much, much longer to complete.

The information provided greatly adds to the understanding of the human sacrifice that was necessary for the TCRR to be built. Many deaths and much suffering by the Chinese are discussed, and the author makes it evident how terrifying some of the work was. Work continued 24/7, though the mountains, requiring vast use of explosives. But the discussion of the work necessary to keep the building going, especially the tales of the winter storms in the Sierras and how it was necessary to not only avoid being swept away by avalanches, but to actually have to tunnel thorough huge levels of snowfall to get to the work sites from the residential camps, is harrowing.

The only critique of the book I have is the presentation of the photographs. Granted, you cannot increase the size of the photos in the book without losing clarity – however, it would have been very helpful had the author used some method to point out where in the pictures were the items/people he was trying to point out. In other words, it would have been helpful to perhaps use a line with text next to the picture (although this might not have been permitted by the owners of the photographs). Otherwise, it was very difficult to see some very small details. Doing this would have added to the understanding of the book’s discussions. ( )
  highlander6022 | Jul 17, 2019 |
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"A groundbreaking, breathtaking history of the Chinese workers who built the Transcontinental Railroad, helping to forge modern America only to disappear into the shadows of history until now"--

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