They built the railroad. But they were left out of the American story.


Intro: This is Berkeley Voices. I’m Anne Brice.

Narration: The U.S. transcontinental railroad is considered one of the biggest accomplishments in American history. Completed in 1869, it was the first railroad to connect the East to the West. It cut months off trips across the country and opened up Western trade of goods and ideas throughout the U.S.

But building the railroad was treacherous, brutal work. And the companies leading the railroad project had a hard time retaining American workers. So they began to recruit newly arrived immigrants for the job, mainly Chinese and Irish.

Until recent years, these immigrants who risked their lives to construct the railroad have largely been left out of the story.

Overall, immigrants did the most difficult jobs for the development of America’s infrastructure. 

[Music fades]

Narration: Hidetaka Hirota is an associate professor of history at UC Berkeley. His major area of research is 19th century U.S. immigration history. 

headshot of a person with short dark hair smiling slightly standing outside with blurred trees in the background
Berkeley Professor Hidetaka Hirota’s major area of research is 19th century U.S. immigration history. He’s author of the 2017 book Expelling the Poor, and is currently working on several book projects, including American Dilemma: Foreign Contract Labor and the Making of U.S. Immigration Policy.
Courtesy of Hidetaka Hirota

Hidetaka Hirota: If you worked in railroad construction, accidental falls of rocks, avalanches of snow, those things were always there. This is the age of cutthroat capitalist competition, and this is before the age of governmental regulation of labor conditions. So little protection was provided, little concern was there, for immigrants’ welfare, workers’ rights. Those things did not really exist.

Narration: Construction for the transcontinental railroad began in 1862. The two competing companies awarded the project — Central Pacific in California and Union Pacific in Nebraska — built eastward and westward to meet in the middle. Each company’s labor force was based on location and connections.

In Nebraska, workers were mostly Irish immigrants, Civil War veterans and African Americans, many of whom were enslaved until the end of the war in 1865. And in California, the Chinese made up a majority of the laborers. At its peak, about 90% of the railroad workforce was Chinese.

black-and-white photo of railroad laborers standing and sitting in the snow with trees in the background
Transcontinental railroad laborers worked in harsh conditions, and threats to their safety, like falling rocks or avalanches of snow, were always there, says Hirota.
Unknown photographer via Wikimedia Commons

Immigrant workers were aggressively recruited in all sorts of ways. Some Chinese and other groups had already come to California during the Gold Rush in the 1850s. Some were approached by agents when they first arrived at ports or boarding houses. And toward the end of the project, many were recruited from their home countries.

[Music: “Eggs and Powder” by Blue Dot Sessions]

But while the U.S. wanted these foreigners for their labor, the workers, especially the Chinese, were met with open hostility by American society. 

Hidetaka Hirota: Railroad companies obviously valued Chinese labor because it was cheaper than white labor. So in this sense, Chinese were quote-unquote welcomed. But then, the other side was this growing anti-Chinese hostility.

black-and-white photo of a Native person standing on a mountain overlooking the transcontinental railroad and a waterway
An American Indian looks at the transcontinental railroad from the top of the Palisades, about 435 miles from Sacramento, California. While few Indigenous Americans worked on the railroad itself, their lives and livelihoods were significantly impacted by it. Laying tracks often followed a negotiated or forceful takeover of tribal lands. And having a train run through Native lands gave settlers easier access to new territories. 
Alfred A. Hart

California Gov. John Bigler famously publicly accused the Chinese of stealing Americans’ wealth. Bigler characterized the Chinese as thieves, outsiders to the United States, and an inferior race that disturbed the peace and tranquility of California. “Peace” and “tranquility” were his original words.

Narration: In one of Professor Hirota’s current book projects, The American Dilemma, he writes about the tension of American nativism against foreigners and the demand for their labor. 

Hidetaka Hirota: One of the most consistent lines of anti-immigrant sentiment or argument in the U.S. was the critique of immigrant labor.

Opponents of immigration criticized foreign workers for allegedly lowering the wage standards, and as a result, threatening Americans’ employment and, ultimately, American democracy. And obviously, this is not simply an economic argument because racism and ethnic prejudice often aggravated these views.

But at the same time, the industrial, commercial and economic development of the United States created insatiable, unlimited demand for immigrant labor. And as a result, this reality really made immigration restriction unpopular policy for capitalists and business owners.

[Music fades]

three older Chinese men wearing hats stand outside and look straight ahead with serious expressions
From left: Wong Fook, Lee Chao and Ging Cui in Ogden, Utah, during a 1919 parade to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the completion of the transcontinental railroad. In most cases, immigration was provoked by a combination of impoverishment, the lack of opportunities or political instability at home, says Hirota. In China, for example, there was overpopulation, and the country suffered a series of defeats in wars with European powers, and in part because of that, there was high taxation by the government.  These situations led to the deterioration of people’s social and economic conditions, and stimulated immigration to foreign countries, especially the U.S.
San Francisco Public Library

Narration: Although a lot is known about how the transcontinental railroad was constructed and its role in Westward expansion, says Hirota, very little is known about the everyday lives of the laborers who made the railroad possible.

Hidetaka Hirota: There is a logistical problem in citing the subject. In general, historical sources, documents on immigrant workers are very limited. You can definitely get access to records of railroad companies that employed immigrant workers, but when it comes to the materials produced by the immigrants themselves, that information is limited, sadly. We’re not talking about the kinds of immigrants who constantly wrote in diaries about everything in their lives.

Narration: In recent years, though, there has been a new emphasis on reframing the narrative to include the perspectives, contributions and struggles of railroad workers, not only in scholarship, but in the arts.

Stanford University’s Chinese Railroad Workers in North America Project recovered Chinese railroad worker history with the help of hundreds of scholars, students and volunteers from around the world.

Alexander Craghead, a Berkeley professor of American studies and one of the nation’s preeminent railroad scholars, co-edited the 2022 book Continuity & Change: The Lure of North American Railroads, which “explores the photography of contemporary railroading in North America and the passage of time.”

And on Friday, Nov. 17, UC Berkeley’s Cal Performances is presenting American Railroad by Silkroad Ensemble

[Music: “Far Down Far” by Silkroad Ensemble]

The performance tells the stories of the many communities who built the transcontinental railroad by weaving together elements of their music and culture of the time and throughout history.

An ensemble of 10 musicians dressed in bright colorful clothing play instruments on stage
SilkRoad Ensemble was created in the late 1990s by cellist Yo-Yo Ma to bring together musicians from all over the world, bridging Asia, Europe, Africa and the Middle East. Their current project, American Railroad, highlights the stories of the communities who built the U.S. transcontinental railroad. The tour will include three new commissioned works by pipa player Wu Man, jazz artist Cécile McLorin Salvant and Native musician Suzanne Kite, as well as new arrangements by Giddens and ensemble members Haruka Fujii and Maeve Gilchrist.
Adam Gurczak

[Music fades]

Kauro Watanabe: My name is Kauro Watanabe. I first started working with Silkroad Ensemble off and on around 2008. My instruments are the Japanese drums and the Japanese flutes.

Narration: The Grammy Award-winning Silkroad Ensemble was created in the late 1990s by cellist Yo-Yo Ma to bring together musicians from all over the world, bridging Asia, Europe, Africa and the Middle East.

Kauro Watanabe: The idea was even though people had different languages and traditions, musical styles, concepts of rhythm and melody and tuning, these musicians can work together, creating new harmonies and new vocabularies in which to have conversations, musical conversations.

Narration: Their current project, American Railroad, was conceived by artistic director Rhiannon Giddens, who joined the ensemble in 2020. Giddens is a celebrated vocalist, banjoist and fiddle player; a Pulitzer Prize winner and two-time Grammy winner; and a MacArthur Fellow.

photo of a person with long dark red hair stands holding her banjo looking directly into the camera
American Railroad was conceived by Silkroad Ensemble’s artistic director Rhiannon Giddens, who joined the group in 2020. Giddens is a celebrated vocalist, banjoist and fiddle player; a Pulitzer Prize winner and two-time Grammy winner; and a MacArthur Fellow.
Francesco Turrisi and Ebru Yildiz

Kauro Watanabe: The idea is to tell the history of America, of how we went from pre-Europeans coming over and Indigenous people being here. And then, how this influx of immigrants from all over the world and enslaved people being brought in and how that changed the landscape, both the actual (landscape), but also the emotional and cultural landscape of America. And how many people have benefited greatly from the advent of the American railroad, but how many people, their lives were completely destroyed, whole communities and whole peoples were destroyed, their livelihoods and their lives taken from them.

So it’s a sort of celebration of how the world shifted and a celebration of the people who sacrificed, whether on their own terms or who were made to sacrifice, in order for us to be where we are today.

[Music: “Far Down Far” by Silkroad Ensemble]

Narration: For the project, Silkroad Ensemble members traveled around the country and spoke with scholars, historians and musicologists, as well as musicians and composers, to learn the stories of the people whose lives were shaped, often in heartbreaking ways, in the name of American progress.

[Music fades]

From there, ensemble members and outside composers created new songs inspired by the narratives and history and music of the time, while also infusing the songs with their own experiences and esthetics.

Kauro Watanabe: As an artist, as a musician, I try to put my mind and my body into those states and try to imagine what those experiences were like.

When I was in Bennington, Arkansas, we did a project, we were speaking with a local historian there, and she was telling us about what are called hobo signs. They’re these signs that migrant workers, when they were jumping on and off of trains, would scratch into the back of another sign or on the side of a wall of a building.

And these signs were visible from the train and would tell other folks a message — and the message could be “Beware of dog,” or “Danger: Do not get off the train,” or “There is work and food available here,” or “There’s medical care available here.” You know, these simple circles and lines and dots and jagged lines. Simple messages, but they would be messages given from one to another. So when we were down there, we did a song where we improvised off of these signs.

Photo of a person with short hair playing large drums and a flute at the same time
Silkroad Ensemble member Kauro Watanabe plays the Japanese drums and the Japanese flutes. “(American Railroad) is a celebration of how the world shifted and a celebration of the people who sacrificed, whether on their own terms or who were made to sacrifice, in order for us to be where we are today,” he says.
Max Whittaker

And so we went through, like, three or four signs. And the first sign was “Beware of dog.” And so we did an improvisation of “Beware of dog.” And we played with the audience, and we had the audience look and try to, you know, interpret it in their own way. And we talked about what the signs meant and who was doing it and when that was happening.

And so the idea of, again, looking at these artifacts and hearing these narratives and interpreting them in our own way has been a really exciting process.

Narration: Watanabe, who went to a conservatory for Black American jazz and whose parents are Western classical musicians from Japan, says that within each musician in Silkroad Ensemble, there are so many different musical backgrounds and cultures percolating and brewing together.

Kauro Watanabe: Whether it’s a Chinese pipa player or a banjo player from North Carolina or a … in the ensemble, we have Lebanese oud players, we have balafon players from Ghana. So we have musicians from all over the world. And stylistically, you’ll hear elements of music from all around the world.

The idea of voice, both literal and metaphorical, is very important to Silkroad Ensemble.

[Music: “Tamping” by Silkroad Ensemble]

The voice of the instruments, the voice of the singers in the group. And so how these voices can come together in harmony without having their own essences diminished. So we’re celebrating the essence of each individual voice, while coming together.

[Music fades]

a person with long wavy brown hair stands in a filed of purple wild flowers
Suzanne Kite, an Oglala Lakota musician, scholar and artist, wrote a song for American Railroad called “Wíhaŋblapi Mázačhaŋku,” which means “Railroad Dreams.” To create the composition, Kite had members of the ensemble write down their dreams that had to do with the concept of railroad. Then, she used designer Sadie Red Wing’s Lakota shape kit to translate the dreams into this Lakota geometric language. Finally, she worked with another designer to create a graphic score, a representation of music through the use of visual symbols outside the realm of traditional music notation.
Thatcher Keats

Narration: After the transcontinental railroad was completed in 1869, the Chinese and others who worked on the railroad stayed in the U.S. They continued to work on the rails, building more networks and maintaining existing rails, and they entered other sectors, like manufacturing and agriculture. Their populations grew, and they became part of American society.

a black-and-white photo of three Chinese railroad workers on a handcar with a white man in a top hat standing next to them
Chinese railroad workers ride on a Southern Pacific Railroad handcar near Lang, California, in 1876. Although the transcontinental railroad was completed in 1869, laborers worked into the early 20th century expanding the railroad networks and maintaining the existing rails. That’s when Japanese and Mexican immigrants joined the national effort.
Los Angeles Public Library

Hirota says that the experiences of Chinese railroad workers have shaped the way we discuss immigration today, including undocumented immigration, immigration reform and perception of immigrants. And this tension — this American dilemma of wanting the cheap labor of immigrants, but not wanting them to make the U.S. their home — remains a contentious issue.

The contributions of the Chinese and other immigrant communities to the U.S., says Hirota, are immense. And he feels obligated to teach this history to his students.

I’m Anne Brice, and this is Berkeley Voices.

To learn more about Silkroad Ensemble’s American Railroad, and to see related events, visit Cal Performances’ website at There, you can also read more about the history of U.S. transcontinental railroad on its blog, Beyond the Stage.

Berkeley Voices is a Berkeley News podcast from the Office of Communications and Public Affairs at UC Berkeley. You can follow us wherever you get your podcasts. We also have another show, Berkeley Talks, which features lectures and conversations at Berkeley. You can find all of our podcast episodes with transcripts and photos on Berkeley News at


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