Working Conditions for Railroad Workers in the 1800’s

This blog will take a look into the working conditions experienced by railroad workers. In order to provide a more concise and accurate analysis, immigrant workers will be the main topic of discussion in this blog. Set in the 1800’s, immigrants were not granted the same respect and rights as their American counterparts. This post is going to dive into why they were not granted these same rights as well as how their environment affected the nature of the work, as well as their conditions. In addition to analyzing the nature of their work and how harsh it was, an analysis of how this effected the environment around them should also be taken into consideration.

The Need for Railroad Expansion

Due to high tourism demand, railroad expansion was of immediate need. Travel by railroad was the most popular mode of transportation during the mid 1800’s. In order to make transportation all the way to the western United States possible, a continental railroad needed to be built. What would follow would lead groups of immigrants to work in life threatening conditions in order to accomplish a goal that would make country wide travel a dream come true.

Chinese Immigrants and the Transcontinental Railroad

One of the most notable examples of harsh working conditions stems from the construction of the transcontinental railroad. Dating back to the early 1860’s, the transcontinental railroad was a railway that would eventually connect the west to the rest of the United States. The project took approximately six years to complete, while relying predominantly on the help of Irish and Chinese immigrants. The majority of these ethnic groups emigrated into America in order to escape poverty and social inequality that plagued their home countries. During this time period, the gold rush in California lead to a massive influx of immigrants with the hope of wealth. Once the rush had ended, many of these immigrants performed other jobs in order to survive. One of those jobs was working on the transcontinental railroad under the Central Pacific Railroad Company.

During this time there was widespread prejudice over hiring ethnic groups. What enticed these companies to hire these immigrants was the fact that they were willing to work in harmful and dangerous areas for extremely low pay. Much like the motives behind during the Industrial Revolution, businesses wanted to achieve maximum profit and minimum cost. This idea came to fruition from the implementation of immigrant labor. Below is a payroll record sheet from Union Pacific. Although it may be hard to see, upon further analysis it was determined that their pay was significantly less than their counterparts.

Payroll Records for Chinese Immigrants

Aside  from the political, social and economic reasons why these laborers were faced with hardship, their mistreatment stems from years of existing prejudice and marginalization. Much like in today’s society, the issue over immigration is still widely disputed. Whenever a group of individuals immigrate into a country, they are immediately faced with adversity. In terms of the Chinese railroad workers, they came to the states in search of work, and found it in the mines of California. Once the gold rush had concluded, the immigrants went in search of work. Americans felt that the Chinese, among other ethnic groups, were taking jobs from other Americans. This created widespread aggression among the Chinese. Even though these railroad companies would eventually hire these immigrants, a lot of prejudice was projected onto these them as a result of the public’s growing annoyance and intolerance for immigrants.

Life on the Tracks

Life for laborers working for the Union Pacific Line was extremely treacherous. Daily work consisted of the use of explosives to break through boulders and mountains. In a first hand account, a Chinese laborer discussed the sheer horror associated with working for the Union Pacific Line: “Twenty charges were placed and ignited, but only eighteen blasts went off. However, the white foreman, thinking that all of the dynamite had gone off, ordered the Chinese workers to enter the cave to resume work. Just at that moment the remaining two charges suddenly exploded. Chinese bodies flew from the cave as if shot from a cannon. Blood and flesh were mixed in a horrible mess. On this occasion about ten or twenty workers were killed.” Incidents such as this were daily occurrences on the railroad construction sites. Immigrants continued to work despite the low pay and devastating working conditions.

Additionally, racial prejudice and suspicion lingered among the Chinese. Their white colleagues were entitled to certain company policies that did not apply to their counterparts. Caucasian railway workers were entitled to higher wages as well as meals and shelter. The Chinese were not compensated for any of these basic human needs. Workers had to find their own food and tents and in some cases, slept in the underground tunnels they were working on.

Chinese immigrant working in the Sierra Nevada

Without the work of these immigrants on the Transcontinental Railroad, it would cease to exist. The discrimination and marginalization of the Chinese would only get worse in the coming years. Laws prohibiting them from voting and becoming citizens only heightened the already existing prejudice in the United States. Luckily, our environment has changed in such a way that has decreased the marginalization of minorities in the United States.


  • Judy Yung, Gordon H. Chang, and Him Mark Lai, eds., Chinese American Voices: From the Gold Rush to the Present (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2006), 40-41 (December 1, 2017).
  • United States Citizenship, Chinese Immigration and the Transcontinental Railroad. Website. (December 1, 2017).
  • Central Pacific Railroad Photographic History Museum, Transcontinental Railroad History. Website. (December 1, 2017).
  • California State Railroad Museum. Central Pacific Railroad Payroll Records. Letter. (December 1, 2017).



3 Replies to “Working Conditions for Railroad Workers in the 1800’s”

  1. Although, those tyrants that treated these Chinese men so brutally unfair are all dead, their progeny exists. If, God chooses, to punish their future generations for the outlandish barbarism, toward these extremely hardworking and desperate immigrants it would be only true justice deserving and prevailing .

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