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Chinese Railroad Workers in North America Project, Stanford University

Between 1865 and 1869, thousands of Chinese migrants toiled at a grueling pace and in perilous working conditions to help construct America’s first Transcontinental Railroad. The Chinese Railroad Workers in North America Project seeks to give a voice to the Chinese migrants whose labor on the Transcontinental Railroad helped to shape the physical and social landscape of the American West. The Project coordinates research in North America and Asia in order to create an on-line digital archive available to all, along with books, digital visualizations, conferences and public events.

2015 marks the 150th anniversary of the introduction of large numbers of Chinese workers on the construction of the first transcontinental railway across North America. May 10, 2019 is the 150th anniversary of Leland Stanford’s driving the famous “golden spike” to connect the Central Pacific and Union Pacific at Promontory Summit, Utah, to complete the line. The labor of these Chinese workers (who eventually numbered between 10-12,000 at any one moment) was central to creating the wealth that Leland Stanford used to found Stanford University. But these workers have never received the attention they deserve. We know relatively little about their lives. What led them to come to the United States? What experiences did they have in their arduous work? How did they live their daily lives? What kinds of communities did they create? How did their work on the railroad change the lives of their families in China and how did it change the lives of the workers themselves, both those who returned to China or went elsewhere after the railroad’s completion and those who stayed in the U.S.?

We need to know how they contributed to shaping not just the physical but the social landscape of the West. The sesquicentennial anniversaries of the railroad’s construction and completion provide an unprecedented opportunity to launch a major evaluation of their experiences. Historians and other scholars in a range of disciplines in North America and in Asia are cooperating in locating new historical materials and developing a multi-disciplinary approach to understanding and appreciating this long neglected history. (Although the focus of the project is the Chinese railroad workers, the Project also opens out into the lives these individuals lived during the decades after the railroad was completed.) In addition to recovering an unjustly neglected chapter of history of special significance for Stanford University, this transnational, collaborative, multi-year research project will pioneer in modeling new ways of exploring the shared past of China and the United States.

The history of the Chinese in the U.S. from the nineteenth to early twentieth century is a transnational story that should be told from both U.S. and Chinese perspectives. The possibilities that the digitization of archives opens up will allow us to explore a range of issues involving the Chinese in America from both U.S. and Chinese vantage points. The Chinese Railroad Workers Project will produce a body of scholarship based on new materials and resources that will be the most authoritative study on the Chinese railroad worker experience in America. It will culminate in (1) an online multi-lingual digital archive of historical materials, oral histories of families of descendants, collections of visual images, material objects, art work, and more; (2) conferences at Stanford and in Asia; (3) the publication of volumes containing the produced scholarship, along with digital visualizations and other media to present the story of the Chinese railroad workers.


Donner Summit, California

Principal Investigator:

Barbara L. Voss

Current Research Interests: 
I am a historical archaeologist who studies the dynamics and outcomes of transnational cultural encounters: How did diverse groups of people, who previously had little knowledge of each other, navigate the challenges and opportunities of abrupt and sustained interactions caused by colonialism, conflict, and migration? I approach this question through fine-grained, site-specific investigations coupled with broad-scale comparative and collaborative research programs. My earlier work investigated Spanish colonization of the Americas, an area of research that I continue to be involved in.
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