Photo courtesy of Congresswoman Grace Meng's office
Congresswoman Grace Meng speaks at the opening of the exhibition display at the Smithsonian National Museum of American History on May 10.

On the 150th anniversary of the completion of the Transcontinental Railroad, Flushing Congresswoman Grace Meng helped launch a new display on May 10 at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History that pays tribute to the Chinese immigrant laborers who helped build the American railroad.

The display, “Forgotten Workers: Chinese Migrants and the Building of the Transcontinental Railroad,” as well as its companion display “The Transcontinental Railroad,” offers insight into the backbreaking labor that ultimately connected the Union Pacific and Central Pacific railroad companies at Promontory Summit, Utah, on May 10, 1869. 

The Transcontinental Railroad has long been considered one of the most remarkable engineering feats of the 19th century, said Meng. After its completion, the railroad reduced cross-country travel time from six months to a single week — facilitating a new era of commerce; bringing the country closer together in the aftermath of the Civil War; and unleashing the unlimited potential of the nation. 

Meng thanked the Smithsonian Museum for recognizing and bringing attention to the story of the Chinese railroad workers, as they celebrated their memory and a milestone of the railroad’s completion.

“Today marks the 150th anniversary of the completion of the Transcontinental Railroad that connected our nation, spurred economic growth, and unleashed the unlimited potential of our nation,” said Meng. “Less known to the American public are the enormous contributions made by Chinese immigrant laborers who toiled in extreme weather to lay down the literal foundations of our nation. Today, we honor their memory, sweat, blood, and labor, and we provide them with the recognition they deserve. I hope the contribution they made to our country are recognized and remembered by all Americans.”

Meng with Congressional Asian Pacific American Caucus (CAPAC) Chair Rep. Judy Chu (D-CA) and descendants of the Chinese railroad workers. (Photo courtesy of Meng’s office)

The displays at the Smithsonian Museum will run through spring 2020.

In February, Meng introduced a resolution that seeks the House of Representatives’ recognition of the Chinese railroad workers. The measure seeks to honor the sacrifices they made for the nation and recognize the important role they played in America’s history. The resolution is currently pending before the House Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure.

In her statement submitted to the Congressional Record on May 10, Meng noted the lack of acknowledgment for the nearly 12,000 Chinese immigrants who “endured both the arduous physical labor of constructing a railroad and the emotional trauma of being discriminated.”

“They were given the most difficult, dangerous jobs, and were paid lower wages than other workers,” Meng said in her statement. “While working in the Sierras, Chinese workers hung in baskets, 2,000 feet above raging rivers, to blast into the impenetrable granite mountain — to make way for laying the tracks.”

Despite those conditions, Meng said, the Chinese railroad workers were considered indispensable and were respected for their work ethic and discipline. Above all, the workers formed one of the first organized labor movements in the United States for better living wages and work conditions, which ultimately opened doors for future generations.

“I believe today’s celebration is not only about recognizing the many contributions the Asian American community has made — and continues to make — but it is also a step towards weaving the story of Asian Americans into the greater American tapestry,” said Meng. “I am thankful for the indelible mark they left in the growth of our nation—and hope their contributions are further honored for the next 150 years.”

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