The Archeology of Chinese Railroad Workers at Golden Spike National Historic Site

On May 10, 1869, during an elaborate ceremony at Promontory Summit in Utah, the “Golden Spike” was driven in and the nation’s first Transcontinental Railroad was completed. Newspapers of the time highlighted the corporate “race to Promontory” and technological advancement, and many acknowledged the significant contribution Chinese laborers made to the project. However, these were all second-hand accounts. The voices of the approximately 11,000 Chinese workers who labored on the Railroad faded or were left out entirely. Their day-to-day experiences help tell the full story of how this incredible engineering feat was accomplished.

Archeology, the scientific study of past humans, is one way those experiences can be recovered. The artifacts and features the Chinese laborers left behind have helped scholars understand much more about their daily lives working on the railroad. While the rails themselves were torn up in 1942 for WWII scrap iron, the Golden Spike National Historic Site preserves evidence directly connected to railroad construction, temporary workers’ camps, and the remains of the town of Promontory. This evidence includes changes made to the landscape such as grades, cut rock faces, fills, drill marks, trestles, culverts (drainage tunnels), and remnants of the telegraph system. These features help archeologists understand how workers used and moved throughout the landscape and testify to the immense amount of time and labor required to build the Transcontinental Railroad.

Railroad worker shelter (left) and archeological remains of a shelter (right).
Left: Photograph of sod-covered worker shelters at a railroad camp. Right: Archeological remains of a railroad worker shelter.

Homstad et al., Figs. 39 and 41

Archeologists have documented several workers’ camps. Many of these camps were located directly adjacent to graded land and laid rails. Workers occupied them temporarily while completing a single section of track. Archeological features include pit houses, lean-to and rock shelters, middens (trash deposits), and activity areas where specific tasks such as blacksmithing were performed. Using artifacts such as rice wine bottle pieces, rice bowl fragments, and utilitarian Chinese earthenware jars, archeologists have identified specific Chinese community areas within campsites. These communities enabled Chinese individuals to continue and strengthen their own traditions and identities, thereby combating the discrimination they faced from other railroad employees.

Archeologists have also analyzed more permanent settlements along the railroad including the town of Promontory. The town was originally formed as a workers’ tent camp in 1869 while the final section of the railroad was completed. After the final spike was driven in on May 10, the town functioned as a support station, complete with telegraph and ticket offices, businesses, and saloons. A variety of people occupied the town until its abandonment in 1942, including Chinese individuals who worked as railroad laborers, cooks, or small business owners.
Artifacts from Ten-Mile (Seco) Station.
Artifacts from Ten-Mile (Seco) station including a Chinese rice bowl.

Raymond and Fike, Fig. 69

Today, archeological evidence of the town’s important history include remains of wooden structures, middens and trash scatters, and the stone foundations of the railroad roundhouse (or maintenance shed). Machinery parts, coal and ash, and an oil can point to the industrial activities that occurred on the site, while tin cans, smoking pipes, and ceramic sherds are reminders of the many individuals who lived there. Like at the camp sites, some of these ceramic sherds are of Chinese origin.

When taken together, the archeological materials discussed above help uncover Chinese individuals’ experiences both during construction of the Transcontinental Railroad and directly afterwards. It is through archeology that these narratives can be restored to their rightful place within the historic record.


Resources

Homstad, Carla, Janene Caywood, and Peggy Nelson. Cultural Landscape Report: Golden Spike National Historic Site: Box Elder County, Utah. Cultural Resources Selections No. 16. Intermountain Region, National Park Service. 2000.

Merritt, Christopher W., Michael R. Polk, Kenneth P. Cannon, Michael Sheehan, Glenn Stelter, and Ray Kelsey. Rolling to the 150th: Sesquicentennial of the Transcontinental Railroad. In Utah Historical Quarterly 85 (4): 352-363.

National Park Service. Golden Spike National Historic Site: Box Elder County, Utah. Asian American and Pacific Islander Heritage Travel Itinerary.

National Park Service. Golden Spike National Historic Site.

Raymond, Anan S. and Richard E. Fike. Rails East to Promontory: The Utah Stations. Cultural Resource Series, No. 8. Bureau of Land Management. 1994.

Last updated: November 14, 2018