Friday, August 30, 2019

CPRR Through Nevada & Utah by Zina Abbott

On an earlier blog post, which you may find by CLICKING HERE, I talked about the Chinese laborers who worked years grading, using explosives, and building track for the Central Pacific Railroad through the Sierra Nevada Mountains—a construction feat many engineers of the 1800s said could not be done.

August 28, 1867 – The Sierra Nevada Mountains were finally "conquered" by the Central Pacific Railroad, after almost five years of sustained construction effort by its mainly Chinese crew about 10,000 strong, with the successful completion at Donner Pass of its 1,659-foot (506 m) Tunnel #6 (a.k.a. the "Summit Tunnel").

December 1, 1867 - Central Pacific opened to Summit of the Sierra Nevada for a total of 105 miles.

June 18, 1868 - The first passenger train crosses the Sierra Nevada to Lake's Crossing (modern day Reno, Nevada) at the eastern foot of the Sierra in Nevada.

However, the CPRR did not stop at eastern foot of these mountains.  The year 1868 was one of feverish activity for both railroads. Two years earlier, the Central Pacific has successfully lobbied Congress to add an additional Amendment to the Railroad Act. The CPRR was no longer bound by a 150 mile limit from the California border, and the companies were permitted to grade 300 miles ahead of the end of track with the meeting point still undetermined.
Last remaining passenger car at Promontory Summit, May 10, 1869. Note the terrain.
The two railroad companies—Central Pacific RR and Union Pacific RR—could draw two-thirds of the government bonds as soon as the grade had been completed and before the track was laid. Congress had utilized the power of competition within the free enterprise system to speed construction. Both railroads took advantage of this provision. Once they reached the Promontory Mountains in Utah, they both kept grading track while they passed each other, sometimes within shouting distance. For the sake of the money involved, they probably would have continue building until they reached the opposite oceans if some sane heads in Washington D.C. had not called a stop to the travesty and insisted on a central meeting place.

Once they reached the relatively flat country of Nevada, Charles Crocker, the CPRR construction manager, announced a construction goal of a mile of track every working day. The route ahead was over a terrain that offered none of the difficulties encountered in the mountains, and the "mile-a-day" push went into high gear. Over 10,000 employees responded with almost superhuman effort. Approximately six thousand horses sped the work along. Canvas towns sprang up as the railhead was pushed steadily eastward. On October 1, 1868, the line reached Winnemucca, 325 miles from Sacramento.
End of track taken in 1868 in Nevada
They continued through the territories of Nevada and Utah. From 1865 to 1869, as many as 20,000 Chinese laborers worked on the Central Pacific Railroad, which ran from Sacramento to Promontory Summit, Utah.
Construction train in Alkali desert - ctsy of Union Pacific RR Museum, Ogden, Utah
I did not find a lot of information about the work effort through this region. What I know from traveling along Interstate I-80 which pretty much follows the route of the railroad tracks (as well as the earlier California Trail and the First Continental Telegraph) is that there is a whole lot of desert and very little water or vegetation other than scrubby sage in places. Out of necessity because the railroad needed water for its steam engines, the track was laid as close to water sources as possible.

Railroad in Nevada 2018, early summer after an exceptionally wet spring

Chinese Railroad Workers
Because of discrimination, the tens of thousands of Chinese workers—at one point constituting over 80% of Central Pacific's workforce (some estimate as much as 90%)—have been mostly forgotten, despite their contribution to an enormous feat of civil engineering and the terrible hardships they endured. While the Irish workers were paid $35 per month and provided housing, the Chinese were only paid at first $27 and then $30 per month but not provided housing. All of this in spite of the freezing temperatures, avalanches, and the dangers of their work that cost perhaps thousands of their lives. The Chinese workers likely put up with these injustices because many of them had come from Guangdong Province in China, which at the time was stricken with poverty and political upheaval. To them, laying tracks for the transcontinental railroad might have seemed a better place to be than back home.

Although originally, there was speculation that the Chinese were too small in stature to make good rail workers, this group proved all the nay-sayers wrong. The Chinese took daily sponge baths. Since they drank only tea made from boiled water, they were not subject to the diseases caused by drinking from contaminated streams and lakes. Young Chinese employees carried tea to the workers by means of yokes over their shoulders with clean recycled powder kegs hanging from each end. Thus, their tea was known as “powder tea.”

They also had their own cooks, and their healthful provisions were purchased from Chinese merchants. While the Americans dined on boiled beef and potatoes, beans, and coffee, the Chinese ate a variety of food, including oysters, fish, abalone, Oriental fruits, and scores of vegetables, including bamboo sprouts, seaweed, and mushrooms. Although they used opium on Sundays, they did not drink alcohol and returned to work on Mondays free of the hangovers that plagued their American counterparts. As a whole, the Chinese remained healthy.
Chinese Railroad Workers
Unfortunately, even though the Chinese workers had been essential to the success of building the Central Pacific Railroad, the owners and managers had no more respect or consideration for these laborers than most Americans. Once the railroad was completed, the workers were dismissed from employment without provisions to transport them back to California. They were forced to make their own way.

(Author’s note: Many of them chose to stay in Utah, even working their way down to Salt Lake City and probably points south. While perusing the microfilm of the early Salt Lake County death records for death and burial information on my great-great grandparents as well as other family members, I noticed several entries over the decades for single Chinese men who had found work in the county.)

I found this interesting personal story in Museum Memories, Volume 1, published by the Daughters of Utah Pioneers:

Nearly all of the Chinese laborers saved money while working for the Central Pacific. Some returned to China with their savings, and other settled in California where they raised families and became an integral part of the population.

Frank Woo said that his great-grandfather saved almost every cent that he earned while employed by the railroad and took it home to China. While working in Nevada and Utah, he raised chickens which were able to live off the land. Woo traded eggs for rice and other foods. He improved his diet by eating red berries from the wolfberry plant, which was indigenous to the Great Basin. He understood herbal medicine and knew the pharmaceutical properties of native plants. For example, he used dandelions to heal bruises. He obtained unclaimed clothing from his buddies who were doing laundry for the construction crews.

CPRR Locomotives

Until the completion of the Transcontinental Railroad and the Central Pacific Railroad's opening of its own shops, all locomotives had to be purchased by builders in the northeastern U.S. The engines had to be dismantled, loaded on a ship, which would embark on a four-month journey that went around South America's Cape Horn until arriving in Sacramento where the locomotives would be unloaded, re-assembled, and placed in service.
Governor Stanford 4-4-0 locomotive
The Central Pacific's first three locomotives were of the then common 4-4-0 type. With the start of the American Civil War in the East, the CPRR had difficulty acquiring engines from eastern builders. What was available to them were the smaller 4-2-4 or 4-2-2 models. 

CPRR#113 FALCON, a Danforth 4-4-0, at Argenta, Nevada, March 1, 1869 (Photo: J.B. Silvis)
Locomotives at the time came from many manufacturers, such as Cooke, Schenectady, Mason, Rogers, Danforth, Norris, Booth, and McKay & Aldus, among others. The railroad had been on rather unfriendly terms with the Baldwin Locomotive Works, one of the more well-known firms. It is not clear as to the cause of this dispute, though some attribute it to the builder insisting on cash payment (though this has yet to be verified), which was particularly difficult until after the line had been built to a point where the railroad qualified for the Federal grant money.

The CPRR eventually purchased 53 miles of UPRR-built grade from Promontory Summit to Ogden, Utah Territory, which became the interchange point between trains of the two roads. 

Escape from Gold Mountain will initially be offered on more than one vendor. The release day is scheduled for September 4, 2019. It is currently on a pre-order sale on both Amazon and Barnes & Noble. On September 5th, the book will move to its regular ebook price. If you are a Nook reader, the book will only be available for Nook purchase for a short time before it will be offered digitally exclusively on Amazon and in the Kindle Unlimited program.

The book will also be offered in print format and will continue to be offered for sale as a paperback on both vendors.

Here are the purchase links:


Museum Memories, Volume 1 (Salt Lake City, Utah: International Daughters of Utah Pioneers, 2009), Pgs. 404-407.


  1. Wow so much history! So interesting also!
    Linda Marie Finn

  2. Very interesting indeed, you make History fun to learn Zina and I Thank you for that, I have learned so much Thanks to you. Lots of nice pictures also. God Bless you.

  3. Looking forward to reading "Escape!" Love the depth of your research.

  4. Zina, great in-depth article requiring extensive research! 2019 marks the 150 anniversary of the completion of the transcontinental railroad and driving in that last spike in the tracks designated by a golden spike, with many celebrations planned throughout this year. I hope to get up to Utah soon to participate in some of the events planned at the historical park.


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