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Immigration, Railroads, and the West

Cover, California. State Board of Trade. California: Early History, Commercial Position, Climate, Scenery, Forests...[1897]
Cover, California. State Board of Trade.
California: Early History, Commercial Position,
Climate, Scenery, Forests...
, [1897].

The history of immigration and emigration in the United States is closely linked to the history of railroads. Immigrants were not only integral to the construction of the transcontinental railroads that facilitated western expansion, but they also used the railroad to migrate west and to form new immigrant settlements in western states and territories.

Work on the first transcontinental railroad began after President Abraham Lincoln approved the Pacific Railway Act of 1862, a landmark law that authorized the federal government to financially back the construction of a transcontinental railroad. Due to the American Civil War, work was delayed for several years. By 1866, however, the great race was on between the Central Pacific Railroad, which was charged with laying track eastward from Sacramento, and the Union Pacific Railroad, which started laying track westward from Omaha, to see which railroad company could lay the most miles of railroad track before the two railroad lines joined up. Because the federal government subsidized at least $16,000 for each mile of railroad laid as well as generous land grants along the track, each company had a strong financial incentive to lay track as quickly as possible.

This massive work could never have been completed without Chinese and Irish laborers, who comprised the bulk of the workforce. Chinese laborers were brought in by the Central Pacific Railroad in large numbers. Indeed, by the height of the construction effort in 1868, over 12,000 Chinese immigrants were employed, comprising about 80 percent of the Central Pacific's workforce.

The work ethic of the Chinese impressed James Strobridge, the foreman of construction, as did their willingness to do the dangerous work of blasting areas for track in the treacherous Sierra Nevada, an effort that cost some Chinese laborers their lives. Chinese workers even helped lay a record ten miles of track in just twelve hours, shortly before the railroad was completed. The Chinese dedication to the Central Pacific was even more impressive in light of the racial discrimination they experienced. California law prevented them from obtaining full citizenship, but still mandated that they pay taxes to the state of California. In addition, the Chinese were paid only $27 a month (later rising to $30 a month), significantly less than the $35 a month that Irish laborers on the Central Pacific earned for doing the same work.

The Union Pacific was built primarily by Irish laborers from the Eastern Seaboard who were veterans of the Union and Confederate armies during the Civil War. Mormons also supplied labor, due to their desire to see the railroad pass near to Salt Lake City, and thereby to incorporate heavily Mormon Utah into the rest of the country. Although the Irish did not suffer from the same kind of racial discrimination as the Chinese did on the Central Pacific, they were still paid relatively little for hard work in dangerous territory. Irish laborers were killed by Native American war parties, who attacked laborers and construction parties for their efforts to build a railroad that Native Americans believed threatened the continued existence of their culture and violated treaties granted by the US government.

Between 1865 and 1869, the Central Pacific had laid 690 miles of track and the Union Pacific 1,087 miles of track. The meeting of the two railroads and the completion of the first transcontinental railroad at Promontory Summit, Utah, on May 10, 1869, was a major national achievement that could not have occurred without immigrant laborers.

After the first transcontinental railroad was completed, immigrants who entered the US at immigration checkpoints on the Eastern Seaboard such as Ellis Island began using the train system to migrate west. In fact, the railroad companies themselves promoted such plans, because increased population in the west meant more business for railroads. One vivid example of this phenomenon is in Kansas, where the marketing campaign of railroads led to the influx of European, Russian, Mexican, and African immigrants only a decade after murderous conflicts in "bloody Kansas" had presaged the American Civil War. Railroads, then, were the means by which the population of western states increased dramatically due to the creation of new immigrant settlements and the westward migration of native-born Americans.

Immigration to the US Resources

Listed below are digital resources from the Immigration to the US collection about, or related to, immigration, railroads, and the West. These resources represent only a selection of what exists on these topics. More physical materials on these topics may be available at the owning repositories, some of which are open to the public.

Materials Published by the Railroads to Attract Immigrants to the West

Sunset. San Francisco, Calif.: Passenger Department., Southern Pacific Co., 1898-.

[Replying to Your Inquiry in Regard to Free Land in Montana.] St. Paul, Minnesota: Great Northern Railway Company, Office of General Immigration Agent, 1913.

Materials Published About Specific States to Attract Immigrants to the West

All About California: and the Inducements to Settle There, 6th Ed. San Francisco, California: California Immigrant Union, 1873.

600,000 Akkers Ijzerenweg Landen te Verkoopen in de Beroemde Yazoo Delta van Mississippi : en Toehoorende aan de Yazoo & Mississippi Valley R.R. Cie. Chicago: [s.n.], 189-.

Bureau of Immigration of the Territory of New Mexico. Luna County, New Mexico: One of the Leading Stock and Range Sections of the Southwest, a Heavy Mineral Producer and a Railroad Center. Sante Fe, New Mexico: J.S. Duncan, public printer, 1903.

California. State Board of Trade. California: Early History, Commercial Position, Climate, Scenery, Forests, General Resources, Irrigation, Mining, Agriculture, Horticulture, Olive Culture, Citrus Culture, the Sugar Beet, Raisin Growing, Transportation, Fruit Canning, Dairying, Poultry Raising, Floriculture, Live Stock, Sheep Husbandry, Forage Plants, Education, Religion, Political Status, Immigration, California and the Insane, Lick Observatory, San Francisco Statistical, Gold Production, Land Values. San Francisco, Calif.: California State Board of Trade, 1897.

Giles, Harry F., Compiler. Homeseeker's Guide to the State of Washington. Olympia: F.M. Lamborn, public printer, 1914.

Oregon. State Immigration Commission. The State of Oregon, Its Resources and Opportunities: Official Pamphlet Published for the Information of Homeseekers, Settlers and Investors. Salem, Or.: State Immigration Commission, 1912-15

Plain Facts About Dawson County, Montana: A Good Home at Small Cost: Some Free Homesteads Still to be Had. Minneapolis, Minn.: Reed and Smith, 1910.

Tenney, E.P. Colorado and Homes in the New West. Boston, Mass.: Lee and Shephard, 1880.

Materials on the History and Development of the Railroads

Gates, Paul Wallace. The Illinois Central Railroad and Its Colonization Work. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1934.

Moody, John. The Railroad Builders: A Chronicle of the Welding of the States. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1921.

Materials on the Populations of the West

David, Hughes. Welsh People of California, 1849-1906. San Francisco: [s.n.], c. 1923.

Japanese Immigration and the Japanese in California San Francisco: California Farmers Co-operative Association, c. 1920

Millis, Harry A. Japanese and Other Immigrant Races in the Pacific Coast and Rocky Mountain States, Presented by Mr. Dillingham. Washington : G.P.O., 1911.

Quigley, Hugh. The Irish Race in California and on the Pacific Coast: With an Introductory Historical Dissertation on the Principal Races of Mankind, and a Vocabulary of Ancient and Modern Irish Family Names. San Francisco: A. Roman & Co., 1878.

Emigrants' and Travelers' Guides

Baird, Robert. View of the Valley of the Mississippi, or, The Emigrant's and Traveller's Guide to the West: Containing a General Description of that Entire Country, and Also, Notices of the Soil, Productions, Rivers, and Other Channels of Intercourse and Trade, and Likewise of the Cities and Towns, Progress of Education, &c. of Each State and Territory. Philadelphia: H.S. Tanner, 1832.

Blowe, Daniel. A Geographical, Historical, Commercial, and Agricultural View of the United States of America: Forming a Complete Emigrant's Directory through Every Part of the Republic, Particularising the States of Kentucky, Tennessee, Ohio, Indiana, Mississippi, Louisiana, and Illinois. London: Edwards & Knibb, 1820.

Colton, J. H. Colton's Traveler and Tourist's Guide-book Through the Western States and Territories: Containing Brief Descriptions of Each, with the Routes and Distances on the Great Lines of Travel: Accompanied by a Map Exhibiting the Township Lines of the U.S. Surveys, the Boundaries of Counties, Position of Cities, Villages, Settlements, etc. New York: J.H. Colton and Co., 1855.

Lippincott's General Guide for Settlers in the United States: With Authentic Descriptions, from Official Sources, of the Climate, Soil, Products, Cost of Lands, Wages of Labour, Cost of Living, and Prices of Farm Animals as Products, in the Western and Southwestern States and Territories, and in Virginia, and of the Best Routes to and the Cost of Reaching the Districts Described 2nd Ed. Philadelphia: J.B. Lippincott & Co., 1876.

Parker, Nathan Howe. Parker's Illustrated Hand Book of the Great West: A Record of Statistics and Facts, with Practical Suggestions for Immigrants as to Profitable Investment of Labor & Capital in Industrial Pursuits in the Great West New York: American News Co., 1869.

Other Resources

Listed below are web sites about, or related to, immigration, railroads, and the West. These resources are listed to point users to further information outside the context of the Immigration to the US collection. The Open Collections Program and Harvard University bear no responsibility for the contents of these web sites. This list is not intended to be comprehensive.