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A Great Wave
It was the April of 1865 when I first arrived in America. I had departed from a small, cramped boat where hundreds of Chinese were forced into a tiny space. We had been hired by the Central Pacific, a company who needed diligent laborers to work on their new project-the Transcontinental Railroad. They had imported over 2000 of us because we did not complain and did not want to be paid over 30 dollars a month. I came to the United States to work. I had a wife, two daughters, and a newborn son. California seemed to offer me a chance to make sufficient wages to support my family and offer them a better life. I entered Sacramento at 28 years old. I was over 6,000 miles from my home, with high hopes and the smell of sea salt breeze swarming around me.
The day was sunny and hot, the usual climate in Sacramento. I did not notice the looks of disgust forming on the faces of the onlookers as I walked off the boat. My head was full of the bright sounds from the market place as citizens bargained for better prices of meat and vegetables. Suddenly, a missile hit me square in the jaw, leaving a thin trickle of blood gently rolling down my chin. I could see the rest of the Chinese men scrambling toward wagons where white men grabbed their braids pulling them down from the vehicle. Policemen watched with no intention of stopping the raging hoodlums throwing stones and shrieking insults at the top of their lungs. Their faces were contorted with hatred at our strange clothes and our shaven crowns. We were different from those tall, white men, and because of our outlandish clothing we would have to pay the price for daring to enter their country. I was a stranger in a hostile foreign land. The rules were to keep your head down, cause no trouble, and never ever surpass the white men in any task.
My name is Tao Shun. It means “great wave” and “obedience” in Chinese. I lived in Hong Kong for my entire life and I married my wife when I was 22 years old. I was a small farmer in the country and our family was very poor. Each year our crop would fail or our small cottage would need to be repaired. Our life was far from happy because my wife and I understood that our three small children would probably starve for most of the year. I needed to give my family a better life. The only way to accomplish that would be to work in another country where I had a chance to earn larger wages and pay off the debt of our failing farm. I then heard that Hong Kong was looking for 2000 able-bodied workers to be hired out to the Central Pacific in California. I decided to leave my family and begin work in a new and foreign country. I would come back to my loved ones when I had proven myself in the world and had the ability to fill my children’s bellies.
The Chinese camp for the Transcontinental Railroad was constructed of hundreds of small tents neighboring each other. We bought our clothes from a Chinese merchant, who would send us new clothing through the Central Pacific. We had to pay for our food and board, unlike white men, but at least we were given our native meal. Our diet consisted of bamboo sprouts, oysters, cuttlefish, oriental fruits and vegetables, seaweed and mushrooms, all prepared in peanut oil. We, the Chinese, always drank tea, which required boiling water. This drink prevented us from stomach ailments, which constantly haunted the white hands because they drank their water unpurified. The white laborers laughed at our odd drink because it was unusual, but if they had opened their minds they would have saved themselves a lot of trouble. Many times the white’s prejudice blinded them to situations that could have allowed them to prosper in ways they had never discovered.
James Harvey Strobridge was the thin thirty-seven-year old commander of field forces. He was over six feet tall and was always brimming with energy. Strobridge had a quick temper, but was an experienced railroad worker. Crocker, a founder of the Central Pacific, hired him after observing his excellent work on the Central Vermont Railway. Strobridge was a fair commander to our race. He made sure we had the food we asked for and that the white laborers did not bother us. We had gained his favor by working quickly and efficiently in any job that he asked us to do. In our camp, we valued cleanliness and everyone had to take hot water sponge baths before eating. Buckets were the only item that surrounded our shabby, green tents, and we used them to clean ourselves. The white laborers laughed at our spotlessness, saying we were like “perfumed women.” Strobridge liked our sanitation though and we were not bothered by the white workers rude remarks.
My race, the Chinese, had finally become a majority in the Central Pacific’s labor forces. The white laborers did not enjoy our rise in favor and had a secret meeting one night to attack us all and chase us out of the camp. Strobridge stopped this assembly by saying that there were only two options for the white laborers to consider. Number one was to stay and work peacefully with the Chinese; the second was for Strobridge to fire them all and just hire the Chinese. We never had to worry about attacks after Strobridge’s blunt speech to the white laborers. They did not like us, but they understood that our places had switched--they had become the unwanted field hands.
Our constant working had won us a place in the Central Pacific’s eyes. We were needed and that was probably the best event that occurred during our time on the Transcontinental Railroad. It meant that we were not a replacement for the missing white workers. We were our own recognized people.
Cape Horn was probably the most terrifying experience that I had to undergo while working on the railroad. The cliff was 4000 feet tall and hung over the American River. We were asked to work on it because our country had created gun powder, built beautiful temples on top of mountains and had constructed the Great Wall of China. The night before we began to form the huge rock, our camp spent the night weaving baskets three feet deep. I could feel Strobridge’s confusion as we asked him to import carts of reeds. It may be a strange method, but it has served in our country for generations. We stayed up creating reed baskets that were sturdy enough to support the weight of a man. We were preparing ourselves for the day that hung in the air like a suspended pendulum, heavy and silent.
The morning broke and we woke with the anticipation of the days’ events. I picked up my reed basket and made sure that the good luck symbols that I had painted on the night before were still clear and intact. The characters were supposed to ward off evil spirits. I prayed that they would accomplish their task. As my camp and I approached the monstrosity of a cliff, I could feel a sweat break out against my skin. The ledge seemed even more steep and severe than the day before. I promised my wife and children that I would come back to them with better fortune and I will. This thought in my mind I continued toward the cliff, creating a pact with myself that I would come out of this alive.
As I reached the other workers on the ledge I was assigned a team. Two other Chinese men were to be my hauling crew, which meant that I was to be the man in the basket. Out of the three of us I had the most dangerous job. I was dangling in a reed basket, 1000 feet up in the air, over the American River. I double checked my good luck symbols and began to load my basket with explosives. These were to be used to carve the great ledge, and were another peril that I had to add to my already dangerous lift. I climbed into the basket and nervously awaited my ride down. Other Chinese had already begun the descent and were beginning to chisel the rock. My hauling crew hooked two pieces of rope to either side of the basket and moved several paces away from the basket holding the end of the cord. I feel a sudden flow of nausea come over me. I could get out of the basket and refuse to be dangled 1000 feet in the air. I quickly waved that thought away, knowing that to give this ride up would send me right back to Hong Kong in shame and debt. The two men commenced to lower me down and I watch this process with growing unease. My body was past the ledge, then my arms, and finally I could no longer see the two men gradually lower me down the sharp rock. I could no longer decide to leave. I had to continue. There was no turning back.
I finally arrived at my carving spot and I pulled out the chisel at the bottom of my basket. The tricky part about this method of carving Cape Horn was timing. I was going to have to place an explosive inside the piece of rock I had chiseled, and before the explosive went off I would have to be pulled up out of harm’s way. I proceeded to make a finely shaped hole so that the dangerous explosive would fit. I then bent down and reached into my basket to take out one of the explosives. I signaled toward my hauling crew that I was about to light the dynamite. They nodded their heads and I lit the life-threatening tool. It went off and the whole basket shook with the force of it. The ropes swayed treacherously. Unprepared, I stumbled and fell toward the edge of my basket. I could feel my body being hurtled against the woven craft. I clutched the rim of my safe haven just before I plunged down into the depths. I had almost fallen 1000 feet into the American River. My whole life flashed before me and I suddenly felt like I was spinning as I looked at the dazzling height. I slowly pulled myself up. I felt a wave of exhaustion pass over me. Was it really worth it? Even for the money? I imagined my children smiling face full and rosy instead of gaunt with hunger. My wife would be in a new dress that didn’t have streaks of sweat and dirt in the lining. Yes, it was worth any danger if it meant happiness for my loved ones. I continued my task with new strength and determination. No mountain or cliff would defeat me. I would stand tall and make sure I would come back to my country with pride and promise swelled in my chest.
We finished molding the great cliff in the May of 1866, after months and months of backbreaking work. Many Chinese men died and I can still remember their screams of terror as their baskets exploded with the dynamite and they plummeted to their death, the splash of water echoing over the great stretch of rock. Strobridge was amazed that 1000 Chinamen could create a wide enough berth for a railroad track in such a perilous cliff. He praised them by saying they were the best workers in the world. As for myself, I was just grateful that I had survived the hazardous boulder. During my whole life at that one moment hanging over the American River, I have never been so close to death.
The perils of the construction of the Transcontinental Railroad were not over in the least though. We still had to tackle the tedious work of drilling tunnels in the Sierra Mountains, and survive the cruel winter to come. The first task was to build a tunnel in Mount Summit, a 7000-foot mountain. This was probably the most boring and unsatisfying work that I had done. We could stay up all night and have only progressed by a few inches. We needed a way to move faster and more efficiently, but how?
Strobridge discovered the answer by importing a dangerous explosive that was feared by any sensible crew. It was called nitroglycerin, and it was extremely sensitive. If exposed to heat or given a slight shove the whole carton would blow up. One importation meant for the Central Pacific had been kept in a warehouse and had accidently detonated and killed 12 people. Strobridge insisted on using it and hired a Scottish chemist to prepare the chemical for use. I was laying tracks down for the railroad one day when Strobridge strolled passed me. He had not known that the Scottish chemist had been conducting an experiment in the area until the bomb went off. Rubble flew throughout the region and hit Strobridge’s eye. He could not see out of that eye ever again and he was just one example of the terrible damage the explosive caused. I sometimes wondered why Strobridge ever chose such a risky way to shorten the time of the building the tunnel.
Even with the nitroglycerin, we were moving slowly. Crocker grew impatient and, for the winters of 1866-1867 and 1867-1868, the Chinese were forced to work on Summit Tunnel. I remember waking up to find my labor group’s cabin to be surrounded by snow. We had to build chimneys and create airshafts in the tunnels so we could breathe. Track- laying had to stop and all Chinese laborers were forced to chisel in the tunnel. We worked all day and night. The winter of 1866-1867 was awful and there were over 44 snowstorms in the mountains. My cramped, sparsely furnished cabin was the only protection to the dreaded cold outside. The cabin only had a few small beds, a small table with chairs, and wooden shelves to home several freezing men. The next winter was even worse, which was hard to believe. Crocker made us live in the dark tunnel and provisions had to be brought into the small space. The Chinese worked 12-hour shifts and I my fingers were always numb from the cold and constant hammering at the rock like steel. I was glad when after 13 months of hard work we finished the time-consuming, boring tunnel.
The last stretch of finishing the railroad was perhaps the easiest work, but still nothing to laugh at. Crocker wanted speed so that the promised money from the government would fall into his pocket. The more miles of track the Central Pacific laid down, the more money the company would receive from the government. The Union Pacific had been rapidly gaining mileage of track over the Great Plains and Crocker wanted to rival that. Each day we woke up early, and began lying track down on the flat ground of Nevada. We had to put one mile of track down a day to fulfill Crocker’s expectations. 800 men worked that exhausting, last half-year in Nevada. Each day I would work until the sweat poured down my body knowing that soon I would see my family once more and present them with my savings. In my spare time, I would collect small souvenirs to bring my children and count the days until I could go home.
On May 18, 1869 the Transcontinental Railroad was finished. The Central Pacific had laid 690 miles of track and the Union Pacific had created 1,085 miles of railway tracks. 1,200 Chinese men had been killed in this historic construction. They had either fallen off cliffs, been frozen to death, were buried alive or blown up. I feel pride in being able to say I built the Transcontinental of the United States. I can still remember distinctly coming off the boat in the California harbor, wearing a shirt with flowering sleeves, trousers, and a straw hat to shield my face from the sun. The crown of my head was shaven and I had a long thin braid down my back. I was ready to begin a new life for myself and produce a better one for my family. Overall one might say my years in the USA brought me little satisfaction and only a lot of stress. I would say, though, that I am grateful to the Central Pacific for teaching me to persevere and allowing me to be a part of a moment in the USA that would be part of their history forever.