Central Pacific

Key Figures

The Central Pacific Railroad Company was founded in 1861 by the engineer Theodore Dehone Judah. Four California merchants, Leland Stanford, Collis P. Huntington, Charles Crocker, and Mark Hopkins (who became known as the California "Big Four") provided financial backing for the company. These men "envisioned an immensely profitable railway that would connect the western frontier to eastern trade" ("Central Pacific Railroad").

Big Four

However, the Big Four halted construction in 1863 and waited for additional government funds. Judah, on his way to New York seeking additional financing for the company, contracted yellow fever on a voyage through the Isthmus of Panama and died in 1863 at the age of 37. After additional government subsidies and land grants tied to mileage of completed tack, the Big Four resumed building the railroad ("Central Pacific Railroad").


The Central Pacific started building east from Sacramento, California.

Central Pacific Route

All together, Central Pacific built 690 miles of track from California to Utah ("Railroad Industry").


Central Pacific employed primarily Chinese immigrant workers to lay the actual railroad track. In 1865, Central Pacific hired a group of 50 Chinese workers and "found them to be quick, dedicated, reliable workers able to successfully complete all the various tasks of construction" ("Chinese Transcontinental Railroad Workers"). By 1867, Chinese workers represented 80 to 90 percent of the Central Pacific Railroad workforce.

Chinese Workers Greeting a Train Chinese Workers in the Sierra Nevada Chinese Laborers in the Sierra Nevada

A typical work week consisted of six 12 hour days. Interestingly, the Chinese workers never drank plain water. Instead, they only drank warm tea. Since the tea water was boiled, the "Chinese did not get the illnesses caused by unsanitary water that affected many other workers" ("Chinese Transcontinental Railroad Workers").

The Chinese laborers were paid approximately $26 to $35 a month, had to buy their own food, and lived separately from the other railroad workers. On the other hand, the Irish railroad workers were usually paid $35 a month and were provided food.

"The greater portion of the laborers employed by us are Chinese…. Without them it would be impossible to complete the western portion of this great national enterprise, within the time required by the Acts of Congress." - Leland Stanford.
CP work crew CP workers

No one knows how many Chinese workers died building the transcontinental railroad. Most reports suggest there were more than one thousand Chinese deaths (some estimates range up to two thousand deaths). Some historians, however, "believe these numbers were greatly exaggerated and maintain that as few as one hundred Chinese workers died during the construction of the railroad." ("Chinese Transcontinental Railroad Workers").