Main content start

The Chinese Railroad Workers in North America Project

Stanford’s American Studies Program has been the home of The Chinese Railroad Workers in North America Project at Stanford since its inception in 2012.  

The wealth that enabled Leland Stanford to found Stanford University was, to a large extent, the result of his being an owner of the Central Pacific Railroad, the Western portion of the first Transcontinental Railroad across the United States.  Ninety percent of the ten to fifteen thousand workers who built the railroad, completed in 1869, came from China. Their key place in American history and in the history of Stanford University was never fully acknowledged before this Project was undertaken. Indeed, at the 100th anniversary of the completion of the railroad in 1969, the role of the Chinese in its construction was almost completely ignored. The Chinese Railroad Workers in North America Project was created to ensure that the place of the Chinese in this chapter of the past not be ignored ever again.  

The story the Project wanted to tell involved breaking from the dominant national narrative of the epic rise of the United States in the mid- and late 19th century and embracing instead a story of trans-Pacific connections, of the intertwined social, business, and political histories of China and the United States.  It is a story of the Chinese “diaspora”—of the overseas Chinese—as well as a story of Asian American and Western American history.  Since still—even today—no textual material generated by any Chinese railroad worker on the transcontinental line has been found, either in the United States or China, the Project had to employ creative methodologies and interpretive approaches  and develop new ways of both exploring and presenting this challenging chapter of the past.

Co-directed by American Studies faculty members Gordon H. Chang and Shelley Fisher Fishkin, this bold, multi-disciplinary, multi-lingual, transnational research project has involved over a hundred scholars from around the world, and has  engaged more than four dozen students as research assistants. The Project has helped students develop and hone research skills in fields that include American Studies, History, Anthropology, Archaeology, Literature, Art, Education, Translation Studies, Ethnic Studies, Religious Studies, Folklore, and Digital Humanities.

The Project yielded a broad range of publications in English and Chinese, including a number of books published in both the US and Asia, foremost of which is The Chinese and the Iron Road: Building the Transcontinental Railroad, edited by Gordon H Chang and Shelley Fisher Fishkin, with Hilton Obenzinger and Roland Hsu.  

The Project also produced a special issue of the journal Historical Archaeology, edited by Stanford faculty member Barbara L. Voss, the Archaeology Director of the Project; a Digital Visualization of the construction of the Central Pacific Railroad;  a series of Web Exclusive Essays by scholars in North America and Asia; a Curriculum Guide for teachers; an exhaustive bibliography of primary and secondary sources;  an open-access digital archive of Oral History interviews with over forty descendants of Chinese who participated in building the Central Pacific Railroad; and a Digital Materials Repository of rare, non-digitized and underutilized privately held materials digitized by the Project to enrich historical analysis in the future.  The Project was also responsible for organizing an award-winning, bilingual traveling historical and photographic exhibit that traveled to venues including Boston City Hall and the Utah State Capital; public libraries in California, Ohio, Michigan and Utah; colleges and universities in California, Massachusetts, and Jiangmen, China; and museums in Sacramento, Fremont, Danville, and Beijing.  The project also yielded multiple public events at Stanford for scholars, the Chinese American community, and descendants of the Chinese railroad workers. 

The publications, exhibits, and other research produced by the Project received extensive press coverage in the US and Asia between 2012 and 2020. 

As of September 1, 2020 the Project is no longer active, but the website will continue to be available as a resource for the public, for scholars, and for students.  

Visit the Chinese Railroad Workers Project website