Descendants of the Chinese workers who built the Central Pacific Railroad portion of the Transcontinental Railroad celebrate at the 2019 kickoff sesquicentennial celebration. 

Guess we should be happy there weren't a bunch of Scott "I hate trains" Walker acolytes around in the 1860s, because if there were, we wouldn't be celebrating the 150th anniversary of the completion of the Transcontinental Railroad this year.

It was on May 20, 1869, that the Central Pacific — headed east constructing track — and the Union Pacific, headed west — met at Promontory Summit, Utah, and with great hoopla pounded in the "Golden Spike," opening a new era in U.S. transportation. The news was spread by a one-word telegram — "Done."

Considering that the United States was embroiled in a devastating Civil War, it was remarkable that President Abraham Lincoln saw fit to sign the Pacific Railroad Act in 1862 to give the two railroads financial inducements to build the railroad not only over the western prairies, but tunneling and bridging through the dangerous and unyielding mountains, for the first time opening a fast and economical connection to the West Coast.

There have been numerous celebrations this year to commemorate one of America's most significant infrastructure breakthroughs, including bringing replicas of the steam locomotives back — UP's No. 119 and CP's No. 60 Jupiter — to recreate their meeting at Promontory 150 years ago.

That meeting produced one of the most iconic historical pictures in our nation's history: the locomotives nose-to-nose, the CEOs of the two railroads shaking hands in the foreground while throngs of bearded crewmen with whiskey bottles in hand posing on the engines and alongside them.

The building of the railroad was a race between the two rail giants, and has been chronicled in many books and articles since. My favorite is the late Steven Ambrose's "Nothing Like It in the World," although his account was found to contain some made-up "facts."

The National Parks magazine this month was interested in another "fact" that was missing from that iconic picture. It fails to tell the complete story of the enormous accomplishment. None of the 20,000 or so Chinese immigrants who had been hired for their cheap labor and had risked their lives to blast granite and break through the Sierra Nevada by hand are in the picture.

That record, the magazine points out, is being corrected at Golden Spike National Park's museum, which tells the story of the transcontinental railroad at nearby Promontory Summit in Utah and includes that golden spike that was removed and replaced with an ordinary one shortly after the ceremony.

An American journalist, Corky Lee, who was offended by the photo when he first saw it in high school (he's 71 now), has worked through the years to gather descendants of those Chinese workers to commemorate their contribution to the historic event. They have gathered at Promontory through the years to recognize their ancestors' contributions to American history. It's estimated that up to 2,000 Chinese laborers perished while blasting tunnels and constructing bridges over rugged ravines.

Interestingly, it was only a few years after the railroad's completion that the U.S. government, responding to a wave of anti-Chinese sentiment in an increasingly xenophobic country, passed the "Chinese Exclusion Act" of 1882, for the first time significantly restricting U.S. immigration by race and class.

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Then, as now, many white Americans believed their jobs were in jeopardy thanks to unrestricted immigration.

Until the act was rescinded in 1943, only merchants, teachers, students and their servants were permitted to enter the U.S.

While there is much to celebrate 150 years after the pounding of the golden spike, the treatment of immigrants isn't one of them.

Dave Zweifel is editor emeritus of The Capital Times. dzweifel@madison.com608-252-6410 and on Twitter @DaveZweifel.  

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