The Opening Up of America

“From sea to shining sea.” These are part of the lyrics to America the Beautiful. Until 1869, there was no easy way to cross America and go from sea to shining sea. Asa Whitney (a distant relative of Eli Whitney) was one of the first persons to support a transcontinental railroad. He believed that such a railroad would open up trade with Asia. He spent considerable time and effort promoting his idea and searching for a feasible route. He was unsuccessful but inspired others.

Theodore Judah, a civil engineer by training, found investors in California and formed the Central Pacific Railroad (CPRR). He also located the best route to cross over the Sierra Nevada Mountains. Then he convinced Congress and President Lincoln to appropriate funds for construction. At the same time, the Union Pacific Railroad would build from east to west.

Construction of the railroad through the mountains was the most challenging task in completing the railroad. It was projected that the construction of the railroad through the mountains would take 4,000 workers but only 800 were found. Initially, the crews were Irish immigrants, but they proved to be unsatisfactory. When the Irish demanded higher wages, they were replaced with Chinese workers.

Initially, there was great resentment between the two groups of immigrants. It didn’t take long for the Chinese workers to far surpass the Irish in work ethic and productivity. Eventually, over 12,000 were hired.

In spite of the work output of the Chinese, they did not receive the same pay as the Irish. In addition, they had to pay for their living arrangements and food when the Irish did not.

The Chinese were brought to America by Chinese trading companies who smuggled them into the country. The trading companies continued to demand a part of the immigrants’ wages after they arrived. As a result, the Chinese workers were essentially slaves. Weighing an average of just 120 pounds and standing less than five-feet tall, they did what was thought to be impossible using only hand tools to remove the rock from the mountain pass. An estimated 1,500 Chinese workers would die.

Just imagine how much of America has been shaped by those who came to this country from other places. Our nation still depends on their labor in vast segments of our economy. When we measure our gross domestic product, it would be interesting to assess how much of that measure can be attributed to our immigrant workforce in making us America the Beautiful.

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“Everywhere immigrants have enriched and strengthened the future of American life.”– John F. Kennedy

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