Chinese Men Built the Railroad to Modesto

After they completed the transcontinental railroad in May 1869 and the Western Pacific Railroad from Sacramento to the Oakland Pier in November 1869, the crews of Chinese graders, track layers, carpenters, masons, blacksmiths, and cooks then moved back and forth working on both the California and Oregon Railroad and the San Joaquin Valley Railroad to Modesto. These were the men who did the major share of hard work building the rail line from Wilson’s Station, now called Lathrop, to Modesto in 1870.

A map of their route for the San Joaquin Valley Railroad was first mentioned in a letter from Edwin Crocker to Collis Huntington on February 3, 1868 (1). In the letter, he says that the railroad had been secretly organized to build a line through the San Joaquin Valley to the Kern River. Two days later, the railroad was incorporated (2).

By June 1869, the survey of the route was completed (3) and in November 1869, surveys for the bridges over the Stanislaus and Tuolumne Rivers were underway (4).  The January 21, 1870 Sacramento Daily Union reported that more than 800 Chinese laborers were working on the San Joaquin Valley Railroad near Wilson’s Station. They were supervised by James Strobridge, Superintendent of Construction. Strobridge had world-wide fame for supervising the Central Pacific Railroad portion of the transcontinental railroad. By February 18th, the Chinese crews had reached the Stanislaus River near where Ripon is today (5). Strobridge’s Camp, as they were referred to, then moved to work on the California and Oregon Railroad (6). For their back-breaking efforts, the Tuolumne City News of June 17, 1870, reported that they were paid twenty-one dollars a month and they had to provide for their own meals.

On August 22, 1870, the San Joaquin Valley Railroad and the California and Oregon Railroad merged into the Central Pacific Railroad Company (7). Soon after, on September 6, 1870, the Marysville Daily Appeal reported that a special train of 35 cars under conductor and engineer William Sippy had left the California and Oregon line to resume work on the San Joaquin Valley line. The Tuolumne City News of September 16, 1870, reported that a crew of 100 Chinese workers had started grading on the south side of the Stanislaus River.

Bancroft’s New Map of Central California, 1871
When Modesto was the end of the line.

On October 16, 1870, the Marysville Daily Appeal quotes the following, “The San Joaquin Republican, of October 11th, gives this intelligence: The people of Stanislaus county were awakened yesterday by the scream of the iron horse, for the first time upon their own soil, a train having crossed the bridge over the Stanislaus river at that time.” On the 27th, the first trainload of wheat was shipped from the town of Ralston directly to Oakland. By October 28th, the Chinese crews were moving back to the Sacramento Valley to work on the California and Oregon line (8). Their work of building the railroad to Modesto was done.

Read more about the Chinese railroad workers at Stanford University’s Chinese Railroad Workers Project https://web.stanford.edu/group/chineserailroad/cgi-bin/website/

Notes:

  1. Crocker to Huntington, February 3, 1868, Series I, Box 1, Huntington Papers, Bird Library, Syracuse University
  2. Sacramento Daily Union, volume 34, #5260, February 6, 1868, page 2, accessed May 8, 2020, California Digital Newspaper Collection, https://cdnc.ucr.edu/?a=d&d=SDU18680206&e
  3. Daily Alta, volume 21, #7025, June 13, 1869, page 2, accessed May 8, 2020, California Digital Newspaper Collection, https://cdnc.ucr.edu/?a=d&d=DAC18690613.2.34.4&e
  4.  Sacramento Daily Union, volume 38, #5820, November 22, 1869, page 2, accessed May 8, 2020, California Digital Newspaper Collection, https://cdnc.ucr.edu/?a=d&d=SDU18691122.2.10&srpos=6&e=
  5. Stockton Independent, volume 18, #16, February 18, 1870, page 3, accessed May 8, 2020, California Digital Newspaper Collection, https://cdnc.ucr.edu/?a=d&d=SDI18700218.2.13&srpos=12&e=  
  6. Sacramento Daily Union, volume 38, #5917, March 15, 1870, page 3, accessed May 8, 2020, California Digital Newspaper Collection, https://cdnc.ucr.edu/?a=d&d=SDU18700315.2.16&srpos=1&e
  7. To the Bond Holders of the Central and Western Pacific Railroad Companies, January 2, 1871, page 8, accessed May 8, 2020. http://cprr.org/Museum/Books/I_ACCEPT_the_User_Agreement/Digitized_by_Google/Bondholders_CPRR-WPRR_1871
  8. Marysville Daily Appeal, volume 22, #93, October 30, 1870, page 3, accessed May 8, 2020, California Digital Newspaper Collection, https://cdnc.ucr.edu/?a=d&d=MDA18701030.2.14&srpos=5&e