Yesterday, we could see Hell on Wheels season 5 premiere. Great! Cullen Bohannon (actor Anson Mount) is working on the Central Pacific now. He moved to the west looking for his wife Naomi and son. However, he has found a new atmosphere, maybe more exotic but for sure, much more unfamiliar for a Southern gentleman turned into an engineer (sometimes railroad pawn).
After the war years in the 1860s, the building of the transcontinental railroad, one of the biggest projects in US history, tried to connect the prospering east with the still wild west. Hell on Wheels season 1 began in 1865 shortly after the assassination of Abraham Lincoln. Season 2 covered 1866, and seasons 3 and 4 1867.
However, the exact number of Chinese who worked on the railroad from 1864 to 1869 is unknown, because records are incomplete. The railroad did not list most individual Chinese workers by name but by crews under the name of their headmen.
The Central Pacific hired the first Chinese workers in 1864. At the beginning of 1865, they were convinced that Chinese workers were capable, and the railroad hired about one hundred. The following quote is absolutely interesting:
“A large majority of the white laboring class on the Pacific Coast find most profitable and congenial employment in mining and agricultural pursuits, than in railroad work. The greater portion of the laborers employed by us are Chinese, who constitute a large element of the population of California. 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 reporting to Congress in 1865.
Historians estimate that in 1867, about 8,000 Chinese were working on the construction of tunnels (like Cullen Bohannon) and 3000 were laying track. They represent ninety percent of the workforce. Most of them were born in China, especially in the poor Canton, and ships regularly brought extra workers throughout the construction. Thus, they didn’t speak English and didn’t know Western culture.
Alexander Saxton, in “The Army of Canton in the High Sierra,” calculates that Chinese labor cost the railroad companies two thirds of what was paid to white workers. On June 25, 1867 Chinese workers went on violent strike.
Thus, the cultural gap was important. They had other religion, ate other foods, and drank tea and hot water with occasional wine and opium (never whiskey). In addition, Chinese in their contracts insisted that a Chinese physician (acupuncture) be in the vicinity.
A strange world for Cullen Bohannon, full of new challenges. Hell on Wheels season 5 rocks!
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