Chinese Railroad Workers Teacher’s Workshop

By Chris Merritt, Ph.D., Utah Division of State History and Erin Huber, Visual Artist, West Lake STEM Junior High 

The Tanner Humanities Center at the University of Utah hosted a week-long teacher’s workshop (as part of their Gateway to Learning Educator Workshops program) for educators in honor of the 150th anniversary of the completion of the Transcontinental Railroad. Using lesson plans and course material created for this momentous event and now hosted free for everyone on the Utah Education Network website, Chris Merritt of the Utah Division of State History instructed 22 teachers and educators on the history and archaeology of the Chinese railroad workers who contributed to the Transcontinental Railroad’s construction and maintenance.  

During the week, we provided educators with a deep dive of information on the historical context of China in the 19th century, the role of the Chinese railroad workers before and after May 10, 1869, hands-on material culture activities to understand the unique expression of Chinese culture found still on the railroad, the impact of the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, and ultimately a field visit to Golden Spike National Historical Park to see these landscapes in person. 

As part of the wrap-up, Merritt asked Erin Huber, an educator from West Lake STEM Junior High and a participant in the workshop, to share her thoughts on the workshop. Huber writes:  

“This was a very eye-opening class to the truth behind the construction on the Central Pacific Railway on the Transcontinental Railroad.  Another unseen class of people, the Chinese, were INSTRUMENTAL in its construction, not only going through the harshest conditions of the Sierra Nevada Mountain Range in the summer and winter and creating monumental earthworks, but through discrimination by the rest of U.S. population through The Exclusion Act in 1882.   

The instructor of this class was very knowledgeable, bringing in authentic artifacts left by the Chinese workers and taking the class on a field trip to see actual sites of railway construction off the beaten path of Promontory Summit. 

As I vacationed this year to Lake Tahoe and San Francisco, he was constantly on the look-out for evidence of the Central Pacific Railway. I traveled through cities on the original railway such as Elko, Carlin and, of course, where it all started, San Francisco, as well as drove through the towering Sierra Nevada Mountain Range.  It was very exciting to see history come to life!” 

The Utah Division of State History hopes to continue the strong partnership with Tanner Humanities Center and find other ways to create teacher workshops for a variety of important topics in Utah, national, and international history. We want to extend a big thanks to the educators who shared in this adventure and offered us so much great advice, and also a thanks to Luciano Marzulli and Beth James at the Tanner Humanities Center for such a great and well-organized adventure.  

Photo: A group shot of the educators who participated in the 2019 Tanner Humanities workshop on the Chinese Railroad Workers of the Transcontinental Railroad. This photo is taken at the Golden Spike National Historical Park and beyond the participants is the “Big Fill” (left) and the remaining abutments for the “Big Trestle”, both built in 1869. Photo by Chris Merritt.