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On Promontory Summit

On Promontory Summit, 32 miles northwest of Brigham City, Utah, stand two gleaming locomotives face to face. One of them is Central Pacific Railroad #60, or more famously the Jupiter. By a tremendous stroke of luck, it met with Union Pacific No. 119 at this site on May 10, 1869, when the rails spanning the entire North American continent were finally joined (Driving the Last Spike — Transcontinental Railroad – Golden Spike Ceremony).

Jupiter is a wood-burning, 4-4-0 steam locomotive— the most common type of locomotive in America. Railroad Gazette even identified it as the "American" type in 1872 (“Jupiter, Steam Locomotive”). The reproduced Jupiter today, faithful to the original within 1/4 inch and "gleaming in blue and crimson with gold" (Horse of a Different Color – Golden Spike National Historic Site (U.S. National Park Service)), is breathtakingly beautiful. Yet despite the elaborate Victorian workmanship and paintwork, which took a team of engineers four years to recreate on the replica, the original Jupiter was a generic, mass-produced piece of machinery built by New York’s Schenectady Locomotive Works in September 1868. It had three identical sisters that looked: Storm, Whirlwind, and Leviathan. In a span of six months, they were all completed, then dismantled from their frames, packed up, sailed around the tip of South America to San Francisco, put on a river barge, sent to Central Pacific headquarters, reassembled, and finally commissioned into service on March 20, 1869 (Everlasting Steam).

Around this time, something else had also traveled by ocean to California’s shores: nearly fifty thousand Chinese immigrants had arrived (Takaki 180). The number may seem insignificant compared with the population of four hundred million of Qing China, where prior to 1868 forbade emigration and made it punishable to death (Liu 202). Yet it already constitutes 9% of the California population. One-quarter of them, 12,000, were hired by Central Pacific, representing 90% of their workforce. At $28 per month, the Chinese built the company’s half of the Transcontinental Railroad, providing skilled labor, toiling in severe weather, receiving meager wages and risking their lives (CHINESE-AMERICAN CONTRIBUTION TO TRANSCONTINENTAL RAILROAD). Towards May of the same year, they were about to complete the last segment of the railroad and meet with Union Pacific’s tracks. Most of the Chinese laborers had been shunned to the west to improve certain parts of the line. However, eight of them remained to lay down the last ten miles of track, which was accomplished in less than 12 hours, a feat described by Southern Pacific Bulletin as "A Railroad Record That Defies Defeat" (A Railroad Record That Defies Defeat: How Central Pacific Laid Ten Miles of Track in One Day Back in 1869). Chinese laborers quite literally paved the way for Jupiter to arrive at Promontory Summit, where a special ceremony would celebrate the historic "wedding of the rails" (“Ceremony at ‘Wedding of the Rails,’ May 10, 1869 at Promontory Point, Utah”).

No one could have imagined that the honor of representing Central Pacific at the historic ceremony to fall on Jupiter, a locomotive less than two months into service. Yet the actions of Chinese workers turned the fortunes for Jupiter an unexpected way. Leland Stanford originally chose Central Pacific 173, the legendary locomotive Antelope, to pull his special train. Days before the ceremony, as Antelope was passing through a new mountain cut the Chinese workmen were clearing, it hit a huge log that the workmen had rolled down on the rails. Not being derailed but in no condition to attend the ceremony, it limped to the next station, and its cars were coupled to the train next to it: Jupiter (Everlasting Steam).

On top of Promontory Summit, both Jupiter and Chinese workers experienced the peak of their respective careers working for Central Pacific. Jupiter pulled Leland Stanford’s train to the ceremony, its name forever recorded in the history of American development. After Stanford placed a golden final spike into a pre-drilled hole, the spirit was high (Driving the Last Spike — Transcontinental Railroad – Golden Spike Ceremony). The Chinese, who had always been treated mercilessly, suddenly became appreciated. Central Pacific Director, Judge Edwin Bryant Crocker commended the hard work of the Chinese:

I wish to call to your minds that the early completion of this railroad we have built has been in large measure due to that poor, despised class of laborers called the Chinese, to the fidelity and industry they have shown. (HISTORY OF THE CHINESE IN CALIFORNIA)

J.H. Strobridge, the Superintendent of Construction, even invited the Chinese on site to dinner in his car:

"J.H. Strobridge, when the work was all over, invited the Chinese who had been brought over from Victory for that purpose, to dine at his boarding car. When they entered, all the guests and officers present cheered them as the chosen representatives of the race which have greatly helped to build the road … a tribute they well deserved and which evidently gave them much pleasure." (The Chinese at Promontory, Utah, April 30 – May 10, 1869)

But after this bright, triumphant moment, the life of both Jupiter and Chinese laborers went downward. Jupiter continued service as a Central Pacific passenger locomotive. Bafflingly, no one recognized its historical importance. After being sold to multiple railroads, it was eventually sold to scrapers for $1,000 (Everlasting Steam). The Chinese hardly fared better. After the job of railroad construction ended, thousands of them moved to San Francisco, hoping to work in the industries (Takaki 182). However, with the rise of anti-Chinese riots by unemployed whites, the Chinese lost the opportunity to work in many fields. A Chinese immigrant recollected:

Men of other nationalities who are jealous of the Chinese have raised such a great outcry about Chinese cheap labor that they have shut him out of working on farms or in factories or building railroads or making streets or digging sewers… (Takaki 185)

Finally, with the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, America had completely, officially shut the door to them, and a golden age of opportunities for Chinese laborers in the "gold mountains" across the sea had ended (Chinese Immigration and the Chinese Exclusion Acts).

By luck and by fate, Jupiter met the Chinese on top of the Promontory Summit, yet they left as quickly as they had met. Eventually, the tracks on the site of the ceremony, laid down by the Chinese and driven upon by Jupiter, were salvaged for war effort in 1942 (Golden Spike National Historic Site). On the other hand, the ceremonial spike was carefully recovered and cherished at Stanford University, along with Leland Stanford’s name (Driving the Last Spike — Transcontinental Railroad – Golden Spike Ceremony). Nothing from Jupiter remained, and nothing remained to tell the story of the nameless Chinese worker had hammered in the last iron spike that completed the railroad. But through a few written records shine on the brief intersection of their fates, and help us separate the facts of the West from the fiction.

Freelance Writer

I’m a freelance writer with a bachelor’s degree in Journalism from Boston University. My work has been featured in publications like the L.A. Times, U.S. News and World Report, Farther Finance, Teen Vogue, Grammarly, The Startup, Mashable, Insider, Forbes, Writer (formerly Qordoba), MarketWatch, CNBC, and USA Today, among others.