Many of the canals, railroads, and other vast infrastructure projects of the early and mid-nineteenth century were built primarily by immigrant labor. As the rail lines were extended, immigrant workers created ethnic neighborhoods in many American cities and entirely new settlements in the West. After the Civil War, the federal government awarded to railroad corporations large grants of undeveloped land that was eventually parceled and sold to settlers, many of whom were immigrants.
When American railroad construction began during the early nineteenth century, the pool of unskilled native-born labor on which to draw was too small to meet the railroads’ needs. At that time, most Americans were farmers, and many urban workers were skilled craftsmen or artisans working in small shops. Consequently, the railroads, like the canals built in earlier years, were built primarily by immigrant labor.
Most of the early railroad workers were
As the railroads extended their lines across vast open spaces between big cities, workers typically lived in makeshift labor camps, and sometimes in railroad cars. Maintaining an adequate supply of workers in these remote places was a continuing challenge for the railroads.
In 1862, Congress passed the
Because the Central Pacific lines crossed rugged mountains, the company faced greater construction challenges than the Union Pacific, most of whose lines crossed relatively flat and featureless plains. As the Central Pacific line extended across the Sierra Nevada range in eastern California and western Nevada, numerous tunnels had to be cut, often through sheer rock
In addition to the Union Pacific and Central Pacific lines, four other railroads were built across the western United States during the late nineteenth century. Three lines, which received large land grants similar to those given to the
The experience of immigrant railroad workers illustrates two common themes in American immigration history:
As the western railroads were completed, they hired many recently arrived immigrants from southern and eastern Europe. The Western Employment Company had offices in several cities in north central and Pacific Northwest states, and it supplied thousands of workers from
Illustration from an August, 1869, issue of Harper’s Weekly depicting the completion of the Pacific Railroad, which employed large numbers of Chinese workers.
The western railroads that received large land grants from the federal government had great incentives to recruit settlers. The government made the grants with the idea that most of the land not actually needed for the railroad lines themselves would eventually be sold to settlers. The sales would pay for the construction of the railroads, and the settlers would develop the land. All the western railroad companies had active land departments that advertised widely throughout the eastern United States and in Europe for settlers to come and buy farms or start businesses in towns along the railroads. Recruitment of workers and recruitment of settlers often went hand in hand. Indeed, some people immigrated to work on the railroads with the goal of earning enough money to buy land and then bought railroad land and settled near the tracks.
Construction jobs on the railroads, especially through the northern parts of the country, were largely seasonal, as most work had to stop during winter months. One immigrant worker later recalled how the man who had recruited him had spoken of the big wages awaiting workers, while neglecting to mention they would not earn any money during winter months. Many railroad workers found additional work in other industries such as lumbering, or went south to work in agricultural jobs. Others, however, simply endured the hard winters while waiting for construction work to resume in the spring.
Construction work was largely seasonal, but maintenance of the tracks that had been laid went on year round, as did the repair of cars and locomotives and actual operation of the trains. Many construction workers who remained with the same companies for substantial lengths of time gradually moved into the more permanent jobs in maintenance and operations and then enjoyed steadier work schedules. Some moved into the actual operating service as conductors, firemen, and engineers. These positions were considered skilled jobs and were among the earliest to
Many immigrants who settled in the West were transported to their new homes by railroads. In addition to those who bought land directly from the railroads, many became homesteaders and bought their land directly from the federal government. Although these settlers did not buy railroad land, they represented potential future shippers who would eventually bring farms and ranches into production and use the railroads to carry their produce.
Every western railroad had a large operation aimed at recruiting settlers from Europe. Potential land buyers were given special rates, or sometimes free transportation, to inspect the lands available for purchase. Many railroads built hotels or reception houses to serve these potential land purchasers. Special rates were often given for “immigrant cars,” in which migrating families could transport everything they carried to their new homes. Most “new immigrants” of the post-Civil War era remained in the large cities of the East and the Midwest, but those who came specifically with the intention of going to the frontier to farm were the exceptions to this rule. These agrarian immigrant settlers, such as the Scandinavians in Iowa,
Ambrose, Stephen E. Nothing Like It in the World: The Men Who Built the Transcontinental Railroad, 1863-1869. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2000. Highly readable account by a renowned American historian of the building of the Union Pacific-Central Pacific line. Bain, David Haward. Empire Express: Building the First Transcontinental Railroad. New York: Penguin Books, 1999. Deeper than Ambrose’s book, this history of the transcontinental railroad is also extensively illustrated and has a full bibliography. Erickson, Charlotte. American Industry and the European Immigrant, 1860-1885. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1957. Excellent study of the employment of immigrant labor during the Civil War and postwar era. Michaud, Marie-Christine. From Steel Tracks to Gold-Paved Streets: The Italian Immigrants and the Railroad in the North Central States. New York: Center for Migration Studies, 2005. Excellent regional study of Italian railroad workers in upper midwestern states. Ray, Kurt. New Roads, Canals, and Railroads in Early Nineteenth-Century America: The Transportation Revolution. New York: Rosen Publishing Group, 2004. Exploration of how new transportation systems opened the western frontier to settlement. Written for younger readers. White, W. Thomas. “Race, Ethnicity and Gender in the Railroad Work Force: The Case of the Far Northwest, 1883-1918.” Western Historical Quarterly 16, no. 3 (July, 1985): 265-283. Detailed regional study of the use of African Americans, immigrants, and women in the labor force in the Pacific Northwest during the period after the completion of the Northern Pacific and Great Northern railroads.
History of immigration, 1783-1891
Transportation of immigrants