Railroads Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

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.RailroadsFrontier;railroadsRailroadsFrontier;railroads[cat]TRANSPORTATION;Railroads[cat]LABOR;Railroads

Most of the early railroad workers were German immigrants;and railroads[railroads]German and Irish immigrants;and railroads[railroads]Irish immigrants, nationalities that accounted for nearly 75 percent of all immigration between 1845 and 1860. Indeed, Irish workers became so common on the railroads and suffered so many fatal injuries that the saying “There is an Irishman buried under every tie” became a common expression. Many of these workers were recruited by agents working for the railroads in the large port cities of the East Coast and in New Orleans;labor recruitingNew Orleans. Initially, there was little effort to recruit workers in Europe.

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.

Transcontinental Railroad<index-term><primary>Transcontinental railroad</primary></index-term>

In 1862, Congress passed the [a]Pacific Railroad Act of 1862Pacific Railroad Act, which authorized construction of a railroad stretching across the western United States. Two companies built this line. The Union Pacific RailroadUnion Pacific started building its lines at Omaha, Nebraska,Nebraska;railroads and worked its way west. The Central Pacific built eastward from California;railroadsSacramento, California;and transcontinental railroad[transcontinental railroad]Sacramento, California. Little construction was done until after the Civil War ended in 1865. The first transcontinental line was completed in May, 1869, when the Union Pacific and Central Pacific lines were joined at Utah;and transcontinental railroad[transcontinental railroad]Promontory Point in northern Utah. Both railroads used large numbers of immigrant workers. The Union Pacific’s labor force included many Civil War veterans, some former slaves, and many immigrants from Germany, Italy, and, most notably, Ireland. It is estimated that between 8,000 and 10,000immigrants worked on the Union Pacific lines.

At the California;railroadsCalifornia end of the railroad, maintaining a constant supply of labor was a continual problem. Although the state’s gold rush was essentially over by the 1860’s, prospecting still attracted interest in California. Whenever word of new mining strikes came, many railroad workers abandoned their jobs and headed for the mining fields. Eventually, the Chinese immigrants;railroad workersCentral Pacific decided to employ Chinese workers. At first, it hired Chinese men who were already living in California, many of whom had come to prospect and work in the gold mines. Later, the company began recruiting workers in China. Eventually, about 6,000 Chinese worked for the Central Pacific. Many Americans initially doubted the ability of the Chinese to do heavy labor because of their small stature and because of general American racial prejudices against Asians. However, the Chinese proved to be capable, hard workers who quickly learned new skills. Because they often drank tea made with water purified by boiling and ate more healthful diets of food they purchased and prepared themselves, they avoided many of the illnesses that plagued other workers on the line.

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 Cornish immigrantsfaces. Cornish miners from Great Britain were imported to direct this work, in which progress was sometimes measured in inches per day. It was expected that the experienced miners would be able to do this specialized work more efficiently than the Chinese, Chinese immigrants;railroad workersbut the latter soon proved otherwise, and the Cornish workers were paid off and sent home.

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 Union Pacific Railroad;land grantsUnion Pacific and Central Pacific, were finished in 1883. These included the Northern Pacific RailroadNorthern Pacific, from Lake Superior to the Pacific coast, through Washington Territory; the Southern Pacific RailroadSouthern Pacific, from New Orleans to Los Angeles, California; and the Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe, from Kansas City, MissouriKansas City, Missouri, along much of the old Santa Fe TrailSanta Fe Trail and then westward to California;railroadsCalifornia. In 1893, the Great Northern RailroadGreat Northern was completed on a line roughly paralleling the Northern Pacific but about one hundred miles farther north. The Great Northern, however, did not receive a federal land grant.

Immigrant Workers

The experience of immigrant railroad workers illustrates two common themes in American immigration history: Chain migration;and railroad workers[railroad workers]chain migration and ethnic succession. Chain migration occurred when immigrants came, found work and settled in communities, and then encouraged others from their homelands to join them in America. In this way, ethnic neighborhoods grew up among railroad workers in many large cities, and whole new communities were created by immigrant settlers throughout the West.

EthnicEthnic successionsuccession describes the process whereby native-born workers and earlier immigrants gradually moved up to better-paying jobs, and the places they vacated on the lower levels of the economic ladder were taken by newer immigrants. During the late nineteenth century, observers often noted that Italian immigrants;railroad workersItalian laborers had largely supplanted the Irish workers in railroad construction and track maintenance jobs. One New York labor agency that specialized in placing railroad workers reported that 75 percent of the workers it was placing on railroads in the north central states around 1900 were Italian immigrants.

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 Greek immigrants;railroad workersGreece, Bulgarian immigrantsBulgaria, and Austria to the Great Northern RailroadGreat Northern and Northern Pacific RailroadNorthern Pacific railroads. In the Pacific Northwest, the railroads also hired large numbers of Asian workers.

Illustration from an August, 1869, issue of Harper’s Weekly depicting the completion of the Pacific Railroad, which employed large numbers of Chinese workers.

(Library of Congress)

In 1882, Chinese immigrants;railroad workersthe Northern Pacific employed 15,000 Chinese workers on its line in Washington States;railroadsWashington Territory, and another 6,000 worked in Idaho;railroadsIdaho and Montana;railroadsMontana territories. During the early twentieth century, the Great Northern, the Northern Pacific, and several other lines in the Pacific Northwest employed about 13,000 Japanese immigrants;railroad workersJapanese workers. These Asian workers faced considerable discrimination and were generally paid less than other workers. The railroad labor pay scales were highest for native-born white workers, slightly less for European immigrants, and still less for Asians, Mexicans, and African Americans. When the railroad work was finished and the Asian workers began looking for work in the cities of the West Coast, they excited much anti-Asian prejudice and concerns over the “flooding” of the job market. In the Southwest, the Southern Pacific RailroadSouthern Pacific railroad and the Santa Feemployed many Hispanic workers, both American-born and Mexican immigrants, during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.

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.

Lifestyles of the Railroad Workers

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 Labor unions;railroad workersunionize along craft lines. These craft unions showed little interest in trying to organize or represent the unskilled immigrant workers.

Immigrant Transportation and Travel

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, Minnesota;Scandinavian immigrantsMinnesota, and the North DakotaSouth DakotaDakotas; the Germans from Russia in the Plains states; and the Russian Mennonites;KansasMennonites who settled along the Santa Fe Railroad in KansasKansas, contributed greatly to the economic development and ethnic diversity of the West and the North Centralstates.RailroadsFrontier;railroads

Further Reading
  • 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.


Chain migration

Chinese immigrants


History of immigration, 1783-1891

Irish immigrants

Italian immigrants

Mexican immigrants

Transportation of immigrants

Categories: History