Monday, March 17, 2008

Nothing Like It in the World by Stephen E. Ambrose

This is such a disappointing read. I’ve read other Ambrose and have enjoyed it, but it seemed very much like he was phoning this one in from the couch. I should have been suspicious in the foreword when he profusely thanked his research assistants. It wouldn’t surprise me if they, in fact, did most of the writing. It was disjointed and in some place repetitive, as if the author didn’t always know what he had said in the last chapter. The national bestseller status I can understand, based solely on the strength of Ambrose’s reputation, but according to the back cover, Time magazine named it the #1 nonfiction book of the year. Must have been a pretty weak year. I got through it, probably because I was primarily interested in the subject matter—the building of the transcontinental railroad—and I wanted to learn as much as I could about it despite the dark glass I was being asked to peer through. Here are the three things I would like to retain:

1. The Chinese workers who built much of the Central Pacific line and the way they were treated by their American overseers.

There were in California at that time some sixty thousand Chinese, nearly all adults and the great proportion of them males. They had come for the same reason as the whites, to make money, first of all in the goldfields. But California law discriminated against them in every way possible, and the state did all it could to degrade them and deny them a decent livelihood. They were not allowed to work on the “Mother Lode.” To work the “tailing,” they had to pay a “miner’s tax,” a $4-per-head so-called permission tax, plus a $2 water tax. In addition, the Chinese had to pay a personal tax, a hospital tax, a $2 school tax, and a property tax. But they could not go to public school, they were denied citizenship, they could not vote, nor could they testify in court. Nevertheless, they paid more than $2 million in taxes. If Chinese dared to venture into a new mining area, the whites would set on them, beat them, rob them, sometimes kill them. Thus the saying, “Not a Chinaman’s chance.”

They were called “coolies,” a Hindu term meaning unskilled labor. The British picked it up and then passed it on to the Americans, who applied it to Chinese. The politicians cursed them, vied with one another about who hated the Chinese the most, declared them to be dregs, said they worried about the terrible habits the Chinese brought with them. One of the leaders in this ranting and raving was Governor Standford. While campaigning, he had called the Chinese the “dregs of Asia” and “that degraded race.” In 1858, the California legislature banned any further importations. Still they came.

* * * * * * * * * *

White men despised the Chinese even as they used them. They constantly compared the Chinese to another subordinate group, white women. The Chinese were small, with delicate hands and hairless faces and long, braided hair. One editor called them “half-made men,” which fit nicely with their two most common jobs, laundrymen and domestic servants. But the same editor referred to their “dreadful vitality.”

* * * * * * * * * *

After a month’s labor, Strobridge admitted, albeit grudgingly, that the Chinese had performed superbly. They worked as teams, took almost no breaks, learned how to blast away rocks, stayed healthy and on the job. Engineer Montague praised them and declared in his 1865 report, “The experiment has proven eminently successful.”

* * * * * * * * * *

Charlie Crocker claimed it was impossible to tell Chinese apart (they were just like Indians, he said). Thus, fearing paying double wages, he devised a scheme of employing, working, and paying them wholesale.

The CP organized the Chinese into gangs of twelve to twenty men, one of whom was an elected headman, another the cook. Crocker hired Sam Thayer, who spoke a number of Chinese dialects, to teach the men something of the English language. The headman collected all the wages, giving some to the cook to purchase provisions from the Chinese merchants. Other amounts went for clothing and opium. (The Chinese laborers used the drug on Sunday, their day off, to relax.) At the end of the month, each worker got his remaining $20 or more. Each gang had a white, usually Irish, boss, and the whites usually monopolized the skilled work, such as trestling, masonry, and actual rail-laying. The Chinese did the grading, made cuts and fills, blasted, felled trees, and, most arduous of all, drilled the holes and put in and lit the black powder while driving tunnels.

* * * * * * * * * *

One of the most feared stretches ran three miles along the precipitous gorge of the North Fork of the American River, nicknamed “Cape Horn.” The slope was at an angle of seventy-five degrees, and the river was twelve hundred to twenty-two hundred feet below the line of the railroad. There were no trails, not even a goat path. The grade would not be bored through a tunnel but, rather, built on the side of the mountain, which required blasting and rock cuts on the sheer cliffs. The mountain needs to be sculpted, because the roadbed would be curved around the mountain. The curves that hugged the monolith were either up grade or, sometimes, down. Men had to be lowered in a bos’n’s chair from above to place the black powder, fix and light the fuses, and yell to a man above to haul them up. With regard to Cape Horn and the tunnels, Van Nostrand’s Engineering Magazine said in 1870, “Good engineers considered the undertaking preposterous.”

One day in the summer of 1865, a Chinese foreman went to Strobridge, nodded, and waited for permission to speak. When it was granted, he said that men of China were skilled at work like this. Their ancestors had built fortresses in the Yangtze gorges. Would he permit Chinese crews to work on Cape Horn? If so, could reeds be sent up from San Francisco to weave into baskets?

Strobridge would try anything. The reeds came on. At night the Chinese wove baskets similar to the ones their ancestors had used. The baskets were round, waist-high, four eyelets at the top, painted with symbols. Ropes ran from the eyelets to a central cable. The Chinese went to work—they needed little or no instruction in handling black powder, which was a Chinese invention—with a hauling crew at the precipice top.

Hundreds of barrels of black powder were ignited daily to form a ledge on which a roadbed could be laid. Some of the men were lost in accidents, but we don’t know now many: the CP did not keep a record of Chinese casualties.

There’s much more I could quote about the Chinese workers on the Central Pacific, but those passages likely make the point I am seeking to make. These men, treated as something less than men by their employer because of their race, are most directly responsible for the most difficult sections of the CP line being completed. With rare exceptions, we don’t know their names. We don’t even know how many of them died in performing their work. They were less than numbers to the bulk of our society, but we have them to thank for the thing we hold up as the engineering marvel of its age. Life is funny, huh?

2. Let me quote this one directly.

The Union Pacific and the Central Pacific were the first big business in America. Except for the invention of the telegraph, which gave their officials a means of almost instant communication—quite limited because of the cost per word—the railroads had to invent everything: how to recruit, how to sell stocks and bonds, how to lobby the politicians, how to compete, what to build and what to buy, how to order and store necessary items that numbered in the hundreds of thousands. Only the government and armies had organized on such a scale. Where the railroads went, they created stopping points complete with water tanks, repair facilities, boarding terminals, unloading equipment, eating places, hotels. From these grew farms, villages, cities.

Think about that for a minute. Prior to the railroads only the government and armies had organized on such a scale. Guess that explains why so many Civil War generals became railroad men.

3. And finally there were all the “Indian troubles.”

A relief train carrying workers armed with carbines went back to the scene [of a train derailed and seven or eight railroad workers killed by Indians] before dawn. As the train approached, the engineer and others saw that the Indians had found some barrels of whiskey, got drunk, and set the wreck on fire. A Chicago Tribune reporter noted that the fire “lit the prairie for a considerable distance around. The dark forms of the savages were plainly seen dancing triumphantly around the scene of their atrocious work, while their fierce yells were borne savagely back to the train.” It was horrifying. The Tribune wrote: “The railroad men in Omaha, fresh from Cheyenne, filled with alarming rumors…have an infallible remedy for the Indian troubles. That remedy is extermination. These men, most of them tender and gentle with the weak of their own race, speak with indifference of the ‘Wiping out’ of thousands of papooses and squaws.”

It wasn’t just the ordinary railroad workers who felt that way. So did their leaders. “We’ve got to clean the damn Indians out,” [UP chief engineer Grenville M.] Dodge declared, “or give up building the Union Pacific Railroad. The government may take its choice.” For his part, [General William T.] Sherman wrote at this time, “The more we can kill this year the less will have to be killed the next year, for the more I see of these Indians the more convinced I am that they all have to be killed or be maintained as a species of paupers.”

Could the railroads have been built without bloodshed between the Indians and the whites? Who gets the most blame, the Indians who couldn’t/wouldn’t adapt or the whites who couldn’t/wouldn’t be deterred? Questions like these are among the most troubling that history gives us.

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