Turtle Bunbury

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Utah, 1869. A hushed silence descended as Leland Stanford, the former Governor of California, stepped forward to pound home the Golden Spike, the final nail of the Transcontinental Railroad. This was the moment everyone had been waiting for ever since Abe Lincoln green-lighted the project nearly seven years earlier. [i]

Amongst the large crowd gathered for the occasion were some of the many thousands of Irishmen who had helped lay the 1,907-miles (3,069 km) track, finally connecting the railway networks of the eastern United States with the Central Pacific line that came west from California.

As the American press photographers raised their cameras, Governor Stanford gravely raised the silver mallet above his right shoulder and aimed for the Golden Spike. Down came the mallet. And down it continued to come, slamming into the rail alongside the spike and nearly pummelling Stanford’s ankles to pulp.

‘What a howl went up!’, recalled eye-witness Alexander Toponce. ‘Irish, Chinese, Mexicans, and everybody yelled with delight. “He missed it. Yee!” The engineers blew the whistles and rang their bells. Then Stanford tried it again and tapped the spike.’

By early afternoon, the news had been telegraphed to hundreds of towns and cities all over America. It was one of the most epic, game-changing events in American history. Prior to this, the only way to get from the eastern USA to the Pacific coast was to either take a steamship all the way around (with an overland trek via Panama) or embark upon a long and arduous overland trek by wagon. In either instance, the journey time was likely to be several months. With the 1869 connection, the time was suddenly reduced to just eight days. From that moment on, it became infinitely easier for emigrants seeking the American dream to simply board a train and ‘go west’.

The Transcontinental Railroad was a collaboration between two railroad companies - the Central Pacific, laying a track eastward from Sacramento, California, and the Union Pacific Railroad, which went westwards from Omaha, Nebraska.

Irish emigrants played a key role in the construction of this industrial goliath from the outset, not least with a monumental event that took place on 28th April 1869, 145 years ago today.

Nine Irishmen played a pivotal role in laying an astonishing 10 miles and 56 feet of track in less than twelve hours. In the annals of global railways, this feat has never been matched or surpassed.

The record was achieved in response to a $10,000 bet wagered by T.C. Durant, Vice President of the Union Pacific, after a team from his company laid just over 7 miles in a single day. Durant reckoned the record could not be beat. [ii]

Step forward the Irishmen of the Central Pacific. Alas, little is yet known of the background of these muscular men bar their names. George Coley was the gang foremen while the eight rail-handlers tasked with hauling all the iron rails into place were Mike Sullivan, Fred McNamara, Tom Daley, George Wyatt, Edward Killeen, Mike Kennedy, Pat Joyce and Mike Shay.[iii]

These Irishmen were at the forefront of a railroad army that numbered 5000. Nearly 3000 of these men were Chinese, primarily refugees from Canton (present-day Guangdong) Province who had fled to California during the Taiping Rebellion (1850-1864) in which at least 20 million people died.[iv] Charles Crocker, founder of the Central Pacific, was enthusiast for Chinese labour. ‘Did they not build the Chinese Wall, the biggest piece of masonry in the world?’, he remarked.

By 1868, over 80% of the Central Pacific’s labour force were Chinese. And sure enough, often working under Irish foremen, they proved an immense asset, blasting their way through the treacherous, snow-covered granite rocks of the Sierra Nevada mountains with nitro-glycerine and then bringing the line across the Nevada and Utah deserts.[v]

And now, as they awaited the early morning whistle on 28th April, the Irish and the Chinese were to unite again. The show began when the Chinese unloaded enough iron rails, ties, spikes, fishplates, bolts and other material to complete the job. They did this in eight minutes with a noise that the San Francisco Bulletin likened to ‘the bombardment of an army’.

Then came Coley and his team, working in two squads of four. The Irishmen worked ‘with a will’, at breakneck speed, for the next twelve hours, laying 3,520 rails, each weighing 560lb, so that the total amount of iron they carried that day exceeded 125 tons.

Once each rail was down, another unit of Chinese labourers popped into place, ensuing each bolt was screwed up and every spike drive home, laying a whopping 25,800 wooden ties and driving 28,160 spikes in that same twelve hour period.

Then came another wave of labourers to level and fill in the ground, shovelling earth beneath the ties, tamping and moving on to the next rail. [vi]

A senior US officer watching the scene stated that he had never seen such organization. ‘It was like an army marching over the ground and leaving a track built behind them.’

By the close of day, the combined efforts of the Irish and Chinese labourers had given the Central Pacific a record-breaking new track that was verified by two engineers from their Union Pacific rivals. And just to prove it was as good as any other stretch, one of their men leapt into a locomotive and chugged it back over the new line at a clip of 40 miles an hour.

It was a huge triumph for the Central Pacific and Coley and his men were rewarded with four days pay for their single days work. It was also particularly good publicity for the Irish who had been losing considerable ground to the Chinese ever since a strike action backfired two years earlier.[vii]

Anti-Irish discrimination was widespread in the USA in the 1860s. General Dodge, the Union Pacific's chief engineer, was amongst their most vocal critics, remarking ‘The Irish labor, with its strikes, its dead fall whiskey shops and reckless disregard of all our interests, must be gotten out of the way.’[viii]

In fact, at least 3,000 Irishmen worked for the Union Pacific and it is assumed several hundred, if not more, worked for the Central Pacific.[ix] Some had fled Ireland during the Great Famine. Many more had served during the American Civil War, for the Union and Confederate armies alike. The work was not particularly well paid – $35 a month – and large numbers had abandoned the railroads to take their chances in the silver mines of Montana and Nevada, adding fuel to those who regarded them as unreliable.

Working on the railroad was a tough way to earn a living. As well as the inevitable construction accidents, they had to contend with outbreaks of smallpox and the occasional attack by Native Americans who, quite rightly, believed the railroad – the Iron Horse - would bring an end to their culture.

Less than two weeks after Coley’s team broke the record, the link between east and west was completed when the Union Pacific's steam locomotive No. 119 met the Central Pacific's Jupiter engine at Promontory Summit, Utah.[x]

Alexander Toponce spoke fondly of the celebratory party that followed the "Wedding of the Rails". 'It was a very hilarious occasion. Everybody had all they wanted to drink all the time. Some of the participants got "sloppy," and these were not all Irish and Chinese by any means.’ After Stanford missed the spike, Vice President T. C. Durant of the Union Pacific had a shot at it and he also failed. Toponce was ecstatic. ‘Everybody slapped everybody else again and yelled, 'He missed it too, yow!' It was a great occasion, everyone carried off souvenirs and there are enough splinters of the last tie in museums to make a good bonfire. Both before and after the spike driving ceremony there were speeches, which were cheered heartily. I do not remember what any of the speakers said now, but I do remember that there was a great abundance of champagne.’

NB: One hundred years later, the construction of the railroad provides the backdrop of Sergio Leone’s 1968 epic Spaghetti Western Once Upon a Time in the West.


Much detail was obtained via the Central Pacific Railroad - Photographic History Museum page at http://cprr.org/Museum/Minkler_Clark.pdf … for images, obtain permission from http://cprr.org/Museum/legal.html#permissions

Ambrose, Stephen E. ‘Opening of the West : Undaunted Courage and Nothing Like It in the World ‘ (Simon and Schuster, 2013)

Bain, David Haward, ‘Empire Express: Building the First Transcontinental Railroad’ (Viking,1999) via http://www.amazon.com/exec/obidos/ASIN/067080889X/centralpacificra

Quigley, Hugh. The Irish Race in California and on the Pacific Coast: With an Introductory Historical Dissertation on the Principal Races of Mankind, and a Vocabulary of Ancient and Modern Irish Family Names. San Francisco: A. Roman & Co., 1878. See http://pds.lib.harvard.edu/pds/view/3456669

Heath, Erle, ‘A Railroad Record That Defies Defeat - How Central Pacific laid ten miles of track in one day back in 1869’, Southern Pacific Bulletin, Vol. XVI, No. 5, May, 1928, pp. 3-5. Via http://cprr.org/Museum/Southern_Pacific_Bulletin/Ten_Mile_Day.html includes best images of Irish signatures.

‘Fiction or Fact?
Did the Chinese and Irish Railroad Workers
Really Try To Blow Each Other Up?’ Via http://cprr.org/Game/Interactive_Railroad_Project/Fiction_or_Fact.html

‘The Last Spike’ via ttp://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/f/f8/The_Last_Spike_1869.jpg

‘Completing the Transcontinental Railroad, 1869 - Driving the Golden Spike & Alexander Toponce’ via http://www.eyewitnesstohistory.com/goldenspike.htm



[i] The railroad was born when President Abraham Lincoln approved the Pacific Railway Act of 1862, thus authorizing the federal government to sponsor the construction of a transcontinental railroad to link the Pacific west coast at San Francisco Bay with the existing railway network in Iowa. The project was inevitably much slowed by the American Civil War but the race kicked back into gear in 1866 [check] when the while the Central Pacific Railroad began. The challenge was to see which company could lay more track before they met, not least because the government was offering a subsidy upwards of $16,000 for every mile of track laid, along with liberal grants of the land either side.

[ii] The project was overseen by New York-born Horace Hamilton Minkler as track foreman.

[iii] A man called Peter Egan was also involved … see http://books.google.ie/books?id=TZp_GT7PscIC&pg=PA349&lpg=PA349&dq=%22George+Coley%22++%2B+%22Transcontinental+Railroad%22+1869&source=bl&ots=qBpHICS8rV&sig=OV5FGleZM0TuXnJCsjCsqYwp1sk&hl=en&sa=X&ei=_4hZU6PmIuWK7Ab0qYGQAw&redir_esc=y#v=onepage&q=%22George%20Coley%22%20%20%2B%20%22Transcontinental%20Railroad%22%201869&f=false

[iv] As well as the Chinese, Stroubridge’s labour force also included a large number of Irish, hired in New York and Boston and shipped west at considerable expense. Stroubridge’s labour force also included large numbers of Mexicans, Native Americans, freed slaves and assorted European labourers.

[v] The Chinese were being paid $27 [$31?] (later bumped up to $30 [$35] after a strike) for the same work that Irish got $35 for - check. California law prevented them from obtaining full citizenship, but still mandated that they pay taxes to the state of California. At its peak in 1868, over 12,000 Chinese immigrants were working on it. With impressive commitment they blasted through the perilous snow covered 7,000 feet (2,100 m) granite Sierra at Donner Pass into the new state of Nevada. This included 16 tunnels, built through granite with nitro glycerine by forces of 30-40 men, often managed by an Irish foreman, tackling from each end of the tunnel.

[vi] “In addition to the actual tracklayers, thousands of Chinamen and others were needed to bring the material forward and to otherwise assist with the work.”

[vii] Rumours of Chinese and Irish trying to blow each other up have no supportive evidence.

[viii] Two of Union Pacific execs appear to have been Irish-American - John Duff of Boston and Sidney Dillon of New York City.

[ix] The Irish were poorly paid, relatively speaking, and the conditions were hazardous. Native Americans – Sioux? - "frequently" attacked and sometimes killed railroad workers, as well as stealing livestock and equipment, and pulling up tracks and derailed locomotives. [check?] That the track was even passing through their lands was a violation of their treaties with the US Government.

[x] Between 1865 and 1869 the Union Pacific laid 1,087 miles of track, bridging rivers and ravines, tunnelling through granite mountains. Central Pacific laid 690 miles of track, while the original Western Pacific Railroad Company laid another 132 miles between Oakland and Sacramento, California. In the final phases, the Irish were joined by large numbers of Mormons eager to bring the railroad via Salt Lake City.