The railroad connected the West and East, changing the face of transportation in the United States.
To memorialize the 150th anniversary of the Chinese laborers’ contribution to building the railroad, members of San Francisco’s Chinese community set out to raise money for a monument at Gold Run, the first rest stop on eastbound Interstate 80 to Reno, Nev. They will also look to place a smaller monument somewhere in The City, possibly at the Caltrain station on Fourth and King streets The Chinatown Central Subway station and new Transbay Transit Center, which are both under construction are also being considered.
While not nearly as daunting as the tasks faced by the railroad workers, funds haven’t come easy, said Steven Lee, a business owner and investor heading up the memorial project.
“We thought we could get money like crazy to get this project going, but it’s become a lot more challenging than we thought,” said Lee, who‘s also a member of The City’s Entertainment Commission. “No. 1, it’s way up in the mountains. Some people aren’t going to see it and they’re thinking, ‘What’s the value?’ Two, a lot of [corporations] are trying to figure out what the educational value is behind it.”
The idea for the monument came to Lee last summer during a luncheon near Stanford University, where history professor Gordon Chang and his students were already deep into an arduous effort to piece together the fragmented history of the Chinese railroad workers and ultimately create curriculum around it.
Meanwhile, the Chinese Historical Society of America, based in San Francisco, had embarked on an oral history project around the workers’ descendants. Lee decided to head up replacing a plaque on a rock at Gold Run, that the Placer County Historical Society installed commemorating the Chinese, with an actual monument.
The Placer County Historical Society liked the idea, and received preliminary approval from Caltrans, which oversees Interstate 80 near the railroad tracks in the Sierra Nevada. A handful of markers honoring railroad workers of all races are scattered across the state from Sacramento to Donner Summit by the Sierra Nevada, but most plaques are on rocks, said Bill George, a Placer County Historical Society board member.
The planned Chinese railroad workers monument “would absolutely be the most distinctive and biggest by far,” George said. “I think it’d be great for someone driving up the highway to see something monumental really make an impression equal to the task that the workers did.”
In an effort to drive donations, Lee is holding a gala at the Far East Cafe at 631 Grant Ave. at noon May 31. That will hopefully draw more than half of the present goal of $100,000, he said. Once $100,000 is raised, foundations have pledged to match that, bringing funds to $200,000. The remaining $200,000 needed could be raised through grants and more donations.
Sue Lee, executive director of the Chinese Historical Society of America, agreed that garnering financial support for the monument has been “tough.” However, her nonprofit’s oral history project — which features descendants of a railroad worker who settled in Potrero Hill, among other communities — reinforces its historical importance.
“Part of it is, it’s 2015, why should we care?” she said. “But you know, you have to remember who helped build this country.”
Leaders behind the monument and oral history ventures hope to complete their projects by May 2019, which marks 150 years after the railroad was completed. In October, 21 artists submitted proposals for the monument design. Although finalists should already have been selected, Steven Lee has been holding off moving forward with the monument until more money is in the bank.
“Time is ticking right now,” he said, “And we don’t want to go beyond the four years to get it done.”
Chinese workers in 1865 were hired in large numbers for the first time to dig and blast through miles of granite, and lay tracks over the Sierra Nevada for the American transcontinental railroad.