The Promise of Gold Mountain: Tucson's Chinese Heritage

Southern Pacific Railroad Workers

Unidentified Chinese man
Unidentified Chinese man
[32K AHS-Tuc BC B5185, H2]

The Southern Pacific Railroad brought the majority of early Chinese immigrants to Tucson. The Chinese had been brought to Arizona for the back-breaking task of extending the railroad through the desert. The desert heat was the official justification for importing Chinese laborers: Anglos could not be expected to put in a day's work under those conditions! In actuality, the railroad viewed the Chinese as cheap, reliable laborers. Their wages were $1.00 per day, 50 cents less than Anglo workers. From these wages the Chinese were also expected to pay for their own board.

Track-laying began in Yuma in November 1878, and the crews reached Casa Grande in May of 1879. During that period of time, the Chinese crews had laid 182 miles of track in 139 working days. [Sheridan, p.117] Then work was suspended for several months, both to avoid working during the intense heat of June and July and to stockpile additional supplies of railroad ties. Most of the Chinese were shipped back to California, although some remained in Arizona to seek employment in the mines. Work resumed in January of 1880, and the Chinese railroad workers reached Tucson on March 10, 1880.

The arrival of the railroad had a significant impact on the size of Tucson's Chinese population.

"The 1880 United States Census ... lists 1630 Chinese residents [in Arizona Territory], of which 1153 lived in Pima County, 159 of them in Tucson. Within the Pima County total, 850 Chinese (a few with Hispanic surnames) were enumerated as laborers. Across all these pages is written 'Railroad Worker'." [Fong, p.8]

The Southern Pacific and other railroads continued to prefer Chinese laborers as rails were extended past Tucson, and as other lines were laid in northern Arizona. Chinese laborers were also sought by the owners of Arizona's copper mines. Again, they were a cheap, reliable source of workers and, according to James Colquhoun, "if occasionally a few were killed no questions were asked, and the work went on as usual". By 1883, 100 of every 400 miners in Clifton were Chinese. [Sheridan p. 169]

Racism was rampant in Arizona at this time. Anglos and Mexicans did not understand the dress and customs of the Chinese newcomers.

Unidentified man in traditional dress
Unidentified man in traditional dress
[23K B5185, AHS-Tuc, BC H1]

Unidentified woman in traditional dress
Unidentified woman in traditional dress
[22K B2324, AHS-Tuc, BC H28]

Also, Anglo and Mexican workers deeply resented the Chinese laborers adding competition to the job market, despite the difficulty and low wages of the jobs given to the Chinese. Articles in local papers indicate the racial hostility. A Prescott newspaper noted in 1869,

"Three more Chinamen arrived here during the week and have gone to work. There are now four of them, which is quite enough."

et Lee, Chinese boy in traditional dress
Yet Lee, Chinese boy in traditional dress
[22K B5566, AHS-Tuc, BC H4]

Unidentified Chinese couple
Unidentified Chinese couple
[24K B6183, AHS-Tuc, BC H5]


Unidentified Chinese man in traditional dress

Unidentified Chinese man in traditional dress
[33K B386, AHS-Tuc, BC H27]

The Arizona Weekly Star ran an editorial in 1879 portraying them as " an ignorant, filthy, leprous horde." The Tucson paper, El Fronterizo, described the Chinese in 1892 as "the most pernicious and degraded race on the globe," and in 1894 as "a fungus that lives in isolation, sucking the sap of the other plants." This racism, and the fear of having to compete with Chinese workers for jobs, eventually led Anglo and Mexican laborers to violence. Chinese workers were attacked in railroad camps and mining towns. Instead of taking a stand against prejudice, the railroad and mine managers chose to phase-out Chinese laborers as a "solution" to the violence and unrest. By the early 20th century, the Chinese had been driven out of Arizona's mines and railroads. [Miller p.161]

While the railroads originally brought the Chinese laborers to America, they never intended these workers to become permanent members of American society. [Rogers] Instead they planned to return them to China when their usefulness was past. While many Chinese did return to their homeland, others remained and helped build our Southwestern communities.

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