Sesquicentennial 2019

The growing call to recognize Chinese laborers, who were largely responsible for building the Central Pacific line, culminated in a group forming to do so. The Chinese Railway Workers Descendants Association officially became an organization in 2017, but the group started to form and began to regularly attending the Golden Spike celebrations in 1999, at the 130th anniversary.  Corky Lee, a Chinese American photojournalist known for documenting Asian Americans has been photographing the group's presence and ceremonies since the group formed.  In particular, Lee is known for recreating  Andrew J. Russell's “East and West shaking hands at laying of last rail," also known as “the champagne photo,” with the Chinese railway descendants and CRWDA group members gathered between the train pilots. Lee called this a "photographic act of justice" which is now done at every Golden Spike anniversary. 

While the group usually visits the site where the Chinese workers camped during the completion of the Transcontinental Railroad, a natural rock formation in the shape of an arch, called Chinese Arch. This site is considered a sacred site and an ordained official leads the group in prayer during the visit.  A day-long conference hosted by the CRWDA was held in conjunction with the Golden Spike 150th anniversary in Salt Lake City. 

Crowds at the 150th Golden Spike Anniversary on May 10th, 2019 reached nearly 20,000 spectators.  Opening remarks were delivered by United States Secretary of Transportation, Elaine Chao, and the keynote address was delivered by Jon Meacham, historian and Pulitzer Prize winner, along with appearances by many other officials and dignitaries. In addition to the historical reenactment of driving of the final golden railroad spike in laurel wood, the musical "As One" was performed with a choir of school children from Utah's 29 counties.

Compared to the Centennial celebrations in 1969, where the Chinese representatives were not allowed to speak to dedicate the plaque honoring the Chinese railway workers, the 2019 anniversary highlighted their contributions. The reenactment section of the ceremony began with two groups of men carrying rails from the east and west, representing the Central Pacific Rairoad and the Union Pacific Railroad. All of the Central Pacific reenactors were in Chinese dress and hats. The inclusion of the Chinese railway workers in the reenactment was accurate to the actual events, as the Chinese workers laid the final rails that met the Union Pacific line. Elaine Chao, Secretary of Transportation and Chinese American, spoke to the crowd about the sacrifices of the Chinese laborers, “who risked everything to make the transcontinental railroad a reality” doing so while “many of the Chinese laborers did not have the opportunity to bring their families with them or become U.S. citizens." Chao's words delivered a far different message from her predecessor's speech 50 years ago.

To view more photographs of the Golden Spike Sesquicentennial events, visit the Marriott Digital Library digital collection.

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