A World Transformed: The Transcontinental Railroad in Utah
On display during the summer of 2021, this temporary exhibit shared stories of the people who built the Transcontinental Railroad through Utah- specifically the large population of Chinese-American workers. This exhibit featured two traveling exhibitions created by the Utah Department of Arts and Museums A World Transformed: Transcontinental Railroad in Utah and also Through Toil and Labor: The Forgotten History of Utah’s Chinese Railroad Workers. These traveling exhibits tell stories through photos, maps, lithographs, objects, and narrative collected from museums, archives, and libraries across the country.
The Story of the Builders
On May 10, 1869, the Golden Spike was driven into the railroad at Promontory Summit, Utah, completing the once unimaginable rail line that crossed the continent and dramatically shaping America’s history. The Transcontinental Railroad, crossing formidable terrain to link the coasts, was a tremendous engineering achievement and major factor in the nation’s westward expansion.
The Transcontinental Railroad was the work of the Central Pacific Railroad (building from the west) and the Union Pacific Railroad (building from the east), racing to complete the railroad somewhere in the middle. Railroad construction was an arduous and dangerous undertaking, and an estimated 75% of the laborers who built the railroad were Chinese immigrants. These workers faced dangerous working conditions, racial discrimination, and obstacles in their efforts to become citizens. Through adverse circumstances, Chinese railroad workers built camaraderie and kept cultural traditions alive and the stories of their work building one of the country’s most significant engineering feats have gained greater recognition in recent years.
With the ceremonial completion of the United States’ first Transcontinental Railroad on May 10, 1869, the nation entered a new age of commerce and travel. The momentous meeting of the rails at Promontory Summit, Utah meant goods and services could now move across the country in quantities and at speeds previously unknown. Key to this massive effort to connect the nation were the contributions of thousands of immigrant workers from around the globe.
Chinese immigrants composed over 75 percent of the Transcontinental Railroad workforce between 1865 and 1869, numbering over 11,000 by its completion. These Chinese laborers, mostly young men ages 15-25, left their families and homes in China to seek new economic opportunities. The contributions of these Chinese railroad workers to Utah and the United States are slowly becoming better known,
Through photographs, historical documents, and excavated fragments of imported Chinese ceramics, this exhibit seeks to explore the unique history of the Transcontinental Railroad’s Chinese workers in Utah, discuss their daily lives, and share what’s been learned from the artifacts they left behind.
Traveling exhibitions are curated as a collaborative partnership with local artists, arts organizations, and institutions. Utah museums, colleges, university and community galleries, arts and cultural centers, libraries, and schools all register for the exhibitions annually. These exhibitions and their accompanying educational materials provide public access to quality visual art, nurture understanding of diverse art forms and cultures, promote creativity, and encourage cultural activities in local communities.