San Francisco

Chinese Railroad Monument Steams Toward Next Phase

Plans for a monument near Tahoe that honors the thousands of Chinese laborers who helped build the Transcontinental Railroad is edging a little closer to reality.

At a project launch in San Francisco last week, the public got a chance to see works by the 18 artists vying to build the monument near Gold Run off Interstate 80.

Currently, a plaque affixed to a rock is the sole memorial to the estimated 12,000 workers who toiled at dangerous jobs etching the railroad across the Sierras in the mid-1800s. An estimated 1,200 workers died in the process.

"It’s a chapter of American history that has been forgotten," said Sue Lee, executive director of the Chinese Historical Society in San Francisco. "Frankly, a plaque at a rest stop near Sacramento is not enough."

railroad workers
Joe Rosato Jr.
A historic photo shows Chinese work crews laboring on the railroad in the mid-1800s. An estimated 12,000 Chinese workers were recruited to build the railroad and nearly 1,200 lost their lives building it.

Inside a hotel in San Francisco’s Chinatown, members of the public filed past large posterboards featuring artist renderings of some example designs — mostly to just get a feel for the artists’ work.

Steven Lee, the San Francisco nightclub owner who launched the effort, said the final design won’t be decided until an artist is chosen later this year.

"It’s my dream just to get a monument there," said Lee. "It’s my dream to make sure that nobody forgets."

Lee said a community vote currently underway will whittle down the potential artists to five with a committee selecting two artists to compete for the final job.

"It’s really up to the emotional factor," Lee said of the process. "It’s also about techniques."

For the opening, artist Edward Fraughton brought a bronze sculpture of a railroad worker he created for a similar monument in Utah. The figure stood lean and tall — his muscled chest and arms ripped by months of grueling labor.

"It’s a great history," Fraughton said. "It’s a story that just has to be told."

Joe Rosato Jr.
Edward Fraughton's drawing of a Chinese laborer is the model for his proposed monument.

The monument will replace the current plaque which sits at a rest stop off Interstate 80 just west of Tahoe. The rest stop is across the interstate from where tracks wind through thick forests, along jagged cliffs and in tunnels dynamited through granite mountains.

Descending into holes in the mountains to set the dynamite was among the laborers' dangerous duties.

"Dynamite through the Sierras?" said Sue Lee. "That’s humongous. And so that’s where the monument should be."

Steven Lee hopes to have the project completed by the end of 2017, in time for the 150th anniversary celebration of the opening of the Transcontinental Railroad in 2019. He said the fact Chinese-Americans have more political clout is helping to gain support for the project.

"We’re now in a position," he said, "that we can actually remember."

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