Bernard A. Drew | Our Berkshires: Berkshires and the Transcontinental Railroad

Our Berkshires

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GREAT BARRINGTON — The U.S. Postal Service has marked the 150th anniversary of the Transcontinental Railroad with a trio of gilded commemorative stamps. Berkshire County, of course, had several connections with the 1,912-mile Union Pacific and Central Pacific line from Omaha to Sacramento, the best known being Pittsfield pastor John Todd, who gave a prayer at the hammering of the golden spike at Promontory Point in May 1869.

"If you ask how I came to be there and be a participant on the occasion," Todd wrote modestly in "The Sunset Land" (1870), "I can only say that, as it was without my expectation or seeking. I do not feel especially to blame and as for my participating, you know that, when men cannot get better materials, they have to use such as they obtain." A Vermonter by birth, Todd (1800-1873) preached at Pittsfield's First Congregational Church from 1841 to 1872.

Thomas Allen (1813-1882), a Pittsfield native, in 1849 had called for the first railroad convention to discuss a line to the Pacific, according to a story in this newspaper's Dec. 12, 1925, issue. "The plan thus suggested was adopted and is the basis of the Pacific railroads ... Can any other town claim like or equal honors?"

Todd nurtured the idea; Dr. Thomas Clark Durant (1820-1885) ran with it. A Lee native, the financier and vice president of the Union Pacific was also the brains behind the Cr dit Mobilier of America, a construction company that worked on the eastern portion of the Transcontinental Railroad — charging higher-than-going rates and chiseling the government out of millions.


These men represent one aspect of the railroad. Historian Gordon H. Chang in "Ghost of Gold Mountain: The Epic Story of the Chinese Who Built the Transcontinental Railroad" tells the down and dirty other story about the backbreaking work with pickaxes and shovels, chisels and hammers, black powder and nitro to level, carve out and bore through the imposing mountain barrier.

Despite thousands of Chinese laborers, Chang found not a single written personal account and barely a few anecdotes passed down through families. Nevertheless, he pieced together a fascinating picture. One of his sources was an unidentified Pittsfield traveler.

The Chinese were not slaves, they were not indentured. They worked the rail dig of their own free will. They were abused, they were taken advantage of, they were underpaid. Ultimately their tireless efforts were appreciated at least by the railroad financiers if not the general public, which clung to a racial bias for decades.

Chang searched to uncover the truth about stories that the Chinese workmen "lowered themselves from the top of the mountain in baskets woven from reeds and using hand tools to carve a ledge for the roadbed or hole and place explosives to blow away the stubborn rock. Hanging dangerously in the wind, with nothing but natural fibers keeping them from the void below, the Chinese, it was said, would sometimes not make it back up in time before the ferocious detonations, and they would be lost forever."

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Were these stories true? Or were they exaggerations perpetuated to emphasize the plight of the immigrant workers? The work, the historian pointed out, was largely on sloped terrain, not perpendicular ledges, and thus the baskets didn't necessarily make sense. He looked all over for written verification.

Then he found an item from the very newspaper you are holding, an item widely picked up by other papers across the country. Chang found the reprints, but not the entire original story, which your diligent columnist now reports to you was "The Pittsfield Boy `On His Travels' Again," from the Berkshire County Eagle for Dec. 3, 1868. It is a letter from "Rocky Mountains, November 18, 1869," signed, "Yours `for a time.' L."

I have no idea who L was. Yet.

"Dear Eagle: — Here I am safe, in spite of time, and space, Indians, and Border Ruffians. Yes, safe, and secure too, since the baggage cars are all fitted up as arsenals, the sides being lined with muskets and cartridges, and every employee carries a brace of pistols in his belt. Speaking of Indians, I am told that lawless white men commit more outrages in these parts than Indians."

The West was truly wild as L. told of vigilantes, gunfights ad hangings.


There were delights, too. Gorgeous sunsets, for example. And a meal on the dining car of the Pacific Railroad? "What will you have, sir!" "What have you got?" "Bear, buffalo, antelope, brook trout —" "Stop! Give me those as far as you've got."

The paragraph that gave Chang proof was this: "The most thrilling scene that came under my observation was in the Sierra Nevada on the Central Pacific. Here the road is built on the side of a precipice 2,400 feet above the base, and the slope is so steep that the Chinamen who did the work were let down in baskets, and in this position drilled holes and charged them in the side of the mountain. At one time there were 460 or these charges connected by a fuse, exploded at one time. Masses of rock weighing may tons, fell to the bottom with terrific fury. When the debris had ceased to fall, the echoes were still reporting among the distant hills. So stunning was the shock that I would never willingly witness the like again."     

That's who truly built the Transcontinental Railroad.

Bernard A. Drew is a regular Eagle contributor.


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