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Building Tracks to New Beginnings: Japanese Railroad Workers in the West

The first transcontinental railroad was built by the Western Pacific, Central Pacific and Union Pacific Railroad Companies and officially opened on May 10, 1869 with the driving of the last spike in a ceremony at Promontory Point, Utah.

The Chinese were the first Asian immigrants to fill the need for labor on the railroad from 1849-1874 and were responsible for building much of the Central Pacific Railroad. However, due to anti-Asian sentiments, the United States passed the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 that shut down further immigration. Racism and rioting forced most of the laborers to return to China. This created a shortage and demand for labor to continue building the large network of tracks necessary to connect towns and territories to the new Overland Route. The rail system would eventually open up the country for travel and allow for supplies to be easily transported to remote locations in a quicker, more economical way.

Meanwhile, as the completion of the transcontinental railway was drawing near, political and economic sanctions in Japan coupled with America’s need for labor, influenced many young Japanese men to go overseas to seek their fortunes and new lives in “the land of opportunity”. Most were young single men who went to Hawaii first, before heading to the mainland for better job opportunities, some with intentions of going back to Japan after making their fortunes and some intending to make the United States their new home.   Labor agents, or “bosses” made arrangements to find jobs, housing, food and clothing for these men in exchange for a fee and percentage of their earned wages. After working on a section gang himself, Edward Daigoro Hashimoto found his way to Salt Lake City and established the E. D. Hashimoto Company in 1902. Nicknamed “The Mikado”, he furnished section gangs for the Western Pacific and Denver Rio Grande Railroads, along with miners for Bingham and Carbon County. By 1906, over 13,000 Japanese immigrants worked for the railroads. A few years later, at the urging of anti-Asian groups in the west, Japan was pressured and agreed to stop labor immigration to the United States under the Gentleman’s Agreement of 1908. Working on the section gangs was a harsh life, especially for those who now had families. Once they settled into communities, many left their jobs at the railroad to work at other trades such as farming or saved up enough money to start businesses of their own. Japantowns began to emerge in cities like Ogden and Salt Lake City where railroad stations were located.

Special Collections is actively collecting photographs, audiovisuals, manuscripts and other materials related to the history of Japanese Americans in the intermountain west to add to the Mitsugi Kasai Memorial Japanese American Archive. For more information or to inquire about donating or accessing collections, please visit the Special Collections website.

Please visit the Special Collections Reading Room on Level 4 of the J. Marriott Library, Monday – Friday 8:00 am – 6:00 pm and Saturday 10:00 am – 6:00 pm.

A special thank you to the Union Pacific Foundation and Mitsugi Kasai Memorial Japanese American Archive for their funding of this exhibit and archive.

  • Raymond Uno
    Posted at 06:56h, 22 April Reply

    Untold history brought back to life with great photos. Great job Lorraine. Only you could do it.

  • Jeanne Matsumiya konishi
    Posted at 16:01h, 08 May Reply

    Nice to see pix of my father… We lived in tintic junction,Utah from 1922 to 1941..

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  • Pingback:What Japanese-American Farmers Did For the West: A Brief History | Choice Information In One Place
    Posted at 14:39h, 16 March Reply

    […] the West is interwoven with that of Japanese-Americans. The first Japanese immigrants, or Nikkei, were predominantly young, unmarried men drawn to the West by railroad jobs because of the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, which, by the 1890s, had left a serious labor shortage […]

  • Roseanne Greenfield
    Posted at 04:18h, 03 August Reply

    I would like to know more about how the Japanese immigrants worked on the Transcontinental RRd and or the pre-WWII Copper Production Industry? I live in California so cannot drive to your library. Do you have any online articles I can read? Thanks!
    Roseanne Greenfield

  • Kathleen Joseph
    Posted at 20:42h, 25 November Reply

    Nice to see the immigrants relative posting in his honor I would be so proud I love hiistory ty for creating a big part of our past my grandfather was 4when it was happening

  • Kathleen Joseph
    Posted at 20:44h, 25 November Reply

    It’s nice to see the ancestor of one of the immigrants posting here she must be proud my grandfather was 4when it was going on1905

  • Lynn Iwamoto
    Posted at 05:22h, 01 December Reply

    I always heard stories that my grandfather worked on the railroad as a young man. It was hard to find confirmation that the Japanese were even allowed to work with the Chinese. Or they just didn’t differentiate between the two. I am grateful to find the mention of the Japanese associated with the transcontinental railroad. His name was Kumaichi Iwamoto. Are there any records I can search through? (I know this is a dream and far-fetched.)

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