Keynote Address By Stanford Historian

February 7th, 2022 by Roger Prince

The Chinese Who Built America’s Transcontinental Railroad – Gordon H. Chang


SESSION: Keynote Speaker

Dr. Gordon Chang is a fourth generation American who grew up in Oakland, California.  He has devoted much of his professional career to studying the Asian-American experience in the United States and in particular, his native California.  Chang has been on the faculty at Stanford University since 1991 and is the author of numerous historical works.  His keynote address will focus on the story of the Chinese who built the western portion of the first transcontinental railroad between 1862 and 1869. 

Though constituting 90 percent of the labor force on the western portion of the railroad line, and credited with carrying the burden of its construction, Chinese workers faded into the shadows of history over time. As Co-Director of the Chinese Railroad Workers in North America Project at Stanford, Dr. Chang sought to recover the stories of those nameless workers.

Prof. Chang will address that historical neglect and share insights into the Chinese railway worker’s experience; knowledge that was gained from a decade of research and was brought to life in the publication of his award winning book, Ghosts of Gold Mountain: The Epic Story of the Chinese Who Built the Transcontinental Railroad. The project included extensive findings from biographical and genealogical work by descendants of railroad workers.

Perhaps because of the renewed interest in recovering that lost Chinese immigrant experience, there is also a renewed interest in preserving the physical heritage of that herculean, often deadly effort of driving tunnels through the solid granite of the Sierras with only hand tools and black powder explosives.  A recent article in the Smithsonian Magazine discusses renewed efforts to protect and preserve the now abandoned Donner Summit tunnels.

BIO: Dr. Chang has worn many hats during his long academic career, including as Director of the Asian American Studies Program and the Center for East Asian Studies, both at Stanford.  He is currently the Senior Associate Vice Provost for Undergraduate Education and  Professor of History at Stanford.  He is well known for his accessible speaking style, and in reviews his writing has been described as ‘gripping’, ‘passionate’, ‘vibrant’ and ‘deeply moving’.