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The Chinese at Promontory, Utah
April 30 - May 10, 1869
(An extract from the unfinished
biography of James H. Strobridge)

By Edson T. Strobridge
Dec. 6, 2001

The Central Pacific had completed laying track to Mile Post 690 at Promontory on April 30th, 1869 and Superintendent J.H. Strobridge moved his camps back to Victory away from the bars, gambling tables and violence that was prevalent in the new town of Promontory. The Union Pacific track forces were still twelve miles from Promontory, held up by the 485' long "Big Trestle" and the long rock cut located a few miles east of the junction point. Strobridge had begun sending his crews back along the line to complete the work that had been left unfinished. By the time the of the ceremony there were very few men left at Victory and they were far outnumbered by the forces of the Union Pacific.

Sidney Dillon, President of the Union Pacific decided to take no chances. While his grading crews worked day and night, he took a page from the Central Pacificís book and ordered ties and rails to Promontory Summit by wagon, around the unfinished "Big Trestle" and the incomplete rock cut. On May 1st Casement's track gangs commenced laying track eastward from the Summit, leaving a 58' gap for a pair of rails for each of the companies to lay on the day of the final ceremony. Plans were made to hold the ceremony on May 8th but the Union Pacific was unable to complete their work until 4 P.M. on May 9th.

The only Chinese workers at the ceremony arrived early on the morning of May 10th on the construction train from Victory. They were part of the track crew that had been planned to lay a permanent siding and claim Promontory as the Central Pacific terminus however the U.P. had worked all night and beat the C.P. to that claim. At about 10:30 am the Chinese began the final grading for the last two rails, the laying of the ties and rails, the driving of the spikes, and the bolting of the fishplates of the west rail. Then the last two rails followed, the Union Pacific rail was carried by an Irish squad under Foreman Guilford, dropped into place, and quickly spiked down. The last rail and east ceremonial rail, was reserved for a clean blue-frocked squad under their boss H.H. Minkler, would proudly carry it forward, drop it into place and would bolt up the fishplate an the south end and drive enough spikes to hold it in place.

Since some prominent visitors were to "drive" a last iron spike and, as amateurs, they would have difficulty in starting the spikes, the Chinese started a number of them. An experienced track worker could drive a spike in three blows, the visitors took upwards of ten. As Amos L. Bowsher is quoted, " the last [iron] spike was partly driven for Stanford and Durant by the Chinese". Stanford and Durant then gave light and ceremonial blows; the driving of the last spike was done by Superintendents J.H. Strobridge for the Central Pacific and Samuel B. Reed of the Union Pacific but which one gave the last blow is unknown.

At the completion of the ceremony joining of the CP & UP rails the polished California Laurel tie was taken up to be returned to California and the Chinese replaced it with a standard pine wood tie with common spikes substituted. A reporter for the San Francisco Newsletter, May 15th, 1869 describes the final moments of the celebration:

"That [replaced tie] was immediately attacked by hundreds of jack knives and soon reduced to a mere stick. The ever watchful Chinese then took the remains, sawed into small pieces and distributed to the spectators. The Chinese really laid the last tie and drove the last spike. When we last saw the spot, soldiers were hammering away at the flanges of the rails and carried off all the pieces they could break, so that a new rail would soon be necessary. Six ties and two rails were demolished before the juncture was left in peace to the slower inroads of time."

"J.H. Strobridge, when the work was all over, invited the Chinese who had been brought over from Victory for that purpose, to dine at his boarding car. When they entered, all the guests and officers present cheered them as the chosen representatives of the race which have greatly helped to build the road....a tribute they well deserved and which evidently gave them much pleasure."

From the Sacramento Daily Bee, May 12, 1869

Strobridge and the Chinese

James Harvey Strobridge. A.J. Russell photo at Promontory, Utah, May 10, 1869, detail."In all the railroad celebrations, here or elsewhere, there was no honor done to the great labor army of that war without whose aid the road would not have been completed this day. The Chinese had no place assigned them; and we mention this now because it has been the subject of much conversation, and because it gives the opportunity of introducing the following from the [San Francisco] Alta's dispatch of the proceedings at the front when the last spike was driven: "J.H. Strobridge, Superintendent of Construction of the Central Pacific entertained the Press and the officers of the 21st Regiment, and others most sumptuously. When the other guests arose from the table Mr. Strobridge introduced his Chinese foreman and leader who had been with him so long, and took the head of the table. This manly and honorable proceeding was hailed with three rousing cheers by the Caucasian guests, military and civilians, who crowded around Strobridge to congratulate and assure him of sympathy."

"This Strobridge is a great man. The chief of all laborers of ten to twenty thousand men, who have been his soldiers for five years or for the whole campaign. He had the working of the whole line and Superintended all. He knows the value of labor and appreciates the workers as a General does his best fighting troops. His name should be remembered among the many who have been honored on this great occasion."

Courtesy Edson T. Strobridge.

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