“You must have this labour, or you can’t have the railway”: Chinese Labourers and the Construction of the Canadian Pacific Railway

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Editor’s Note: This is the fourth post in a short series showcasing undergraduate student research in energy history. Elizabeth Gorsalitz’s post is derived from an essay written for Andrew Watson’s course Energy and Power: The History of Energy at the University of Saskatchewan.

After the last spike of the Canadian Pacific Railway (CPR) connecting eastern to western Canada was hammered down in 1885, President of the CPR, Sir William Cornelius Van Horne, stated, “All I can say is that the work has been well done in every way.”1 Van Horne’s remarks signalled the completion of a daunting four-year project from 1881 to 1885 to connect the western portion of the railway to Eastern Canada. Familiar names, such as Macdonald and Van Horne are often credited for completing the transcontinental railway and bringing progress to Canada. However, constructing such a massive energy network required an abundance of human labour.

Between 1881 and 1885, over thirty thousand labourers of diverse ethnicities were central to the project’s success.2 The somatic energy of over fifteen thousand Chinese workers fuelled the construction and success of the railway. The Chinese experience was defined by racism, illness, starvation, and death.3 Thus, the value of Chinese labour was treated as energy rather than humanity. Through understanding the Western perception of the railway as a symbol of progress, I analyze an excerpt from a local newspaper, the Yale Sentinel, through an energy lens and showcase how the modern vision of progress racialized Chinese labour. The labour demanded by the modern railway racialized energy by turning Chinese labourers into commodities to fulfill Canada’s pursuit of progress.

In applying a Western energy perspective to the Chinese labour experience constructing the railway, I build upon Richard White’s discussion of the railway as a symbol of progress through modernizing civilization, and Cara New Daggett’s breakdown of how a Western framing of energy can be understood as trajectorism, as unlimited and always in constant motion moving towards progress.4 The racialization of Chinese energy as a commodity fits into the trajectorism of energy viewed as always in abundance and in motion, but also dehumanized so that it could be bought and utilized by the CPR. The construction of the western portion of the railway demanded racialized energy that the CPR met through the commodification of Chinese labour to complete this Western ideal of progress. Not all human energy could be easily racialized and dehumanized. White workers were paid more, supplied food, worked less dangerous tasks, and were given shelter.5 What set Chinese workers apart from other labourers was existing Chinese stereotypes. Peter Ward describes how Chinese people were depicted by the Canadian government as backward, diseased, alien, and inferior.6 In many cases, Chinese people were often described as creatures. Most significantly, these stereotypes portrayed to the public and the government that Chinese people should be prevented from working as fully-fledged members of Canadian society.7 Western modernity stripped Chinese workers of their humanity while racializing their worth as energy packets. The labour demanded by the modern railway racialized energy by turning Chinese labourers into commodities to fulfill the modern West’s pursuit of progress.

Eight men push wheelbarrows full of dirt out of a ditch. Four men oversea the work. Other men are working in the ditch farther in the distance. Trees line the bank at the top of the image.
Chinese labourers engaged in the construction of the Canadian Pacific Railway.
Source: Ernest Brown, Chinese at work on C.P.R in Mountains, 1884 (Library and Archives Canada, C-006686B, Boorne & May, 1884).

On March 1883, the Yale Sentinel wrote that “Here in British Columbia along the line of the railway, the Chinese workmen are fast disappearing under the ground. No Medical attention is furnished nor apparently much interest felt for these poor creatures. We understand that Mr. Onderdonk [CPR Construction Contractor] declines interfering, while the Lee Chuck Co. [labour contractor], that brought the Chinamen from their native land, refused through their agent Lee Soon, who is running the Chinese gang at Emory, to become responsible for doctors and medicine.”8

This excerpt showcases the poor treatment of Chinese labours and the lack of response by the CPR to address or improve the situation. It frames the CPR’s attitude and action throughout 1881-1885, as the Chinese workers were paid a low wage which they quickly used up to supply their own food and supplies to work, while white workers were fully provided for.9 The basic human needs of Chinese workers for rest, food, and shelter were disregarded, but they remained a vital energy source for the railway. The CPR treated Chinese workers as if they were commodities, expendable and easily replaceable resources. In the context of the influx of Chinese immigrants looking for work in North America to better their lives and support their families back home, the CPR felt no need to supply food, shelter, medical treatment, or other aid to Chinese workers.10 By treating Chinese workers as energy commodities, they were able to frame them as a constant resource they could pull from to achieve their powerful symbol of progress. 

There are few Chinese voices in this narrative of such a large and poorly treated group that were vital to the railroad’s success. One of the few sources from the Chinese perspective comes from the diary of Dukesang Wong, who expressed his hope for his people in Canada. After four gruelling years of labour, Wong states, “Times for us now are definitely changing, and the fortunes of our people need great care and guarding.”11 Wong’s hopes for his people went unanswered. After the railway was completed, anti-Chinese views intensified, culminating in the head tax and restrictions on Chinese immigration into Canada.12 The completion of the railway introduced this massive energy source, resulting in a drastic decrease in the value of Chinese energy as a commodity, and no longer any place for Chinese workers in Canada remained. Railway history tends to praise the politicians, managers, engineers, and innovators who made the railway possible. The labourers, the energy used to build the railway as a symbol of progress and power, are underrepresented or not celebrated. The energy perspective forces us to turn our attention away from the big names such as Van Horne and Macdonald. Energy history puts labourers as the main actors. In the case of “the Great Railway,” Chinese labourers emerge as central to the story. The railway was a massive revolutionary project that energized Canada during the industrial revolution. Yet it required a massive amount of racialized human energy to bring that dream to reality.


1. Pierre Berton, The Great Railway: 1881-1885. (Toronto, ON: Anchor Canada, 1971), 415.

2. Berton, Great Railway, 204.

3. Shehla Burney, Coming to Gum San: The Story of Chinese Canadians. (Toronto: Multicultural History Society of Ontario, 1995), 16.

4. Richard White, Railroaded: Transcontinental and the Making of Modern America. (New York: W. W. Norton, 2011); Cara N. Daggett, The Birth of Energy: Fossil Fuels, Thermodynamics, and the Politics of Work,  (Duke University Press, 2019). 

5. Burney, Coming to Gum San: The Story of Chinese Canadians, 16.

6. Peter W. Ward, White Canada Forever: Popular Attitudes and Public Policy toward Orientals in British Columbia. (Montreal: McGill-Queen’s UP, 2002,) 5.

7. Ward, White Canada Forever, 5-6.

8. Yale Sentinel. Newspaper excerpt from 1883, Yale, BC. In The Last Spike: The Great Railway 1881-1885, by Pierre Berton, (Toronto, ON: Anchor Canada, 1971), 203

9. Burney, Coming to Gum San: The Story of Chinese Canadians, 16.

10. Burney, Coming to Gum San: The Story of Chinese Canadians, 13.

11. Dukesang Wong, The Diary of Dukesang Wong, Translated by Wanda Joy Hoe, (Vancouver, BC: Talonbooks, 2020), 63.

12. Burney, Coming to Gum San: The Story Of Chinese Canadians, 16

Feature image: Alexander Ross, Hon. Donald A. Smith driving the last spike to complete the Canadian Pacific Railway Nov. 7th 1885 (Library and Archives Canada / C-003693, 1885).
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Elizabeth Gorsalitz

Elizabeth has recently completed her B.A. in History from the University of Saskatchewan, and will continue her studies in pursuing an M.A. at the University of Calgary. Her research interests include Western Canada, wilderness, mountaineering, and Canadian Pacific Railway Hotels.

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