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  • Emily Pan

Chinese Contribution to San Luis Obispo Railroad

Updated: Jul 6, 2020

(Video Courtesy of Elliot Gong)

Though often forgotten, the railroads present in San Luis Obispo would not be here today, if it weren't for the Chinese laborers. Many have failed to give credit to the Chinese laborers, but it was actually Ah Louis' laborers who laid the first tracks, from as north as the San Luis Obispo County line in San Miguel. In just one year, from 1885 - 1886, the Chinese laborers had laid railroad tracks from San Miguel to Santa Margarita.

But despite their efforts, anti-Chinese riots had been popping up in places like San Jose in as early as 1888. Similarly, in San Luis Obispo, Editor of the Tribune, Benjamin Brooks, boasted that “No Chinese Worked on the Tunnels or the Railroad,” when the first train came down the Grade in 1894. Therefore, the Southern Pacific Railroad refused to hire Chinese laborers to continue work on the railroad. As a result, the Chinese were not recognized for their work, as they did not construct the tunnels on the Cuesta Grade. However, it was because the Chinese laborers laid tracks up to the entrance of the tunnel in the North, and continued to lay tracks in the south from San Luis Obispo City to Guadalupe, that led to the construction of the Cuesta Grade. As can be seen, there would be no railroad in San Luis Obispo and Santa Barbara Counties, without the Chinese.

Similarly, in Northern California and Nevada, the Chinese helped construct railroads through the treacherous Sierra Nevada mountains, yet when the railroad was finished, the Chinese laborers were told to get out of the picture. In fact, thousands of Chinese laborers died in the process, but when the Southern Pacific Railroad operations foreman, Strobridge, was asked how many Chinese laborers died, his attitude was, "I couldn't tell you, countless numbers died, but we just stopped counting."

"Gandy Dancers" Iron Road Pioneers Statue (Photo Courtesy of Emily Pan)

In 2003, the community determined these acts were purely forms of racism, so community members including the Cafe Roma owners came together to fund the "Gandy Dancers" Iron Road Pioneers Statue. Thanks to General John Gong, the heroic rescuer of the project, the statue was created and today, it stands at the Old Railroad Center of San Luis Obispo, serving as a dedication to the Chinese laborers who helped construct the Southern Pacific Railroad.

Interested in learning more about the railroads and Chinese laborers? Click here. Also, evidence from Howard Louis and the Southern Pacific Railway Company, stated here, shows that the Chinese made a significant contribution in improving transportation to and from San Luis Obispo County.


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