by Jindong Cai, Professor of Music and Arts and the director of US-China Music Institute at Bard College Conservatory of Music
2019 marks the 150th anniversary of the completion of the first Transcontinental Railroad across the United States. Between 1863 and 1869, tens of thousands of men labored under perilous, often deadly conditions to build the tracks that would join the Eastern and Western halves of the United States and forever transform our nation.
On May 10, 1869, Leland Stanford traveled to Promontory Summit, Utah, where he drove a golden spike into the ground and ceremonially linked the tracks of the Central Pacific and Union Pacific, thereby completing the line. All but invisible at the Golden Spike ceremony, and long missing from historic record, are the thousands of Chinese workers who toiled to lay the line over the monumental Sierra Nevada mountains and across the burning deserts of Nevada and Utah. To give a voice to these Chinese migrants, Stanford professors Gordon H. Chang and Shelley Fisher Fishkin established the important Chinese Railroad Workers in North America Project at Stanford University in 2012, coordinating research and publishing new findings both online and in print.
Now, to further amplify the long-silent voices of the Railroad Chinese, the Stanford Center for East Asian Studies and the US-China Music Institute at the Bard College Conservatory of Music have collaborated with the Chinese Railroad Workers’ Project to commission a musical work, Men of Iron and the Golden Spike. This project was conceived by Professor Chang and me back in 2013 following many discussions about how best to mark this important anniversary. We finally decided to bring the story to the stage with a large-scale symphonic oratorio. The combination of orchestra and choruses from the U.S. and China reflects the magnitude of the undertaking, and also creates a piece for many participants, just like the building of the railroad.