A Tribute to the Chinese who Helped Build the CPR, Part I

Stoney Creek Bridge, CP Rail bridge, Rogers Pass, BC, Photo by David R. Spencer

Photograph by David R. Spencer

For there was a time in this fair land when the railroad did not run
When the wild majestic mountains stood alone against the sun
Long before the white man and long before the wheel
When the green dark forest was too silent to be real…
And many are the dead men too silent to be real

Gordon Lightfoot, Canadian Railroad Trilogy, 1967

When I was a teen I crossed Canada by train, from Pacific to Atlantic. I marvelled at how big Canada was and how breath-taking the Rockies were. I doubt my youthful mind gave much, if any, thought to the construction of the railroad.

Just this past summer in Victoria, I watched a special presentation of the 2009 movie Iron Road, about the building of the Canadian Pacific Railway. Peter O’Toole (in one of his last roles) and Sam Neill both gave great performances. Though there were some aspects of the plot I found inauthentic (the feminism of the lead character and her romantic relationship with the white boss’s son), the movie was worth watching for its shedding of light on some little known historical events.

CPR train crossing the Fraser River at Siska,BC. Photo by Michael Frei

CPR train crossing Fraser River southbound on Cisco truss arch bridge at Siska, British Columbia. Photo by Michael Frei

The story takes place in the 1880’s, during the construction of the Fraser Canyon section of the Canadian Pacific Railway in British Columbia. It was a time of pushing an “iron road” through dense forests and rock-solid mountains. The wilderness, stunning for its beauty, was also unsparing in its brutality. To construct a railroad through this vast wilderness proved to be a feat of staggering proportions.

A labour shortage in 1880 vexed the contractor, Andrew Onderdonk, who set about the hiring of 1000s of Chinese men, many directly from China. These are the men featured in Iron Road.

Bitter Strength

Chinese labourers were called “coolies,” a disparaging term used to refer to “unskilled Asian workers.”

The Chinese word Kǔlì 苦力 means “bitter strength.” All rail workers—Asian, white or otherwise—needed to be strong to keep pace with the gruelling work. The Chinese, however, needed more strength than the rest. They needed the strength to survive unjust, racist treatment.

Chinese CPR builders in BC, 1880's


The Chinese were not wanted by the people of British Columbia. Prime Minister John A. MacDonald, saw the Chinese as an answer to the labour shortage and a way to save money. His blunt response was to the effect that “either  Chinese workers and a railroad or no Chinese workers and no railroad.”

Bitter Reality

The Chinese were paid $.75 to $1.25 per day, approximately half of what other workers made. They had to pay for their own food, clothing, transportation to work-sites, etc. Iron Road shows clearly the kind of dangerous jobs reserved for them. Most notable involved the handling of nitroglycerine explosives, used for the blasting of tunnels. Nitroglycerine is a substance so unstable that any unsteady movement is apt to set it off prematurely. Whether by accident or illness—scurvy was a common one—many Chinese died. To top it off, the injured or sick were denied access to company medical care, a very real example of adding insult to injury.

Chinese CPR work gang, Canadian Pacific Railway, tracks near summit, British Columbia

Families of the deceased Chinese were given no compensation; nor were they even informed. Later, many of those Chinese who’d survived had no money to return home. They spent the rest of their days isolated and poor in a country that didn’t want them.


Not only that. Upon completion of the railroad, the Canadian government passed laws designed to keep their wives and children and other Chinese out. See Part II of this blog to get a sense of this dark chapter in Canadian history.

[For those interested, the Chinese “head tax” will be the topic of the next meeting of the Victoria Canada-China Friendship Association. On Sept. 27, 2015, retired Victoria lawyer Mr. Barry Ming will share from his research and from his own family’s archive. If interested in attending, please visit Victoria Canada-China Friendship Association.]

A Fitting Response

Though it’s been many years since those hard-working men lived and died, I believe it’s fitting for us to stop and consider the phenomenal sacrifice and contribution all the railroad workers made, especially the Chinese.

Take the train or even drive through this area of central British Columbia, in particular, and you’ll get a graphic idea of what I mean. Just look at the tunnels blasted through mountains and consider: It was the Chinese who did that treacherous work!

Gordon Lightfoot’s Canadian Railroad Trilogy

In 1966, the CBC (Canadian Broadcasting Corporation) commissioned Gordon Lightfoot to write a song to celebrate Canada’s 1st Centennial. Fittingly, the song was first made public on January 1, 1967 by means of a special CBC broadcast. The structure of Lightfoot’s song is brilliant. Notice how its varying tempo captures both the feel of a train building up steam, slowing down, etc. and the emotional changes experienced by the workers. Indeed, what a vast land this is and how heroic the early builders of this land were! (Thank you, Gordon Lightfoot, for a beautiful beautiful song.)

Now here’s a little preview of what to expect in Part II of this blog, which pays tribute to the Chinese who helped build the Canadian Pacific Railway.

Preview to Part II

We’ll explore the validity of a thought-provoking consideration: “If not for the Chinese, would Canada as a coast-to-coast nation even exist?

Please visit Part II and find out the historical “validity” of the above statement, made in reference to the Chinese who helped build the railway. Until then, when you cross tracks, take a moment to think about the untold sweat and sorrow of the men who built the original iron roads, wherever those iron roads may be.

A dollar a day and a place for my head
A drink to the livin’ and a toast to the dead…

Gordon Lightfoot, Canadian Railroad Trilogy, 1967
By | 2017-05-28T18:37:19+00:00 September 22nd, 2015|Blogs with Music Featured, China & Chinese Culture, Movies, Music|30 Comments

About the Author:

Ramona McKean is creating a "Bridge of Light" (aka “a Bridge of the Heart”) to promote cross-cultural appreciation and awareness. An author and speaker, she lives in Victoria, BC, Canada.


  1. Chuck and Linda September 22, 2015 at 11:07 pm - Reply

    EXCELLENT! Good for you for writing this story! When we were children in the 1950s, our family took holidays from the coast through the treacherously high, narrow and winding Fraser Canyon. We always stopped at Hell’s Gate to marvel at the railroad construction and hear my parent’s stories about how it was built by the Chinese. Higher up in the Rockies we pulled over to a small viewpoint and waited hours to watch a freight train pass through the spiraling tunnels at Kicking Horse Pass. In the magnificent surrounding beauty, it’s hard to comprehend the human hardship and tragedy that accompanied the construction of these amazing engineering feats.

    • Ramona September 22, 2015 at 11:30 pm - Reply

      Chuck and Linda, thank you for your wonderful response! As a child, I too recall driving through the Fraser Canyon with my parents and stopping at Hell’s Gate. (Quite the appropriate name, don’t you think?!) I was in awe of the power of the river, so amazing and frightening. I loved seeing the trains too but don’t recall if my little kid brain computed that people must have built those tunnels and tracks.

      My dad used to bar fish along the Fraser in the Lower Mainland. I and my siblings used to go with him to play in the sand dunes. I will always remember our excitement with the passing trains, especially when the conductor waved back at us kids as we jumped up and down. Such fond memories. Trains were plain and simply special.

      “In the magnificent surrounding beauty, it’s hard to comprehend the human hardship and tragedy that accompanied the construction of these amazing engineering feats.” Extraordinarily well put!

      Thank you again for such a thoughtful response. I hope you enjoy part II once I get it completed and posted. (It’s well under way.) 🙂

  2. Dan McKean September 24, 2015 at 9:26 pm - Reply

    I am curious about what part II will include. BC was such a remote land at the time of confederation, a place that most easterners would never see in person or perhaps never see in picture either, maybe the odd sketch.

    Your quote from John A. MacDonald, “It’s either Chinese workers and a railroad or no Chinese workers and no railroad.” That was quite true. Without this exploited labour it probably would not have happened and BC may have never entered confederation.

    I recently watched a 50 minute documentary on Netflix on the building of the Hoover dam, the worlds largest concrete structure which took place in the 1930s. Although the workers were domestic men and didn’t have to deal with the evils of racism they were treated as a commodity and humane working conditions were not a consideration. Workers had to build 4 diversion tunnels to reroute the Colorado river. The diesel machines they used filled the tunnels with exhaust that poisoned many of the workers. The general manager of the project earned enormous bonuses for finishing the job 2 years ahead of schedule.

    Taking time to recount these moments in history makes you realize how far workers rights have come and how fortunate we are to work in buildings that are safe and built to code.

    • Ramona September 24, 2015 at 11:01 pm - Reply

      Thank you for the interesting reflections you have offered, Dan! Yes, British Columbia was a remote land that few Easterners would ever have seen. Thanks for writing about the Hoover Dam documentary you saw. What I hear is a deadly and profitable combination, deadly for manual labourers desperate for work and profitable for employers willing to sacrifice human life to get the job done fast. We are lucky to live in a developed land with workers’ rights and relatively safe work sites. I’m saddened to think of the places where this is not the case.

      I’m working on part II and will look forward to your comments on it. (It’ll be very much about what you wrote in your second paragraph.) I appreciate your taking the time to write.

  3. Xin Meng March 19, 2016 at 7:07 pm - Reply

    Thank you, Ramona, for writing this excellent and insightful blog article. Before reading it, I only knew that Chinese workers had sacrificed a lot in building railways in the United States. Little did I know that many Chinese also suffered such a horrible fate in Canada. They were absolutely the unsung heroes.

    At that time and even dozens of years later, building railways was a dangerous job, always involving the loss of human lives, but when people ride in their comfortable train cars and enjoy the breathtaking views outside, how many of them actually think of the hardship that the workers went through to make it happen?

    Many lives were also lost when the railway was built between Chengdu and Kunming in China in the 1960s. Having that railway was a great thing, because before that the only efficient way of traveling between the two cities was by plane, and few people could afford that. But maybe they could have had a better way to build the railway to avoid the loss of so many lives. It was said that Chairman Mao just drew a line between the two cities on the map and ordered the railway to be built. Had he thought about the lives that could be lost as a result of this huge endeavor, maybe he would not have proposed such a project. We may never know the true story behind it, but I think the Chinese government should have done something to honor these workers who lost their lives. Apparently, to this day, it still hasn’t done so.

    When China helped Zambia and Tanzania to build a railway between the two countries in the 1970s, about 60 Chinese workers also lost their lives. Today, it seems that nobody really remembers and appreciates them. I hope that a movie can be made to let people know about their contribution to the development of the two African countries at that time. Thank you again, Ramona, for bringing up this topic about Chinese railway workers. They should definitely be remembered.

    • Ramona March 20, 2016 at 5:11 pm - Reply

      Xin, I did not know about the Chengdu/Kunming railway. I’ve not been on that railway, but now that I consider the geography of China, it must have been a hellish feat to accomplish! I also did not know about the Zambia/Tanzania railway. So, thank you for this information. I want to return to Tanzania. You never know, maybe I’ll make a point of taking a train to Zambia from Tanzania, now that I now know a teeny piece of its history.

      It’s interesting to consider the invaluable role that Chinese labourers played in the development of other nations: Canada, the USA, Zambia and Tanzania. Those workers, as well as other migrant workers, must have suffered a great deal beyond the physical ordeal involved, considering language and cultural differences. I agree, it would be wonderful if we (as in all people) gave thought to what it must have taken to build the first railways, and a lot of other first things too, that we simply take for granted today.

  4. Donna Janke March 27, 2016 at 11:46 pm - Reply

    Great post. I’ve always thought the story of the Chinese workers building the Canadian railway was such a sad one, a terrible injustice to those who paid a key role in the creation of Canada. (looking forward to Part 2). I am currently spending some time in the southern U.S. The Gordon Lightfoot song and the pictures in the video make me homesick for my Canadian home (although it is in the prairies, not the Rockies).

    • Ramona March 28, 2016 at 10:47 am - Reply

      Hi Donna,
      Though I am at home, I can understand what you mean about listening to this Gordon Lightfoot song and feeling homesick. For me, Lightfoot conveys the essence of being Canadian. What do I mean by that? I can only “emotionally think” the answer to that question. It could be that he and his music strike a deep chord in me that reminds me I’m Canadian, and not in any flag-waving way. Might you understand what I mean? It would be interesting to hear people from other countries share what music and performers help make up some of their identity. Will you come home when spring is well underway? Safe travels when you do.
      🙂 Ramona

      • Donna Janke March 28, 2016 at 12:13 pm - Reply

        I completely understand the feeling you describe. I will be home when spring is well underway (I hope). We will be in British Columbia the end of April and back in Manitoba early to mid-May.

        • Ramona March 28, 2016 at 2:08 pm - Reply

          If you’re coming to Victoria, let me know, k?

  5. Phoenicia March 28, 2016 at 10:34 am - Reply

    Thank you for taking me back in history. The “coolies” were treated appallingly. Funnily this term is still used to describe the fairer skinned locals in Jamaica.

    The bridge in the first photograph looks scarily high. How exciting that you took a train journey aged 10. I wonder how long it took for you to arrive at your destination.

    • Ramona March 28, 2016 at 10:57 am - Reply

      Hi Phoenicia, thanks for your comment. I actually travelled across the country, from Vancouver, British Columbia to Dalhousie, New Brunswick when I was 16 and a part of a youth exchange program. I seem to recall the journey taking about 4 days. It was an exciting and wonderful experience! So, in Jamaica “fairer skinned locals” are called “coolies”? I bet there is an interesting story behind that.

  6. Erica March 28, 2016 at 12:01 pm - Reply

    I had no idea of the Chinese contribution to building the Canadian railroad. We take railroad travel for granted these days when we can get anywhere in the world on a plane within 24 hours. Back not that long ago, train travel really opened up the world for a lot of people. It is sad that the Chinese did so much and got so little respect. Sadly, that story tends to repeat itself over and over throughout history.The outsider is usually looked down upon, even if their contribution is great.

    • Ramona March 28, 2016 at 2:22 pm - Reply

      I agree, Erica, outsiders are often looked down upon, and especially so when they come from a different culture/race. People find all kind of reasons to look their noses down. A painful business.

      In Canada to travel by railroad is a novelty kind of choice, it seems. Train travel provides a very different experience, which I’ve enjoyed. In China, trains are just as much in demand as planes. I’ve done three long train trips in China, from basic, so to speak, to luxury. Really great, actually. Thanks for your comment.

  7. Ken Dowell March 28, 2016 at 5:16 pm - Reply

    Unfortunately, throughout history engineering marvels were often built on the backs of workers who were underpaid, discriminated against and put in jeopardy. I guess that goes back at least to the pyramids.

    • Ramona March 28, 2016 at 7:30 pm - Reply

      Ken, I think you are right.

  8. Sabrina Quairoli March 28, 2016 at 5:31 pm - Reply

    I had no idea about the Chinese and what the Canadian government did. Did the Canadian government ever acknowledge their wrong doing? Thanks for sharing.

    • Ramona March 28, 2016 at 8:03 pm - Reply

      It was a long time in the coming, Sabrina, but the Canadian government did finally acknowledge and officially apologize for the past discriminatory/racist policies and laws. I believe you will find distinct parallels in the USA, though I have not done the same level of research as I did with the Canadian.

  9. Catarina March 29, 2016 at 3:57 am - Reply

    Seems the Chinese have built railways for other countries for a long time. Now they are doing the same in the Middle East. And, believe it or not, they may even start in Sweden. In my country they will be paid fair wages but that’s definitely not the case in the Middle East.

    • Ramona March 29, 2016 at 7:02 pm - Reply

      I’ve learned something new from you, Catarina. Thank you!

  10. Doreen Pendgracs March 29, 2016 at 2:54 pm - Reply

    This is such an excellent post, Ramona. I did see the Iron Road program and it was very enlightening. And thx for posting Gordon Lightfoot’s song. I always play his music when we drive thru the Rockies as it’s such fitting music.

    Have you visited the Tunnels of Moosejaw, Saskatchewan? They have a tunnel devoted to the Chinese who lived in the town and built the railway. I was shocked to learn how the Chinese immigrants were treated.

    • Ramona March 29, 2016 at 7:27 pm - Reply

      Doreen, I’ve never actually visited Moose Jaw, and did not know about the Tunnels. Now that I’ve googled “Tunnels of Moose Jaw,” I’ve learned a bit more, that: in 1927, Moose Jaw was a centre for the Saskatchewan KKK; some Chinese used the dark tunnels to live and work in; the tunnels were used by organized crime (Al Capone possibly) during prohibition. Fascinating! Thank you for enlightening me.

  11. Marquita Herald March 29, 2016 at 5:05 pm - Reply

    Wonderful song! Very interesting story Ramona and I’m looking forward to Part II. For better or worse, history is filled with similar stories and, of course, people from all parts of Asia played an integral role in the sugar plantations where I live in the Islands. We’ve become so focused on political correctness these days it’s easy to condemn those in history for their bad behavior, but the reality is it was the times. One of my favorite things to do is to read old articles and journals available at the Project Gutenberg website. Many of them would shock people today but again it was the times and rather than hiding or condemning them I’d rather learn from them so that we can better understand where we’ve come from and avoid the same mistakes in the future. Thanks for the great read!

    • Ramona March 29, 2016 at 9:18 pm - Reply

      Thank you, Marquita, for your super response, and I agree with you. The reality of past times was what it was. It’s not fitting to sugarcoat it. Neither is it fitting to use our 21st Century standards to judge people of the past who lived according to their own time’s standards. Doing so does not serve us well. Indeed, let’s learn with the intention to understand, not to shore up personal biases/prejudices. We have evolved to a degree, no question of that, and we still have a long ways to go.

      I take my own life as an interesting measure of how I and Canadian society have evolved. (Some other societies too, of course.) I was born in the middle-ish part of the 20th Century. It was a “fact” of life that a woman’s place was in the home. She was to have babies and look after many, if not most or all, of their immediate needs. Men generally did not, for instance, change stinky diapers or get up in the middle of the night when the baby cried. To have a child out of wedlock was, to put it mildly, “downright shameful” and people were “justified” to call the child horrible things, as though it was the child’s own “fault.” To be separated from one’s spouse was something to hide and to divorce was even worse. Homosexuality was utterly unspeakable, as was the instance of two same gendered people living together. The list goes on and on. The decade of the 1960s was a revolutionary God-send for shaking up and shaping anew societal norms.

      I look way back at some of my thoughts about and behavior toward others, and I initially feel stricken with embarrassment/shame. The truth is that in terms of narrow, ignorant ways, I was no different from many others. I was a product of those times and I am extremely grateful that those times changed fast. What I have come to realize is that learning with the head and the heart is what is going to help humankind become more human. We have a lot of learning to do.

  12. Jeri March 29, 2016 at 8:02 pm - Reply

    Some of your pics remind me of the area I grew up. That railbed has been changed to the Route of the Hiawatha Bike Trail on the north Idaho / western Montana border. Along the way are lots of signs that tell the story of the railroads, especially the Chinese workers. This post is a good supplement to what I learned on that bike ride.

    • Ramona March 29, 2016 at 9:26 pm - Reply

      Interesting about the bike trail using an old rail-bed. In my travels I have seen many abandoned rail lines, trestles, etc. It’s a different world today. Trains are an important means of transporting goods still, but not as important as previously for transporting people. And, trains and their whistles still have an instinctual appeal to many people. Thanks for commenting, Jeri.

  13. William Rusho April 5, 2016 at 7:34 am - Reply

    I was totally aware of how the Chinese built the American railroad system, but was unfamiliar with Canada’s. This was until I saw on a Canadian TV (I live near Canada and get these channels). They use to have a history minute between shows. This particular one described the Chinese building the railroad.
    Thanks for sharing this with us.

  14. Ed April 25, 2017 at 10:46 pm - Reply

    Excellent presentation of historical facts. Have times changed all that much? In a state of economic crises governments always need scapegoats and, the great majority of people always follow leaders who will satisfy their needs and survival. The 2nd and 3rd generations of Japanese never thought that they would be interned during the second World War. Why were people of German and Italian descent never interned? I think that the public has to be constantly reminded of historical sins. Hopefully history may one day stop repeating itself.

    • Ramona McKean April 27, 2017 at 6:47 pm - Reply

      Thanks for your thought-provoking comments here, Ed! I am not a skeptical person by nature, yet I truly wonder if “we” (humans in general) will really learn from past injustice. It seems a tall order, maybe too tall? “Injustice” is a matter of perception. If one is not on the receiving end, it’s a little too easy to push whatever the particular injustice it is out of mind. After all, to keep it in mind and do anything about it would involve being empathetic–feeling others’ pain! I wonder how many people can truly empathize with others who may easily (conveniently) fit into racial stereotypes. Do you get my meaning here?

      Also, we humans are Vulnerable (deliberate capital V) to leaders who induce fear. Fear is a great way to control people in order to aggrandize one’s (the leader’s, for example) power. Many leaders (and others too) are driven by ego; for instance, maintaining political and economic power. Stir up people’s fear, tell lies, find scapegoats (as you already mentioned) and treat others inhumanely to further one’s own aims promotes short-sighted strategies that normally decent people will be manipulated into buying into.

      Maybe we are evolving as a human race. I hope so! We need to educate ourselves, clean our own hearts and minds, and help others to see and learn and care too. I really got going here! Thanks again, Ed. 🙂

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