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Ghosts of Gold Mountain: The Epic Story of the Chinese Who Built the Transcontinental Railroad

3.74  ·  Rating details ·  221 ratings  ·  48 reviews
“Gripping… Chang has accomplished the seemingly impossible… he has written a remarkably rich, human and compelling story of the railroad Chinese.”—Peter Cozzens, Wall Street Journal

A groundbreaking, breathtaking history of the Chinese workers who built the Transcontinental Railroad, helping to forge modern America only to disappear into the shadows of history until now.

Hardcover, 320 pages
Published May 7th 2019 by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
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Bob H
Apr 23, 2019 rated it it was amazing
May 2019 is the 150th anniversary of the Golden Spike ceremony, so it's fitting for this groundbreaking new book, one which tells the story of the Railroad Chinese, as the author calls them, in detail for the first time. To build the transcontinental railroad, to bind the nation east and west after a war dividing it north and south, the Pacific end of the venture -- the Central Pacific RR, building eastward from Sacramento -- needed workers. The nearest source of labor was China.

This is the
Dec 18, 2018 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: history
(Note: I received an ARC of this book courtesy of NetGalley)

Throughout this work, author Gordon Chang rightfully laments the current lack of firsthand accounts from any of the Chinese migrants who helped construct the Transcontinental Railroad. However, if he hadn't called attention to this issue so plainly, I'm genuinely unsure if it's something that I would have been able to pick up on. That's because through drawing upon a diverse and wide range of resources and research, Chang is still able
The western portion of the Transcontinental Railroad was built almost entirely by immigrant Chinese, 20,000 or so of them. I expect most of us are vaguely aware of that, and I expect most of us are aware this was hard, dangerous work. Begun in 1864, finished in 1869, this portion stretches from Sacramento across the Sierra Nevadas, to the desert scrub of Promontory Point, Utah, a distance of 690 miles. This is history we think we learned in eighth grade. Gordon Chang takes our tiny tidbit and ...more
John Yingling
Jul 13, 2019 rated it really liked it
I only slightly knew of the Chinese contributions to the building of the Transcontinental Railroad. This enlightening book opened my eyes, so to speak, to the enormous part played by these men, and to their sacrifices and dedication in doing so. Without their efforts, the western half of the railroad would not have been completed, certainly not in any reasonable time frame. This is history at its finest. And, it helps me fill in some gaps in my knowledge of American history, as well as to make ...more
Nov 05, 2019 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: audio, the-west
This book is very awesome and very necessary (yep, I'm a total sophisticate when it comes to writing book reviews).
I grew up in nowhere Nevada, right on the Central RR where many Chinese Railroad workers worked back in the day during this massive undertaking to connect East to West via railroad. The Chinese came over in the thousands, but unfortunately there is (currently) very little primary source material for historians to draw upon to full tell their story. This book is an attempt to fill
Randall Harrison
Jun 25, 2019 rated it it was ok
Perhaps my expectations were a little too high for this book. I thought this would provide more specific detail than I've received in reading other books about the construction of the intercontinental railroad, like Stephen Ambrose's, Nothing Like It In The World. The detail here is extensive; however, the addition of detail about the Chinese doesn't make the narrative flow or the book any more enjoyable to read. It would have made a better long read in a magazine or journal, but to me doesn't ...more
Schuyler Wallace
Apr 29, 2019 rated it really liked it

Gordon H. Chang has written a fascinating account of the labor and technology involved in building the Transcontinental Railroad. For seven years, two railroad companies raced towards each other across some 1,900 miles of the United States, completing a link between the East and West coasts. It was a monumental task and featured the tireless work of an estimated 20,000 Chinese laborers, 90 percent of Central Pacific’s workforce, who toiled under brutal working conditions, particularly in the
Jul 18, 2019 rated it really liked it
At issue in the controversy over the deaths of Chinese who perished during and after the construction of the Pacific Railroad is the deep anguish and anger many felt about the suffering Chinese endured in nineteenth-century America, which has yet to be fully acknowledged. The grief continues long after the moments of tragedy. Numbers can suggest dimensions; the deeper question is the meaning of historical experience to the living. For many, especially Chinese-Americans, the history of the ...more
May 24, 2019 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: biography
Stanford University Sinologist Gordon H. Chang has taken a bit of history that most of us probably never learned and made it come alive.

Chinese immigrants to the United States were the major construction force of the Central Pacific Railroad, which connected with the Union Pacific at Promontory Summit. Hired at sub-market wages, which were still more than they might have imagined earning at home, thousands of Chinese men risked their lives to make the Transcontinental Railroad a reality.

Chris Miller
Sep 03, 2019 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: history, 2019
Chief Left Hand by Margaret Coel is an amazing book that I admire very much, but with difficult sourcing due to a lack of records from the Indian perspective. Gordon H. Chang has raised the difficulty level with Ghosts of Gold Mountain, an excellent history of the "railroad" Chinese that were critical to the completion of the Central Pacific Rail Road end of the transcontinental. Despite the fact that there are no diaries, letters, or memoirs from those who made up over 90% of the labor force ...more
Ammi Bui
Nov 10, 2019 rated it it was amazing
Gordon Chang tells the story of the "Railroad Chinese" in an exciting and engrossing way that got me to keep reading... all through my Sunday-- good-bye, weekend. This book didn't feel like a typical slog through dense academic material the way some nonfiction books do. The presentation was great, and I learned a lot.

The footnotes in here are fricken funky, though. At first, I thought there were none, but there are a ton of notes/citations at the back of the book that reference specific
Sep 10, 2019 rated it really liked it
A story about the Chinese workers on the railroad during the the building of the transacross our nation
Mar 31, 2019 rated it really liked it
This review is part of the Amazon Vine program.

I had known before that a lot of Chinese Immigrants came over to work on the railroads back in the 19th century. What I didn't know was the extent, the hardship, and just how integral they were to the effort.

Ghosts of Gold Mountain is a pretty definitive history of the "Railroad Chinese" who built the Transcontinental Railroad. As definitive as it can be considering there are no first-hand accounts themselves from the workers. It would seem that no
Oct 07, 2019 added it
The is an amazing book in two ways. First, the story of the incredible human cost of building the Sierra Mountain portion of the transcontinental railway was amazing. "Gold Mountain" was the term by which the Sierras were known by the Chinese workers (due to the Gold found in them). But also amazing is the wealth of information the author was able to uncover, given how poorly records of the Chinese workers were kept. Clearly a work of passion on the part of the author. The book did begin to drag ...more
Dec 31, 2019 rated it liked it
How does one write a history when no records exist upon which to base a narrative? Early on in this “epic story of the Chinese who built the transcontinental railroad,” author Gordon Chang laments the fact that not a single diary, memoir, or collection of letters has ever been unearthed to give us a first-person account of the lives of the men who crossed the Pacific Ocean from their villages in the south of China to seek their fortunes in the western United States in the years immediately ...more
Craig Scandrett-Leatherman
Nov 19, 2019 rated it it was amazing
This is indeed an epic story of the Chinese who were primarily responsible for building the western and most challenging section of the U.S. transcontinental railroad which was completed about 150 years ago, May 10, 1869. Gordon Chang's story begins by describing the politics and life of the Guangdong province in southern China from which most of the railroad workers, young and male, were recruited and it ends with a description of Chinese women working in San Francisco brothels and Chinese ...more
Jul 17, 2019 rated it really liked it
This was a very informative book, although clearly difficult for the author to write based on first-hand accounts of the Chinese experience on building the transcontinental railroad, since there are few first-hand accounts that have been preserved. The author presents much of his material from inference based on similar experiences of Chinese in other situations. Nonetheless, there is nothing apparent that would indicate that these inferences cannot be assumed to be correct.

The book clearly
Aug 19, 2019 rated it really liked it
Most Americans learn in school that there were Chinese workers on the transcontinental railroad project, but that’s usually where it stops. Chang, professor of humanities and of history at Stanford, the director of the Center for East Asian Studies and co-director of the Chinese Railroad Workers in North America project, has gone to primary sources to shine a light on the lives of the some 20,000 workers who came from China to work on the tracks.

When the Transcontinental Railroad project was
Sep 04, 2019 rated it really liked it
It took an epic research effort to create this story of the thousands of Chinese who worked over four years to build the western portion of the Transcontinental Railroad. I say epic because there is not a single surviving piece of writing by one of the actual workers. Gordon Chang told their story through other people's letters, journalistic reports, photographs, payroll records, archaelogical evidence, folk songs sung back in China and interviews with descendants. It is a work of academic ...more
Chang says over and over how little information survives to document the experiences and identities of the thousands of Railroad Chinese whose contributions changed America forever, yet he manages to write a lucid and thorough book about them. Cover to cover, this text is extraordinary and long, long overdue. This should be required reading and certainly fills a giant gaping hole in the bookshelves about the transcontinental railroad project. I think my favorite chapters are the final two: Chang ...more
Apr 01, 2019 rated it liked it
Shelves: history
The actual content of this book is very interesting. It tells the story of 1000s of Chinese immigrants would built the Western half of the Transcontinental Railroad. It gives lots of details on how immigration worked, how the Chinese performed dangerous construction that included tunneling through the Sierra Nevada Mountains, and how they lived. There's a lot of interesting information here, including Chinese workers' traditions, how they ate and lived as well as the terrifying work that they ...more
Aug 06, 2019 rated it it was ok
This can't decide if it's an academic work or a historical nonfiction narrative. This was a shame since it made it quite difficult to read at times. I wish the author had chosen the latter style and removed some of his own analysis, which at times is barely at a high school level - ex: reminding the reader that the experience of a non specific Chinese worker (who's hypothetical story he pieces together from a variety of evidence (folk songs, ledgers, artefacts)) was not unique to a single ...more
Jun 24, 2019 rated it really liked it
This section of American history has been long overlooked and deserves to be told. And the research and accounts from descendants have been painstakingly difficult to locate and gather. I looked forward to reading this, and did learn much about the hardships, the southern region in China where the workers came from (the Guangdong region is where my family is from), and the details of life in the labor camps and Chinatowns was fascinating, and the accounts of racism were horrific. I did find the ...more
May 25, 2019 rated it really liked it
Shelves: nonfiction
According to the author's introduction, it sounds like a book like this, a telling of the transcontinental railroad building from the point of view of the Chinese, hasn't really existed up until this point. So for that reason, I'm really glad it was written! I didn't go through the end notes thoroughly, but it feels well researched just based on the types and number of sources the author used to tell the story.

However, for whatever reason, I thought it was just kind of boring to read through,
Maughn Gregory
Jul 15, 2019 rated it it was amazing
My father sang with the Mormon Tabernacle Choir in 1969 at the centennial celebration of the completion of the continental railroad. Mormons were an important contingent of the laborers that brought the Central Pacific line to Promontory, Utah after it arrived in the Territory from Nevada. But 90% of the laborers who brought the line from Sacramento California were Chinese immigrants who took on the most dangerous jobs, worked longer hours and were paid a lot less than white laborers, and were ...more
Aug 26, 2019 rated it it was amazing
I saw this book featured on CBS Sunday Morning. While it took me a few months to read, that says more about my schedule and reading habits than the book. I found it extremely well written, deeply compelling and both wonderfully uplifting and horrifyingly sad. Professor Chang and his colleagues have written an important work. They give voice to the forgotten, and remind us that history is written by the victors. Sadly, much of the racism portrayed in the book during the building of the ...more
Joseph Ribera
Aug 12, 2019 rated it liked it
Lots of facts, some redundacy. Poor quality photos. It’s dual themes were: celebrating the accomplishments of the several thousands of Chinese men who worked on the railroad; and decrying the lack of recognition they received at the time and since for their contribution. Dispels some myths regarding early Chinese immigrant workers. Common belief was that they were illiterate coolies, almost slaves. Most were not only literate, but highly skilled in engineering mechanics. They were motivated by ...more
Katie Bee
Jun 10, 2019 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: 2019-books-read
A fantastic book about the lives, work, and culture of the Railroad Chinese. I have long wished for a strong book about this crucial part of the American story, and finally one has arrived. Chang explores the world of the Railroad Chinese with a deft and thoughtful hand, delivering a masterclass in how to research and write history when the usual sort of primary sources are missing. (No first-hand sources from Railroad Chinese survive.)

This is a tour de force from an eminent historian at the
Kevin Luy
Dec 01, 2019 rated it really liked it
Shelves: read-in-2019
I found the methodology (often hidden in asides) for pulling this work together as interesting as the already fascinating topic.

Chang presents academic quality research through highly readable prose. He makes excellent decisions in presenting the story, such as starting not in America but in the region of China most workers come from.

The book is at once exactly what you expect (a pretty straightforward history of the railroad Chinese), and full of many unexpected tangents and topics.
Nov 19, 2019 rated it really liked it
Shelves: book-group
Impressed with Gordon Chang for finding nearly invisible history and breathing life into it. What I mean by that is that his research relied on few obvious sources: deep digging and oral (old) sources were necessary. No easy feat to find all of the information he did about the Chinese that build the railroad, as he details in the book. Includes some GRIPPING scenes about just how dangerous it was to build and estimates (as well as narratives) on lives lost.
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