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Campus News

September 23rd, 2021

Harrod kicks off Joan Crawford Lecture Series Chinese immigrants' role in transcontinental railroad explored

Dr. Ryan Harrod

Dr. Ryan Harrod, Dean of Academic Affairs

Chinese immigrant laborers played a key role in building the transcontinental railroad – but at a cost that included accidental and occupational injuries, violence-related trauma, and state-sanctioned racism.

Dr. Ryan Harrod, Garrett College's dean of academic affairs, examined the 19th-century Chinese labor experience Wednesday night at Garrett College during a presentation entitled "Hard Labor and Hostile Encounters: Chinese Immigrants and the Transcontinental Railroad." The event rebooted the monthly Joan Crawford Lecture Series of free, open-to-the-public presentations that will include two other fall 2021 lectures.

Dr. Harrod – whose academic specialization is in biological anthropology – focused on both historical and bioarchaeological perspectives in delivering his presentation.

The historical evidence is generally well-known: anti-Chinese riots; court rulings that made Chinese ineligible for naturalized citizenship; California's anti-miscegenation law against interracial marriage; the Chinese Exclusion Act that ultimately prohibited Chinese immigration. The irony, according to Dr. Harrod, is that immigrant Chinese labor was originally encouraged to reduce labor costs.

"When they were first coming over, there was a demand for Chinese labor," said Dr. Harrod. "But then they began outcompeting other groups because they were really efficient at their jobs and tensions developed.

"The Chinese Exclusion Act was the first-ever federal law that prohibited immigrant by a specific nationality," continued Harrod, who provided a link to read about that legislation. (

The Chinese laborers, in addition to being discriminated against, had their significant contributions to the building of the transcontinental railroad officially ignored. Dr. Harrod showed the iconic photo of the linking of the Western Pacific and Central Pacific railroads at Promontory Summit, Utah with the Chinese laborers notably absent.

Dr. Harrod employed research from the remains of 13 male Chinese laborers discovered in Carlin, Nevada to provide a bioarchaeological perspective on their experience. There was evidence of accidental and occupational injuries, extreme muscle-related changes – due to muscle pulling away from the bones due to the hard labor – as well as violence-related trauma.

Follow Garrett College on Facebook to be a part of the next installment of the Joan Crawford Lecture Series.

Dr. Harrod said the bioarchaeological evidence supports the oral history of Chinese immigrants' descendants regarding the dangerous, back-breaking work of those 19th-century laborers.

"They were blasting through canyon walls with dynamite, hanging over cliffs in baskets to build bridges to support the railroads – all very dangerous work," observed Dr. Harrod. "One individual we think was crushed by a mining cart – ribs all fractured, chest crushed in. When you're blowing up tunnels. . . things can happen."

Dr. Harrod noted that the laborers were "very good at what they did despite such challenging circumstances. Some of those bridges are still in use today."

Dr. Harrod said the 13 laborers – whose gravesites were discovered in 1996 – were repatriated by the present-day residents of Carlin three years ago. A plaque at the new burial site notes that they "were re-interred with full honors in this, their final resting place, on July 3, 2018."

Dr. Harrod noted the impressive work regarding Chinese railroad workers done by Stanford University in their Chinese Railroad Workers in North America project.

Notes: Dr. Harrod paid tribute to Professor Joan Crawford, who served as a Garrett College admissions director, faculty member and humanities department chair. Professor Crawford, who spent three decades at Garrett College, was the first individual to be awarded Professor Emeritus status at the College.

Professor Crawford's daughter, Susie Crawford, was among those in attendance at Wednesday's event.

Retired Garrett College Professor Beth Lauers presents "Hitler's Wrath, When Hatred Takes Root" on October 27th in the lecture series' second event of the year. Dr. Emily Kasecamp, an adjunct instructor at Garrett College, presents "Washington's Road of 1753: A British, American, and Native American Enterprise" on November 17th. Both events start at 6 p.m.

Learn more about the Joan Crawford Lecture Series at Garrett College.