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The workforce that built America’s railroads

Books of revisionist history are abundant, often a long-overdue re-evaluation of our national character. Enter “Ghosts of Gold Mountain: The Epic Story of the Chinese who Built the Transcontinental Railroad,” by Gordon H. Chang. The book spent several weeks on national best-seller lists, and the author will be the guest in this coming “Second Saturday” lecture for the Sonoma Valley Historical Society, live on Zoom at 2 p.m. on Oct. 10.

Chang, a Stanford University professor of American history, isn’t a one-trick pony, however. “I have written and continue to publish in the areas of U.S. diplomacy, America-China relations, the Chinese diaspora, Asian American history and global history,” he says.

And while the transcontinental railroad is a well-covered chapter in the story of the American West, its workforce is undervalued, he says.

Chang – who shares a name but not the views of a conservative columnist and television pundit – shows that during the nearly five years it took to build the Central Pacific’s portion of track, from Sacramento to Omaha, an estimated 20,000 Chinese men worked on the 690-mile line, fully 90 percent of the construction force. That’s not all: most of them were immigrants from Guandong (formerly Canton), just up the Pearl River from Hong Kong.

The “Gold Mountain” of the title is the name the Chinese had for America; author Lisa See’s first book, of her Chinese American family history, was titled “On Gold Mountain.”

It’s a story not so unfamiliar to the Wine Country. Chinese workers were crucial to the growth of the wine industry, helping build the vineyards not only in Sonoma Valley but throughout California. Part of this legacy has recently been recognized, though the still-struggling attempt to build a memorial Ting at Depot Park shows there’s still work to be done, miles of track to lay to get to a pancontinental connection.

Upcoming Second Saturday lectures from the Sonoma Valley Historical Society include Peter Meyerhof on Sonoma’s successful merchant Solomon Schocken, on Nov. 14; and on Dec. 12 historian and journalist Carrie Gibson introduces her latest book, “El Norte: The Epic and Forgotten Story of Hispanic North America.” More information at depotparkmuseum.org.

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