Tuesday, June 13, 2023

Wicker Baskets at Cape Horn. Fact or Fiction? Or Both?

As we near the 2023 Sacramento Archives Crawl and our deep dive into the myth, folklore and legend of history, one tale to consider is the use of wicker baskets by Chinese laborers in the construction of the Transcontinental Railroad at a steep mountainside just east of Colfax, California, called Cape Horn. According to various popular histories - many dispensed in the late 1920s by PR and tourism offices of the Southern Pacific Railroad - workers were lowered in either wicker baskets or bosun's chairs to plant explosives along the massive promontory. The malleability of history and historiography leaves us in a spot where while it seems unlikely that such a practice ever took place at Cape Horn, there is indeed documentation, according to Stanford historian Gordon Chang, of something akin to it taking place in other portions of the Sierra Nevada during rail construction, as stated in his 2019 Ghosts of Gold Mountain (pages 86-92): 

The most thrilling scene that came under my observation was in the Sierra Nevada on the Central Pacific. Here the road in built on the side of a precipice 2,400 feet above the base, and the slope is so steep that the [Chinese workers] who did the work were let down in baskets, and in this position drilled holes and charged them in the side of the mountains. (Correspondent for the Pittsfield Eagle, 1868)

From the Sacramento Room's Appleton Family Papers, MC 7

The above photograph of Cape Horn, taken in 1900, and from the Sacramento Public Library's Appleton Family Papers (MC 7), shows us that regardless of whether or not baskets and/or chairs were employed, the Railroad Chinese created a master work of railroad construction. What's more, dangerous, unforgiving, and undervalued at the time, their toil and skill would go on to change the course of American history.  

No comments:

Post a Comment