The Chinese Railroad Workers in North America Project
The Chinese Railroad Workers in America Project is an excellent, multi-faceted model of how rigorous academic research can embrace the digital turn to interface with the public in a clear and accessible way. It serves as an excellent jumping off point for researchers, students, and the public to learn more about a fascinating and important undertaking to recover the experiences and stories of the tens of thousands of Chinese labourers who helped build the United States’ first Transcontinental Railroad. While the project has been completed and the website is no longer being updated as of September 1, 2020, there remains a wide array of information and resources that visitors can pursue in various directions.
Cataloguing the history of the project, the website is available in either English or Mandarin and is broken down into seven sections: ‘Home’, ‘Key Questions’, ‘Publications’, ‘Resources’, ‘Updates’, ‘Press’, and ‘Project Team’ as well as providing a simple search bar that allows you to quickly find particular topics or resources via a keyword search. The homepage provides an overview of the project, highlighting its origins and the key members of the team. In ‘Key Questions’, the website lays out what appear to be a combination of research questions from the project as well as major questions that often get brought up in relation to the role played by Chinese labourers in the construction of the Transcontinental Railroad. The responses provided to these questions are rigorous yet concise summaries of the results of the project’s research and also helpfully provide links to specific publications for those interested in learning more. ‘Publications’—as the name suggests—is an index of all the major publications in print and digital form that have resulted from the project. The engine that propelled the project forward can be found in the ‘Resources’ page which provides links to the 850 or so primary and secondary sources used in the project, oral history recordings and interviews of descendants of the Chinese railway workers, a digital material repository, and ready-made lesson plans for high school students and above.
The digital visualisation is the pièce-de-résistance of the website, bringing readers on an engaging and interactive multimedia journey along the tracks to follow in the footsteps of the Chinese who built the railroad. By combining expository text with excerpts from historical records, topographic maps, aerial photography, and stills captured during the construction of the railroad, the project team has created a remarkable reconstruction of the lived experience of the workers, lending voice to a marginalised and historically silent group whose contributions to American life deserve to be publicised more widely.