Photo exhibition on Central Pacific Railroad’s history comes to Stanford

Historic photo of workers on railroad and contemporary photo with no workers
On the left, in a photo from Stanford’s Alfred A. Hart Photograph Collection, Chinese and Irish men work together to construct a section of the Central Pacific Railroad near Humboldt Lake, Nevada, in 1868. On the right is a photo of the same location in 2015, taken by Chinese photographer Li Ju.

Walk through the second floor of Stanford’s Packard Electrical Engineering Building this week, and you will encounter a surprising visual history of the Central Pacific Railroad line, the first transcontinental railroad network between California and Utah.

A new exhibition at Stanford titled “The Chinese Helped Build the Railroad. The Railroad Helped Build America” tells the transnational history of that railroad through past and present images of sites on a railroad line that required the labor of thousands of Chinese workers to complete.

On display through Nov. 18, the exhibition is free and open to the public weekdays from 7 a.m. to 6 p.m.

Seventy-two panels pair black-and-white 19th-century photographs by Alfred A. Hart of the Western railroad line with bold, full-color images of the same sites by Li Ju, a contemporary photographer and computer engineer based in Beijing.

English Professor Shelley Fisher Fishkin, co-director of the Chinese Railroad Workers in North America Project at Stanford (CRRW), said, “The exhibit honors both the daunting labor of the Chinese on the railroad and the impressive dedication that it took Li Ju to re-see, with 21st-century eyes, the scenes they saw 150 years ago.”

Fishkin described Li Ju’s “stunning photographs” as “a wonderful monument” to the labor of his countrymen.

Li Ju discovered a book of Hart’s photos of the railroad line’s construction from Sacramento to Ogden, Utah, and was instantly intrigued. He traveled along the same railroad route four times, documenting his journey with photographs of his own. The result is a multidimensional experience of present and past perspectives on this historical railroad line.

For instance, in one pair of images, Hart’s photograph displays a cluster of Chinese and Irish laborers laying track in the Humboldt Plains. Beside it, Li Ju’s photograph of that same space depicts a dramatic sky and vibrant colors but is completely absent of people.

Stanford history Professor Gordon H. Chang, who co-directs the CRRW with Fishkin, said these “photos provide a sense of lived history; these are places that were actually constructed, where people lived and died.”

However, Chang added, “these are places of amnesia, where the past has been forgotten. The Chinese are not seen in the contemporary place. They are gone. They wait to be retrieved.”

Organized by the Guangxi Normal University Press Group of China, all the text and captions accompanying the photographs are in English and in Chinese, making this an exhibition that communicates with an international audience.

“The history of the Chinese railroad workers in North America speaks to contemporary Chinese sensitivities about the past relationship with America, with whom China has, and continues to have, uneasy and emotional connections. There is both pride in Chinese contribution to America’s past as well as a bit of grievance, a feeling of not being given due credit and respect,” Chang said.

Fishkin also pointed out, “It is fitting that this exhibit, a unique blend of art and engineering, is on display in a gallery in an engineering building at Stanford. Our university was built with the fortune that Leland Stanford made from the railroad the Chinese did so much to build.”

The Chinese Railroad Workers in North America Project at Stanford University is presenting the exhibition in conjunction with Stanford Art Spaces (a part of the SystemX Alliance at Stanford), the American Studies program, the Center for East Asian Studies, Stanford University Libraries and the Bill Lane Center for the American West.