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Mexicans helped build Ore. railroads

(The following story by Thelma Guerrero appeared on the Statesman Journal website on October 8.)

SALEM, Ore. — It was the 1800s, and a new destiny had dawned in Oregon.

The completion of a transcontinental railroad heralded a new era, setting off an epoch of railroad networks across the state.

With the railroad industry came a new labor force -- Mexican nationals -- who helped build and maintain the intrastate rails.

Asian immigrants had provided much of the construction labor on the transcontinental railroad, which drew increasing numbers of settlers to Oregon.

As the state's population grew, so did the need for better transportation. Roads at that time were primitive, choked by mud in the winter and dust in the summer.

By the 1870s in Oregon, Mexicans toiled alongside Chinese, Japanese, Filipino, Irish and Anglo rail workers.

In the Willamette Valley, Mexicans were employed by the Oregon & California Railroad, later the Southern Pacific Company, and now Union Pacific Railroad.

The Mexican role in Oregon's railroad history has, for the most part, been ignored in history books.

"What's been written is mostly about locomotives and railroad equipment, not the people who labored to build the railroads," said Ed Austin of Salem, a railroad historian and author of six books on railroads.

"But Mexicans certainly contributed to Oregon's railroads," said Austin, owner of Interpretive Exhibits, a custom design firm that specializes in exhibits for museums and visitor centers.

Initially few in numbers, Mexican rail workers in Oregon grew by the hundreds after Congress passed the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882.

The legislation led to the exclusion of Chinese laborers from the railroad, construction and agricultural industries.

As a result, American railroad companies found their most willing laborers in Mexican nationals, Austin said.

"It's not surprising because, quite frankly, it was very heavy manual work, and these guys, who were not big burly guys, were willing to do it," Austin said.

To fill the labor vacuum after the Chinese Exclusion Act, rail companies in Oregon and across the nation began an aggressive campaign to recruit Mexican laborers.

The companies sent labor contractors to Mexico to recruit workers, who were typically hired in the border regions of northern Mexico. Workers were offered six-month and one-year contracts.

Their wages ranged from $1 to $1.25 per day, in stark contrast to the 50 cents per day they earned working on railroads in Mexico.

The difference in pay was an incentive for other Mexican laborers to cross the border in search of rail work, said Larry Rutter, a researcher at Kansas State University and an expert on Mexican railroad workers.

"The wage differentials were so great that many persons could make more money by working three months in the United States than a whole year in Mexico," Rutter said.

By one estimate, more than 16,000 Mexicans were working on the railroad in the Pacific Northwest and California by the early 1900s.

In Oregon, railroad companies paid white laborers the highest wages. Mexicans earned less, and the Irish, who weren't considered white at the time, made even less, Austin said.

In 1907, the Gentlemen's Agreement -- a pact between the United States and Japan that halted the emigration of Japanese laborers and ordered an end to discrimination against Japanese living in the country -- led to the hiring of more Mexican nationals in Oregon's railroad industry.

By 1918, the World War I Railroad Bracero program permitted unrestricted entrance of Mexican railroad workers. By 1920, an estimated 2,000 Mexican citizens per month crossed the border to work on U.S. railroads.

In Oregon, the number of Mexicans hired for rail work peaked in 1912.

Thirty years later, rail companies again struggled to fill their labor needs as many of the nation's workers served in World War II.

That year, the United States signed the Bracero Treaty, which imported Mexican nationals to work in various industries, including railroads.

Employed as rail crew workers, Mexican laborers cleared roads for the installation of rails, carried 50-pound rail ties over their shoulders, and pounded metal spikes into the ties.

"The work would wear you out, but by all accounts, they were a great crew," Austin said. "There were section gangs made up entirely of Mexican nationals who didn't speak English.

"It was very hard for the railroads at the time to get a lot of white people to take those jobs because it was hard, strenuous work."

Monday, October 8, 2007

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