Building the Railroads

The central line of the Northern Pacific Railway, which connected St. Paul, Minnesota to Seattle, Washington, was completed in 1883. At the time, Henry Villard, an immigrant from Bavaria, was president of the Northern Pacific.

The labor to build this primary line was largely Chinese, Irish, and Scandinavian.  After the line was complete the Company laid off over 20,000 workers.  Many of the laborers working on the western half of the line were Chinese, while Irish and Scandinavian immigrants made up much of the work force on the eastern half. The document to the above is a force report that indicates some of the ways Chinese labor was used by the Northern Pacific.

When the Northern Pacific Railway built rail lines stretching out from the central line, Japanese laborers were used more frequently due to their cheaper wages and rising discrimination against Chinese immigration. The documents below illustrate this shift in the Railway's labor force.


Like other railroad companies, the Northern Pacific Railway imported labor from Asia through contractors owned by Asian nationals. Note that the letter above from the Oriental Trading Company is signed by H. Yasumura.