Forgotten group working on railroads

Western History/Geneology Dept. Denver Public Library.
Five Japanese rail workers pose around a rail handcart. Photo taken between 1900 and 1910.
Rob Carrigan
Posted

I looked at the 1910 Census for Rico, in Dolores County, the other day. All the regulars were there. Of course, there was Charles Engle on Garfield Street, and Peter Lofquist over on Commercial, and Charlie Johnson, Axel Carlson, C.L. Berry, Minnie Hill, and Annie Hoxie when they counted. But down at the bottom of a list names I noticed something interesting — to me at least.

An almost forgotten group of 10 men, with Japanese surnames, 25- to 60-years old, and only an initial for first name, most of them described as living in “Railroad Yard.” For the “Race” column it listed “Japanese Male.”

“T. Taneguchi, S. Herano, T. Watanabe,T. Tado, J. Fukae, K. Hamazi, R. Ota, B. Kutsunai, M. Sai, and G. Fukumara.

According Daryl J. Maeda, in an essay for Enduring Communities, “Japanese Americans have a long and complex history in Colorado, and their story features struggles and perseverance, discrimination and tolerance.”

I wondered about that group and their stories.

“The earliest Japanese to arrive in Colorado probably did so between 1886 an 1888 and were mainly visitors and students,” wrote Maeda.

“They were followed shortly, however by the first large wave Japanese immigrants moving eastward from the Pacific Coast. The largest number of Japanese came to Colorado between 1903 and 1908 and worked as common laborers, railroad workers, miners, farmhands, factory workers, and domestics. The influx boosted the Japanese population of the state from 48 in 1900 to 2,300 in 1910.”

Maeda says many Issei (first-generation Japanese immigrants) initially worked in Colorado on the railroad and in the coal mines.

“These early settlers entered an environment already structured by anti-Asian sentiments, evidenced when a mob ransacked and burned the Chinese section of Denver in 1880. The 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act barred the immigration of Chinese laborers to the U.S., and as the Chinese population of Colorado subsequently waned, the Japanese population grew. Like the Chinese before them, the Japanese who came to Colorado were scorned as the “yellow peril,” subjected to violence, and excluded from union membership. The Rocky Mountain News and the Denver Post ran anti-Japanese stories and editorials beginning in 1901, and by 1908 the Colorado State Federation of Labor had formed a Japanese and Korean Exclusion League,” writes Maeda.

According to historian Arthur A. Hansen, “Fortuitously, the Issei arrived in the U.S. as the Interior West region was experiencing what historian Eric Walz has described as “an economic boom fueled by railroad construction, coal and hard-rock mining, and agricultural development.” Recruited by labor contractors, the Issei were a mobile workforce. As both individuals and gang laborers, they moved not only between different work opportunities on the Pacific Coast and the western interior sections of the U.S., but also between America and Japan and many other parts of the world in which Japanese workers filled a variety of employment needs.”

Hansen said “Many Issei who came to America first found employment with the steam railroad companies in two of the five primary Interior West states, Colorado and Utah, but many more also worked for the railroad industry in such secondary states as Montana, Idaho, Wyoming, and Nevada. This largely accounts for why the 1900 census counted so many more Nikkei in the secondary states rather than the primary states. However, as Iwata notes, even though they achieved remarkable success—supplanting Chinese railroad workers; gaining wage parity with (and then employer preference over) other immigrant laborers from such countries as Italy, Greece, and Austria; improving their status within the industry by becoming section workers (occasionally even foremen) and office secretaries and interpreters; and accumulating some surplus capital—the majority of Issei “began to look about for work other than that in the railroads.”