Approximately 12,000 Chinese laborers helped make the ambitious project a reality.
“It is one of the most important achievements in transportation and American history, and now 150 years later a railroad executive of Chinese ancestry is running the busiest commuter railroad in North America,” said FHAA president Edwin Wong, referring to Long Island Railroad (LIRR) president Phillip Eng, who was the evening’s special guest at the West Side Tennis Club.
It was not long after the Civil War that the Transcontinental Railroad was completed, so while America was still recovering, it ushered in new hope and strengthened the economy. A coast-to-coast trip that would take months would now require less than a week.
In preparation for the event, Wong and FHAA members made intriguing discoveries.
“We learned that nearly 145 years ago, Chinese railroad workers helped build and complete a portion of what was then known as the LIRR Rockaway Beach Branch,” he said. “We are gathering a group to create a plaque and acknowledgement for these forgotten Chinese railroad workers.”
Congresswoman Grace Meng recently visited the Smithsonian National Museum’s “Forgotten Workers: Chinese Migrants and The Building of the Transcontinental Railroad” exhibit.
“It was really exciting and touching as a Chinese American to be able to see this piece of history, where they helped build our country and make transportation more efficient,” she said. “We cannot forget the sweat, blood, and labor of the approximately 12,000 Chinese immigrants.”
The USPS has issued three commemorative postage stamps to mark the anniversary.
“We hope that these stamps will highlight the workers’ contributions to the U.S.,” Meng said.
Eng joined the MTA in 2017 as chief operating officer, and served the public since 1983 with the Department of Transportation. He played significant roles in the I-81 study, Kosciuszko Bridge replacement, and LIRR Mainline Expansion Project.
Eng also worked with Councilwoman Karen Koslowitz and Assemblyman Andrew Hevesi to preserve the Lefferts Boulevard Bridge.
“My dad emigrated from China at age ten in 1930 through Ellis Island,” he said. “He developed strong work ethics and an attitude about being respectful to people. I observed it day in and day out.”
He also learned that one does not do well in any business if they don’t surround themselves with good people.
“Whether you are part of a team or the head of a team, I always tell everyone that you are still a leader,” Eng said. “Everything that we do people are observing, and you affect everyone with how you conduct yourself.”
Chris Fuchs is a New York-based reporter contributing to NBC News and NBC Asian America. He met descendants of the railroad workers at a 150th anniversary celebration in Utah, where the railroad was officially connected a century-and-a-half ago.
“The stories that I shared are not Chinese American stories,” he recalled one of them telling him, “but American stories that belong to you, school children, and senior citizens.”