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“Building the Transcontinental Railroad” by Iris Chang

Collections Grade 11 Guiding Questions
Collection 4
“Building the Transcontinental Railroad” by Iris Chang
Read the history writing “Building the Transcontinental Railroad” by Iris Chang.
Then, reread the lines indicated with each question below. Answer each question,
citing text evidence.
1. Lines 1–10: What are two statements of time in the opening paragraph of the
selection? What historical information in the paragraph also provides
chronological clues to readers who know the history?
(“In the decade of the 1840s” and “during this decade”)
(the gold rush and the acquisition of Texas, California, and Oregon)
2. Lines 11–15: What is the author’s purpose in describing the crossing of the
continent? Which vivid words and phrases make that purpose clear?
(Possible answer: The purpose is to impress readers with the difficult nature of the crossing. The
author uses the words and phrases “dangerous,” “frustrating,” “no reliable transport or route,” “death
by disease,” “brigands,” “starvation,” “thirst,” “heat,” and “freezing.”)
3. Lines 16–25: What adjectives and adverbs add interest and emotion to this
(“frustrated,” “safe,” “sparsely populated,” “impatient,” “rich,” “safely,” “profitably”)
4. Lines 37–47: Determine the chronological relationship between the financing of
the transcontinental railroad and the Civil War. What evidence in the passage
leads to that inference? What prior historical knowledge would be needed to
make that inference if the clause “even though the country was already at war”
were not in the passage?
(The Civil War and the financing of the transcontinental railroad occurred during the same
time. The inference can be made from the date 1862 and the clause “even though the country was
already at war.”)
(It would be necessary to know the dates of the Civil War.)
5. Lines 61–86: Summarize the sequence of events by which the debate over
whether to hire Chinese workers was resolved.
The Central Pacific advertised for white workers, but only eight hundred were found as opposed
to the necessary five thousand, and the ones who arrived were often unreliable. Then the company
had the idea of using Confederate prisoners, but the end of the Civil War made that impossible.
Finally, the company decided to make use of the large, available pool of Chinese male laborers. Many
white laborers threatened to strike, but the company kept some Chinese workers on.)
6. Lines 84–86: Identify the sentence in which Chang addresses the reader ironically.
What is the purpose of the sentence?
(“Needless to say, this did not contribute to harmony between the whites and the Chinese.”
Possible answer: The purpose is to point out a way in which the railroad manipulated racial
prejudice for economic ends.)
7. Lines 114–135: Retell the major developments of 1867–1868 that led to increased
Chinese immigration into the United States.
(the reactions of railroad executives, the effects of diplomacy, the essentials of the Burlingame
Treaty, and the progress of immigration.)
8. Lines 143–148: Which words and phrases in the Lee Chew quotation hint at
Chang’s attitude toward the Chinese workers?
(“persecuted,” “virtues,” “honest,” “industrious,” “steady,” “sober,” “painstaking”)
9. Lines 151–157: Infer Chang’s purpose in including the quotation.
(She wanted to counter negative stereotypes of Chinese people by showing that the Chinese
workers worked harder than their European competitors.)
10. Lines 174–178: Why does Chang give the sequence of states as “California,
Nevada, and Utah”?
”(The names are in the west-to-east order in which the track was laid.)
11. Lines 198–228: Explain how and why the last paragraph on this page marks a
break from the chronological order used in earlier paragraphs.
(The paragraphs about nitroglycerin use chronological order, because that topic involves a tense
series of dangerous events. The sixth paragraph changes topic, turning to disease and its causes and
using cause-and-effect order.)
12. Lines 198–220: Which words and phrases contribute to the tone of awe and
(“unpredictable explosive,” line 200; “accidental lasts,” line 202; “literally sculpting,” line 217;
“sheer rock,” lines 217–218; “peppered with shards of granite and shale,” line 219)
13. Lines 235–261: Relate the sequence of events in the two terrible winters described
in this passage.
(1865: thirty-foot snow drifts, weeks of shoveling; 1866–1867: forty feet of snow, eighty-foot
drifts, snow plows ineffective, sheds collapsed, travel almost impossible, mail delivered on skis,
Chinese workers build a “city” under the snow; Dec. 25, 1866: fatal snow slide)
14. Lines 235–240: What is Chang’s tone in these lines? Which words and phrases help
to create this tone? What details contribute to the tone?
(Her tone is one of awe.)
(“endured,” line 235; “brutal,” line 238; “whipped up,” line 239)
(“thirty-foot drifts,” line 236; “forty feet of snow,” line 239; “drifts more than eighty feet high,” lines
15. Lines 282–300: What is the sequence of events in the Chinese workers’ strike of
June 1867?
(As the company approached bankruptcy, two thousand Chinese walked off their jobs. They
presented demands and circulated a placard. The Central Pacific stopped payments and food
deliveries to the strikers. After a week, the strikers were forced to go back to work.)
16. Lines 307–313: Infer the author’s purpose for quoting Crocker’s statement about
the Chinese workers.
(The author wishes to show that although the strike did not succeed in its immediate aims, it was
inspiring over the long run and succeeded in giving the employers a positive view of the Chinese
17. Lines 314–326: What might the author’s purpose be for including this incident in
her article? Suggest more than one plausible purpose.
(Possible answers: She wants to write a full historic record. She wants to show that the Chinese
workers were not passive in the face of prejudice and violence.)
18. Lines 328–343: State, in chronological sequence, the events in these lines. Which
words and phrases in the text convey the sequence?
(In the last month of construction, as the finish line neared, the Union Pacific and Central Pacific
competed to see which side could complete more track in a given time. Chinese and Irish workers
cooperated in the competition. The Central Pacific broke previous records for laying track. The two
railroads were joined on May 10, 1869. Words that convey sequence include “In April 1869,” “the
competition arose after…,” “On the day of the contest,” and “On May 10, 1869.”)
19. Lines 344–362: What evidence in this passage shows the events that occurred
before and after the completion of the railroad?
(The many deaths occurred before the railroad was completed. The exclusion from the
ceremonies and the layoffs occurred afterward.)
20. Lines 363–367: Describe the tone in the conclusion. Which words help create this
(The author uses words such as “homeless,” “jobless,” “harsh,” “hostile,” and “straggled” to
create a sad and despairing tone.)
21. What were the positive and negative effects of building the transcontinental
railroad on the Chinese workers? Cite details from the selection to support your
Positive: Work on the railroad allowed many more Chinese immigrants to come to the United
States (lines 114–131); Chinese workers were able to demonstrate their strong work ethic and
skills to their employers (lines 95–106, 198–220).
Negative: Chinese workers did the most dangerous jobs, working with explosives, and many
died during the course of building the railroad (lines 174–203, 346–350); Chinese workers
endured extreme weather conditions that caused many deaths (lines 235–270); “The Chinese
worked longer and harder than whites, but received less pay” and were severely mistreated
(lines 275–281); Chinese workers were not given official credit for their contributions and were
abandoned by the railroad once the job was completed, forcing them to fend for themselves in a
“harsh and hostile environment” (lines 351–367).
Possible answers: P. 312
The population was growing; the doctrine of Manifest Destiny urged expansion to the Pacific; the
West offered rich farmland and mining; existing land and sea routes were slow and dangerous.
The Central Pacific had to cut through steep mountains, carve a roadway along a steep three-mile
cliff, uproot the stumps of the world’s largest trees, and lay track across the Nevada-Utah desert. In
addition, transporting equipment to such remote sites was difficult.
3. Chang’s purpose is to commemorate the achievement of the Chinese workers who built the
transcontinental railroad. The sentence “Without Chinese labor and know-how, the railroad would
not have been completed” (lines 350–351) supports this purpose.
4. Chang’s tone is that of a well-informed, fair-minded historian, sympathetic toward the struggles and
achievements of the Chinese workers. Examples of word choices include “the Chinese fought back” (line
320), “broke the Union Pacific record” (lines 337–338), and “tried to write the Chinese out of history
altogether” (line 353).
5. The context clues include “fireworks,” “unpredictable,” “explosive,” and “accidental blasts.”
6. Chang’s use of quotations from primary sources gives life and authenticity to her presentation,
imparting to the reader an “on the scene” feeling.
7. The word “Homeric” suggests an epic: a long narrative of a hero’s struggles to meet a great challenge.
Chang’s description of the “Homeric winter” reinforces the idea that the building of the
transcontinental railroad was a mighty endeavor and an important national achievement.
8. Chang’s description of the strike continues the presentation of injustices against the Chinese workers
and develops a new idea: that the Chinese stood up for themselves and took action against unfair