Sikh Railroad Workers
Monday July 11, 2005
By Dawna Curler
Welcome to As It Was: Tales from the State of Jefferson
Many people know Chinese immigrants helped build western railroads in the 19th century, but they may be surprised to learn Asian Indians, their hair neatly wrapped in turbans, did the same kind of work in Northern California and Southern Oregon in the early 20th century.
Mistakenly called Hindus, they were actually Sikhs (seekz), members of an ethnic-religious group from the Indian state of Punjab. Six or seven thousand Sikhs immigrated to Canada, Washington, Oregon, and California between the late 1890s and 1917. A number of them found jobs in the northwest working for railroads or lumber companies while the majority ended up in California's agricultural valleys.
These people arrived at a time when anti-Asian sentiment was high and were victimized by discriminatory laws. They could not become U.S. citizens and in 1917 an Immigration Act barred more Asians from entering the country until after World War II.
Although their presence in the local area is barely remembered, a few old photographs show they worked on the Pacific and Eastern railroad in Jackson County, Oregon, and the Western Pacific Railroad in Plumas County, California, before moving on either to return to their homeland, or join the small but persistent Sikh communities that prevailed throughout those difficult early years.
Today's episode of As It Was was written by Dawna Curler, the program engineer is Raymond Scully. I'm Shirley Patton. As It was is a co-production of JPR and the Southern Oregon Historical Society. To Share stories or learn more about the series visit asitwas - dot- org