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At its peak, 9,000 to 12,000 Chinese worked for the Central Pacific in some of the dirtiest and most dangerous jobs (different sources have different estimates on exact numbers).
Although there are no official records, some sources claim that up to 1,000 Chinese died during the project as a result of avalanches and explosive accidents as they carved their way through the Sierra Mountains (other sources claim much lower numbers of casualties).
However, there were also push factors that drove many to want to leave China.
The most important factor was economic hardship due to the growing British dominance over China, after Britain defeated China in the Opium War of 1839-1842.
After they returned to California, the Chinese increasingly became the targets of racial attacks and discriminatory legislation because their labor was no longer needed and Whites began seeing them as an economic threat. The point is that these did not begin out of any natural or instinctual desire on the part of Asian workers, but as a response to prejudice, exclusion, and institutional discrimination -- a situation that still continues in many respects today.
This anti-Chinese movement, which was accompanied by numerous anti-Chinese riots, lynchings, and murders (including Tacoma, Washington and most famously at Rock Springs, Wyoming), culminated with the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882. Nonetheless, even in the face of this hostile anti-Chinese climate, Chinese Americans fought for not only their rights, but also for their dignity and self-respect.
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