Introduction & Synopsis
It’s 1865 and America’s deadliest conflict, the Civil War, has just ended. From the ashes of a battlefield walks Union soldier Jack McNutt, 25, Irish born, American raised. He has no roots and few prospects for a future, only a vague dream – to go out West, where the rivers run deep with gold nuggets. He has a brother there, too, so who knows?
In Nanjing, China, 26-year-old peasant Woo Jing also ponders his fate. Armed rebels are on a killing spree, and a sustained drought has left millions of his countrymen dead or starving. Woo Jing tells old Uncle Ah there is but one solution – they must sail away to that land called Gold Mountain (California), and carry its riches back to the family.
Thus begins the tale of The Year of the Iron Horse, a historical saga set against the backdrop of the American Old West, with its boom towns, gold mines, waves of immigrants, and the building of the Transcontinental Railroad, an achievement that would transform U.S. history.
More than that, this is a tale about two men – one Irish-American, one Chinese – strangers by birth, language and culture, and the unlikely brotherhood they form while struggling to survive in a country that needs them more than it wants them. When discrimination exists, countervailing bonds are often formed, and so it goes with Jack McNutt and Woo Jing. They become buddies.
Their paths first cross in the river town of Sacramento. But as lowly immigrants, their dreams of goldmining are dashed when the only work open to them is on the Central Pacific Railroad. The idea of laying tracks over the treacherous Sierra Nevada mountain range and all the way to Utah seems like folly, but what choice do they have? Along with Uncle Ah and Pan Song, a 10-year-old street orphan who serves as Jack’s interpreter, they sign on and hit the rails.
Their crew’s backbreaking drive through California’s scorched Central Valley only hints at what lies before them, and the bigotry from rival “gang bosses” and crews often erupts into violence. There is no hiding the fact that all sides are competing for pride as much as meager wages.
As the 700 mile ordeal pushes on, Jack McNutt and Woo Jing are tested to the limits of human endurance. They defeat a gang of railroad workers in a rail-driving competition. They lay track over impossibly steep mountains, or dynamite right through them when there’s no other way. Some workers quit and go home. Others perish in blasting accidents, avalanches, bear attacks, or succumb to the frozen peaks of Donner Pass. One takes his own life.
Beneath the sweeping strokes of our story are smaller, personal tales to tell. Such as Jack’s estrangement from his brother, who changes his name to hide his Irish ancestry. Or Uncle Ah’s untimely death, and Woo Jing’s determination to ship his remains to China. There is Mao Li, a young lady rescued from a brothel by Grace, a simple laundry woman, but the heart and soul of Sacramento’s Chinatown. And while that young orphan boy, Pan Song, will not likely see his homeland again, he may get into Harvard or Yale one day.
For Jack McNutt and Woo Jing, there are rewards at the end of their journey. By the time the Transcontinental Railroad is completed, and the final spike – a golden spike – is driven into the ground at Promontory Summit, Utah, Jack McNutt and Woo Jing’s dreams of reaching Gold Mountain are finally realized. After burying a man, an old prospector they had befriended, they unbury something else, something as valuable as gold: their paths to the future. One points back toward Virginia, the other to Nanjing, China.
In some ways, Jack McNutt and Woo Jing are part of an American tragedy. The lives of Irish and Chinese immigrants to America were hard ones. But the blood, sweat, laughter, and tears they shed were not in vain. For men such as these did more than build a railroad; they forged a spirit of brotherhood at a time and in a place where that was not thought possible. Today, 150 years later, the nations of China and the United States are renewing that friendship.