The Chinese workers who helped build the Transcontinental Railroad between 1865 and 1869 are among the most important yet under-recognized figures in American History. The Chinese Railroad Workers of North America Project aims to document and share the stories of these workers through a digital archive of research documents, visualization tools, and oral histories. “Through Mountain and Desert” is a key part of this digital archive. A digital recreation of key historic sites along the tumultuous geography of the railroad, the interactive visualization pairs historical essay with virtual illustrations and interactive topography maps, allow users to experience the dramatic shifts in geography that made the transcontinental railroading such a feat of engineering and human perseverance. This visualization included three primary components: historical essay, virtually reconstruction images, and interactive map. The historical essays were written by Hilton Obenzinger, American Studies scholar and associate director of the project, using various archive documents collected over time. The virtual reconstruction images were created by aligning latitude/longitude coordinates to modern-day Google maps and capturing screenshots of the present-day railroad locations. Illustration in Adobe Illustrator was then applied to create an orange line marking the railroad line over present-day terrain. Lastly, the interactive map was implemented by creative director Erik Steiner in Javascript. Juxtaposing the route map with topography accents the dramatic changes in elevation that punctuated railroad construction. The first of many data-driven storytelling tools, this visualization illustrates both the challenges and potential in applying data visualizations techniques to history.
Project Link:

Student Contributor:

Stephanie Niu is a student at Stanford University studying symbolic systems and creative writing. She is a research assistant on the Chinese Railroad Workers’ Project, focusing in digital visualization techniques, web design, and visual storytelling. Her current work on the project is in creating a way to display and store oral histories of descendants of Chinese railroad workers. Outside of digital humanities, she pursues storytelling through podcast-making, poetry, and dance.