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U.S. Forest Service honors Chinese railroad workers’ in movie

Victoria Penate
Staff Writer

The U.S. Forest Service has released “Legacy,” a film highlighting the contribution made by Chinese railroad workers to the Transcontinental Railroad over 150 years ago, calling attention to issues of erasure which surrounded this history for much of the time since.

“Legacy” premiered in January at the Wild and Scenic Film Festival in Nevada City, and is now available to the public for viewing at the Forest Service’s official YouTube channel.

“Those shapers hadn’t just shaped the rocks. They had really shaped American history, and we felt that story hadn’t been told,” said Joe Flannery, the Forest Service public affairs officer who wrote and directed the film.

Flannery said that his initial inspiration for the film came gradually, beginning eight years ago while he worked as a Forest Service trail program manager in Truckee.

During a hard day’s work at Donner Summit, Flannery recognized blast marks and drill holes in the rocks that he was handling for removal, signs of past work done on the “China Wall” — a stone wall recognized as a historical site for its importance in the railroad’s progress west.

“At that moment, I thought about the scale of what these workers had accomplished,” said Flannery. “It takes us all day to move one rock into place on the Pacific Crest Trail with a whole crew of people, and this wall has hundreds of these rocks, beautifully shaped.”

He enriched his understanding of the history associated with this site, one of many cultural sites still present in the Tahoe National Forest, over time — and as he did so, became increasingly shocked that he had never learned this history lesson in school.

About the film

Flannery recounted beginning work on “Legacy,” which was initially a small project documenting the Return to Gold Mountain Tour event in 2019.

This educational trip to historic Sierra Nevada railroad sites was organized by the Forest Service, Bureau of Land Management, and the 1882 Foundation (a non-profit dedicated to awareness of the Chinese Exclusion Act passed that year, and its significance).

However, the project quickly grew in scope as he received greater historical context from representatives of the 1882 Foundation and the Chinese Historical Society of America, among others — many of whom felt an urgency to tell this story as the 150th anniversary of the Transcontinental Railroad’s completion approached.

As a result, the film features the scenic forest landscapes of the sites alongside historical documents and images which illustrate their significance.

Members of cultural organizations as well as the Forest Service make appearances throughout, adding their perspective on issues pertaining to the history — in particular, the long standing struggle for recognition by the U.S. government of the Chinese workers’ contribution.

“I was surrounded as a filmmaker by all these people who were working on this story, and I thought it would be good for the U.S. Forest Service and the Tahoe National Forest to do our part in helping to retell this story,” said Flannery.

A warm welcome

Flannery described the community reception to “Legacy” as a warm one, and one of interest in ensuring that the history highlighted by the film is not forgotten.

Since the film’s premiere, Flannery has been contacted by local educators at both the high school and university level who have expressed their interest in including “Legacy” as educational material in their teaching of California history.

The recent online release of the film is part of the Forest Service’s celebration of May as Asian American and Pacific Islander Heritage Month, in conjunction with ongoing efforts by the Asian Pacific American Heritage Collaborative to encourage the visitation of historical sites.

Flannery referred to the film as “just one avenue of bringing the history to light,” adding that the APA Heritage Collaborative has launched a central location for members of the public to learn more about relevant historical sites in northern California.

The collaborative, ongoing project can be found at http://www.exploreapaheritage.com.

Victoria Penate is a staff writer for The Union.


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