MSU Anthropology Alumnus receives recognition from the Department of the Interior for publication on history of the Transcontinental Railroad in Utah

Michael Polk (MA ‘79), along with his co-authors, was recently recognized by the United States Department of the Interior for the publication of their book, “Rails East to Ogden: Utah’s Transcontinental Railroad Story.” The group received the DOI’s Environmental Achievement Award on behalf of their efforts to promote and preserve cultural resources including archaeological sites, historic buildings and landscapes. 

“Rails East to Ogden” chronicles the history of the Transcontinental Railroad in Utah, specifically the now abandoned 87-mile portion of track converging at Promontory Summit. Originally a significant portion of the railroad, the location where efforts by Union Pacific and Central Pacific to unite East and West via rail culminated in 1869, the line was downgraded to a branch line in 1904 when a more straightforward cutoff route was introduced. The branch line was fully abandoned in 1942. The Promontory line is open to the public and managed by the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) as a “Backcountry Byway” and is a great example of the preserved history of a former railroad operation. 

Polk, a pioneer and veteran of the cultural resource management industry, has been interested in archaeology since his early college days, which developed into a more specific research interest in railroad history and anthropology with a specialization in archaeology. The career field had limited paths to take when he was first starting out, but after a number of years in college and a few field work stints, he found himself the co-owner along with his wife of his own cultural resource consulting firm. 

Cultural resource management firms play a large role in protecting the balance between construction and development of new projects with preservation of important cultural sites  and artifacts, including prehistoric and historic era resources. They contract with federal, state and local government agencies and with private development companies in industries such as oil and gas, mining, renewable energy, and construction. They study the prehistory and history of  proposed project locations to better understand the cultural resources, and to sometimes help avoid their destruction or mitigate the effects to them through documentation and, sometimes, excavation and analysis. That helps  projects proceed and enhances our knowledge of the past. It also often protects important resources in our society. 

Polk and Utah BLM archaeologist Michael Sheehan receiving the award from Secretary Haaland in D.C.

“When [my wife, Ann, and I] were young, the field that we went into didn’t even really exist; the options for archaeologists were to either to teach at a university or work in a museum,” Polk explained. “While I was in graduate school at MSU in the late 1970s, things began to open up in the cultural resource management field, which is the industry that most archaeologists in this country work  in now.”

Before beginning his full-time gig, Polk earned his master’s degree in anthropology from Michigan State. The College of Social Science and the Anthropology Department, in particular, holds a special place in Polk’s heart, and he counts his advisor, Professor Emeritus Dr. William Lovis, and Professor Emeritus Charles Cleland as two of his biggest supporters in the development of his professional life. 

During the 30 years of operation of Sagebrush Consultants with Ann in Utah (1983-2013), Polk had been involved in several projects surrounding the history of Chinese railroad workers, and shared his interests with Utah’s’ State Historic Preservation Officer, Chris Merritt. With the assistance of several other colleagues, the pair began work on a book that would delve in depth into the history of the Promontory Line of the Transcontinental Railroad, writing it in tandem with the 150th anniversary of the completion of the railway. 

Decorated Chinese porcelain bowl base found at railroad station site on transcontinental railroad in Utah Desert.

“Over the years I worked on a number of projects in the Intermountain area (Utah, Idaho, Wyoming, Colorado, Nevada)  some involving Chinese railroad workers and other projects including Chinese gold miners. Railroad workers really came to the forefront in 2015, around the 150th anniversary of the Central Pacific Railroad’s hiring of a lot of Chinese laborers to come to the United States,” Polk said.

The book covers extensively the 87 miles and 53 rail stations along the Central Pacific line between the Nevada state line and Ogden, Utah, looking into the geophysical, architectural, social and operational history of the railroad. With the line ending operations in 1942, being in an extremely remote location,  and being protected by the BLM ever since, there is a wealth of intact cultural features and artifacts left behind for the archaeologist to discover, some  described in the publication and others remaining to be discovered during ongoing excavations. 

“We’re looking at a lot of what the Chinese, in particular, left behind from their work on the railroad. Their artifacts have a very signature look and stand out from those left by European Americans,” Polk said. “The  pottery, coins, opium tins, and other ethnic artifacts immediately tell us that the people who used these materials were Chinese. All of these materials were  imported from China and have very distinct designs.”

Polk and his co-contributors – Chris Merritt, Utah State Historic Preservation Officer, Salt Lake City; Michael Sheehan Utah Bureau of Land Management; Molly Boeka Cannon, Executive Director and Curator at the Museum of Anthropology, Utah State University; Ken Cannon, President of Cannon Heritage Consultants, Inc., Logan, Utah.

Polk also studies the layout of rail stations and bunkhouses and hopes to better understand the relationship between the location of Chinese workers’ bunkhouses and the section houses of the white, European foremen.  

“We have found that  Chinese workers would always be set apart from the white workers. Whether the Chinese  chose to stick to themselves and live some distance away to better practice their culture, or if racism played a part by railroad management is not clear.”

Polk and his co-authors hope to help readers better understand the breadth of work and effort it took for laborers from a range of diverse cultures to come together and build one of the largest manmade projects in history. They also wanted to tell the story of the following thirty to forty years when most railroad maintenance stations on the Promontory line were populated by Chinese nationals, many having been there since the original construction.. They explain that cultural features and artifacts are not just material items left behind, they are links to the past that can give meaning and purpose to those who used them. All of this serves to educate readers on the benefits of archaeology and the ways it can enhance our understanding of our world and appreciate its past. 

Stone culvert on transcontinental railroad grade in Utah desert. Built by Chinese laborers in 1869.

On being chosen to receive the Environmental Achievement Award in Washington, D.C., Polk said, “I’m very, very honored to have been able to [write] this and have it recognized. Sometimes cultural resource management gets bundled up into environmental, biological, climate discussions and is overlooked. So it was really nice to see that we could be recognized for something like this, and especially since I’ve loved railroads, as well as Chinese [history] and archaeology my whole life, being acknowledged for my work on it was pretty exciting.”

Michael would like to give a special thanks to William Lovis, Ph.D, Charles Cleland, Ph.D, Larry Robbins, Ph.D, and Don Weir, all mentors and colleagues of his at Michigan State, for their endless support and inspiration.