Brian Salter's Blogs:
In memory of the ‘Father of Chinese Railroads’


It’s only recently that I discovered that just as Beijing has three air museums, so too does it have three rail museums. Most people know of the one in the old station building to the south-east of Tiananmen Square; fewer know of the locomotive hall that can be found to the north-east of 798 Art District; and yet fewer still have even heard of the Zhan Tianyou Memorial Museum, let alone been there, though it is just a few minutes’ walk from the Badaling section of the Great Wall.

Zhan Tianyou (詹天佑), known as Jeme Tien Yow, was a pioneering Chinese railway engineer. Educated in the United States, he was the chief engineer responsible for construction of the Beijing to Zhangjiakou (Peking-Kalgan) Railway, the first railway constructed in China without foreign assistance.

The memorial museum (中国铁道博物馆 – 詹天佑纪念馆) has a floor space of 9,600 square metres, arranged over two floors, and outside in the front is a large-scale granite relief, about 41 metres long and 5 metres high, which highlights Zhan Tianyou's portrait and his contributions to Chinese rail history.

According to '', “Zhan Tianyou main entrance like structural hall of exhibition hall looks at the drawing room with reverence, it is an exhibition hall inwards, this drawing room of exhibitions state Zhan Tianyou and win glory for the motherland from going abroad in childhood to dedicating oneself to the railway… Looked at drawing room, drawing room of the prelude and 3 sites of display drawing room with reverence in the memorial museum, patrol and guard a road, support the course that the 1911 Revolution passes by from going to school, joining in the railway construction to resisting clearly after representing Zhan Tianyou.”… to which I can only say ‘Wow!’.

Inside there are 1,000 items on display such as mapping instruments, drawing paper, books, manuscripts, medals, insignias, and the proposal plan, among other things. Here’s a natty looking calculator used during the construction of the Kalgan to Suiyuan railway, for instance.

There’s even a snazzy hat awarded to him by the Qing government. Can you imagine walking down the road to the supermarket wearing one of those! Fantabulous!

There are also some 600 photos, showing not just the life of Zhan Tianyou, but the general situation of China’s railway construction in the early days too.

Before the coming of the railways, the main method of transporting goods through the mountains was using camels…

If you can’t find the time to visit the locomotive hall in northeast Beijing, then there are loads of loco photos that are certain to get you licking your chops, too.

Construction of the museum started in 1984, and it was opened to the public in November 1987. It stands at the highest point along the rail line between Beijing and Zhangjiakou, close to the Great Wall museum.

Zhan Tianyou was born in 1861 in what is now Guangzhou. In 1760 Jeme Wanbang, his great grandfather, brought the family to Guangzhou and engaged in the import and export of tea. In 1816, Jeme Shiluan, his grandfather, settled down at Shier Fu just outside the west gate of Guangzhou where Zhan Tianyou was born on April 26, 1861. These are photos of his parents…

Like many Chinese children, Zhan Tianyou received a school education in his childhood. But in 1872, when he was 12 years old, he was chosen by Qing imperial officials to be sent to the United States as part of the Chinese Educational Mission. Together with thirty boys of the same age, he arrived in Connecticut, where he attended a primary school in New Haven. In 1878, he was admitted to the Sheffield Scientific School of Yale University, where he majored in Civil Engineering, with an emphasis on railroad construction.

Back in China, by 1888, Zhan Tianyou was an intern engineer, joining a British engineer, Claude W. Kinder, who had been hired to construct a railway that would link Tientsin to the coal mines in Tangshan. He was soon promoted to engineer, and later to district engineer. The railway that he worked on was later extended to become the Peking Mukden Line. He spent 12 years on various sections of this line before his next major assignment.

In 1902, it was decided to build a special line for Empress Dowager Cixi so she could visit the tombs of her royal ancestors. Kinder was the original candidate for chief engineer, but eventually, Zhan Tianyou got the position for the 37 kilometres stub line. He managed to construct the railway within budget and to a very tight schedule; and it is said that the Empress was so pleased that permission was given to construct more railways in the country.

Following that success, the Imperial Qing government decided to build a railway that would link the capital of Peking to the important trading city of Kalgan to the north. As this railway would be of strategic importance to the government, it was decided that it should be built without foreign assistance. Capital would come from the government, and no foreign engineers were to be hired. Zhan Tianyou was once again appointed as chief engineer. Despite original misgivings by many, he completed the work two years ahead of schedule and came in under budget.

The Jingzhang Railway was the first trunk railway designed and built by China. It ran from Beijing to Zhangjiakou, en route through Juyongguan Pass, Badaling, Shacheng and Xuanhua, over a length of 201 km.

Zhan Tianyou included a zig zag section near the Qinglongqiao (Ching-lung-chiao) railway station to overcome the steep gradient. When excavating the Badaling railway tunnel, he accelerated construction by drilling a vertical shaft into the path of the tunnel. This doubled the number of digging teams that could be employed.

Its construction began in September 1905 and ended in October 1909, when it was opened to traffic.

Zhan Tianyou worked on a number of other railways; but in 1919, he died in Hankou, Hubei at the age of 57.

He was buried at Qinglongqiao Railway Station, where the Peking-Kalgan (Beijing-Zhangjiakou) railway crossed the Great Wall and the rugged mountains north of Beijing.

A notice following his death that was written by his American peers called him the "Father of Chinese Railroads."

From the Great Wall at Badaling, walk in a westerly direction along the main road. You'll find it after about 1km walk, before you get to Badaling railway station.