Life for Chinese in Truckee not easy in 1870 |

Life for Chinese in Truckee not easy in 1870

As the transcontinental railroad was built over the Sierra in 1866 through 1868, as many as 10,000 Chinese laborers passed through Truckee as they constructed the Central Pacific east to Utah. Many stayed in Truckee for a time and then moved on, but hundreds remained here to settle down.

After the completion of the railroad, the West saw a great scattering of people, including many Chinese, who had been employed by the railroads. All populations, but especially the Chinese, moved frequently following the latest need for their labor. These evolving communities were almost all men, with only a few prostitutes and female servants.

By 1870, Truckee’s Chinatown had stabilized and organized. The organizations that ran Truckee were two of the tongs of the Six Companies. This group of mutual community associations was formed to bring laborers from China and send their wages back. The headquarters were in San Francisco, and they had a large presence in Truckee.

Truckee’s first Chinatown was located just west of Commercial Row, from the railroad tracks extending up the hill. Chinatown was a densely packed scene of shanties and hovels. Scraps of lumber were used to construct warm shelters to survive the brutal winters.

Flames from wood stoves and fireplaces presented a constant fire threat, and on two occasions a major portion of Chinatown burned. Collections were taken up in 1869 and 1870, realizing more than $400 that was donated to the Truckee Hose Company.

Not all Truckee Chinese lived in Chinatown. Some lived near the Truckee River, as domestic help in family homes, and many lived in scattered locations at lumber mills, logging camps, charcoal camps, and section camps along the railroad and throughout the hills.

Boca had a sizeable population, as did Donner Summit. But on their days off from back-breaking work, they came to Truckee to socialize, buy supplies, and enjoy other diversions.

The 1870 federal census listed about 400 Chinese in Truckee and Boca Post Office. Most were men, with the majority working as railroad workers, woodchoppers, and laborers. Many more were working nearby, but were unavailable when the census taker was making his rounds. A few dozen were laundry men, a handful were cooks.

Only a couple married women were registered, but there were 23 prostitutes. There were four doctors, the same number of grocers, six gamblers, and an opium den owner. Throw in a half dozen gardeners and a scavenger and you have the basic Chinese population.

Tahoe City had a handful of Chinese in 1870, working as cooks and domestic help in Walter Lyon’s Tahoe House Hotel. A few others worked for Rueben Saxon at his sawmill on Ward Creek.

Fong Lee, the leading Truckee merchant, was a red-headed English-speaking man. His English wasn’t great, but he could communicate fairly well and was referred to as “Old Slobbermouth” or “the Red Headed Chinaman.” He built one of the first brick fireproof buildings in town and had both American and Chinese customers. He tried to make the best of the racial and cultural differences.

Several times in 1870 he hosted banquets for the town’s leading citizens and merchants. He was frequently rewarded by derision, hate, and racial intolerance, but on at least one occasion the Truckee Republican reported favorably on the feast.

Both American and Chinese fare were served. Snail, rice and fish soups started the banquet, boiled pig’s head, beef tongue, pork and fish were the next course. Roasted dog, pork and beef were the main course, exotic rats a la Hong Kong, chow chow, and lizards with kidneys made up the entree and the whole meal was served with rice wine and American beer.

After the feast, brandy was served and toasts and speeches were made. After long-winded promises of friendship, the candles in the Joss House were burning low and the crowd dispersed.

A month later the Truckee merchants invited the leaders of the Chinese community to an American banquet. But these were rare occasions. Mostly the two races avoided personal interaction.

These overtures of peace occurred at a time when The Workingmen’s League was active in Truckee. In mid-1869, Truckee laborers held a mass meeting that attracted a standing-room-only crowd. Jobs and low wages for Americans in the fuelwood business were the primary concern, largely due to the fact that most Chinese laborers were little more than indentured servants.

Truckee was not unique in this attitude, as all over the West thousands of Chinese who had worked so hard on the Central Pacific railroad were now roaming the west looking for any economic niche available to them. Truckee’s businessmen and the Central Pacific still hired the Chinese for cheap labor, even as their fellow citizens rallied against the practice.

Every month, hundreds more men arrived in San Francisco on ships coming directly from China. Part of the battle centered on the 15th amendment to the U.S. Constitution that, when passed by Congress in 1870, restricted immigration, voting rights and property ownership by Chinese immigrants. After the passage, tempers calmed down and the Chinese were grudgingly allowed to remain in Truckee, though not in peace. The Workingmen’s League faded from the scene for a time.

Violence on and among the Chinese population was common, as it was in the white population. Stabbings, shootings, and beatings occurred occasionally. Crime was frequent in the general sense, and the Chinese had their share of criminals. They also had their own legal system to deal with disputes and crime within the Chinese community.

While alcohol was not in their culture, gambling contributed heavily to keeping the Chinese laborers in debt and servitude. Gambling had been a part of Chinese culture for many centuries. The two main gambling dens, with their chimes, gongs and other musical attractions, were a place of joy for the Chinese, but a source of irritation for the rest of town. The local constable was called upon by Truckee to close gambling dens several times around 1870. The operators paid bribes and fines and went back into operation.

Opium was the drug of choice for Chinese men. Living thousands of miles from home in a foreign, sometimes hostile country, Chinese men escaped reality by smoking opium. This habit was controlled by the Companies, and it served to keep them dependent on the Companies.

The Chinese were very adept at coaxing various vegetables from the mountain soils. In 1870 they had the only gardens. Others thought it impossible to grow anything where frosts occur all summer long. The main Chinese gardens were next to the railroad tracks where Donner Pass Road is now, west of Spring Street and further up the hill where the freeway is now.

They raised cabbage, turnips, carrots, parsnips, beets, onions, lettuce and peas. This supplemented the food they bought from Chinese farmers in the Sacramento Valley, and purchased in San Francisco. They also made a good income selling the produce to Truckee restaurants and families. Seeing the Chinese success, Truckee families planted their own vegetable gardens.

The Chinese also kept their own animals, adding to unsanitary conditions. They kept pigs, chickens and other fowl, dogs, and an occasional cow. They had horses ” used to haul wagon loads of firewood or charcoal ” but were noted as being poor teamsters and riders.

The Chinese New Year usually occurred in late January. They set off firecrackers, beat on gongs, hammered on anvils, and used anything that could make noise. They attributed their prosperity each year to this demonstration that was meant to keep the devil or demons at a respectable distance.

In addition to firecrackers, they burned incense in copious amounts, scattered scraps of paper in the wind (that way the devil and his imps would give the Truckee Chinatown a wide berth). They even offered to protect the white inhabitants from the devil for a small sum of $1,000. The Truckee Republican thought it was a great bargain and urged townspeople to cough up the money.

In the early 1870s, the Chinese buried their dead in shallow temporary graves, and rather than try to preserve the corpses, they wanted the flesh to decay rapidly. After the bodies decomposed, the bones were dug up, cleaned, boxed and sent back to China for burial.

Through the 1870s and ’80s, until they were boycotted out of Truckee in 1886, the Chinese lived here as a race apart. They suffered greatly from prejudice and racial intolerance, but they found work and community here, and thrived despite the challenge.

Gordon Richards is the Research Historian for the Truckee Donner Historical Society. Please visit the Truckee Donner Historical Society Web site at The e-mail address is Past articles by Gordon Richards are available at in the archives.

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