Mystery lingers in restored Herb Shop
January 9, 2006
The recent restoration of the Chinese Herb Shop on South East River Street shows how Truckee’s historic buildings can be restored instead of demolished. The brick building that was the pride of Truckee’s second Chinatown from 1878 to 1886 is again a source of pride in modern Truckee.The Chinese laborers who did the heavy work on the Central Pacific Railroad first came to Truckee as construction moved to the Truckee River basin in the winter of 1866-67. Many stayed to complete finishing touches on the railroad, cut the huge quantities of firewood that were needed to power the locomotives, as well as hundreds of other laboring jobs.Their presence was tolerated, but never welcomed by the competitive American working men. Truckee’s businessmen did appreciate the cheap labor source. The first Chinatown, located just west of Commercial Row on the hill leading up to High Street, burned in 1878.The fear of a another fire starting in the ramshackle Chinatown and burning down all of Truckee led to the formation of a citizen’s safety committee that advocated the removal of Chinatown to the south side of the river.The committee insistence that the Chinese be forcefully removed led Truckee businessmen Joe Gray, Edward Brickel, John Moody and Fred Burckhalter to buy the land on the south side of the Truckee River. Funds were raised and the Chinese were paid for their lots in the old Chinatown. The few buildings that were rebuilt were torn down by the safety committee.The East Ward
The forced relocation of the Chinese was also done to protect the Chinese from violence, while still having their labor available. The American businessmen, who still wanted cheap Chinese labor, provided lumber and building materials to build a new Chinatown in late 1878. The Chinese swarmed the newly named East Ward. A brick store was erected quickly by the Chinese community. Other lumber and brick structures followed. While much of the labor was done by the Chinese, American laborers were also employed in tasks such as the construction of a water system.Soon the confrontation between the Chinese and American communities calmed down, and for the next five years peace prevailed. A fire burned 25 buildings in Chinatown in 1883, resulting in the construction of several new brick buildings.While the American community didn’t refer to it as an herb shop, the Chinese may have. The store was reported in the Truckee Republican as being operated by several different merchants in the 1878-1886 period. The two prominent merchants of the period were Quong Sing Lung and Young Chung Jan. They sold a variety of locally produced Chinese vegetables and imported delicacies that were important to the Chinese diet.Opium, herb of addictionThe Herb Shop was one of several locations that opium was available. The opium smoking habit came over from China and became a major problem in the 1880s. Both Chinese and Americans could be found smoking the drug in the opium dens of Chinatown.Opium use frequently was done in the cellars of established merchants, such as found in the Herb Shop building. The opium fiend found himself quickly addicted and nothing else in life mattered except the next session with the pipe. Truckee law enforcement and Chinese leaders made attempts to prevent the practice, but most efforts were futile, as the underground economy of opium was more powerful than the law. A year after the Chinese were forced from Truckee in 1886, several opium dens still remained, serving the few remaining Chinese and American customers.
1886 fire In June of 1886 the East Ward caught fire, with buildings on both sides of street burning. Even houses on the Truckee side of the river almost caught fire. The Truckee fire volunteers concentrated on saving the wooden bridge over the river and protecting the buildings on either side of the bridge. The Chinese made no effort to quell the blaze, despite having fire hoses and hydrants.This incident occurred after most of Chinatown had been vacated. The jobs of the Chinese had been eliminated by American merchants in response to the boycotting of their businesses by Truckee working men.The Herb Shop is likely the scene of two deaths. Ah Juy and Tem Ah Yeck refused to leave the cellar of the Chuck Tung store as the roof caught fire. Truckee volunteers tried to break down the locked iron doors, but failed. D.W. Leach and others broke down a portion of the brick cellar and pulled out one of the barely alive men, but he died shortly thereafter.The brick building survived this fire and a later one that burned the remaining wooden buildings and another brick store down the street in 1888, when only a few Chinese were left. But that was not the end of the historical uses of the building.Beer and soda Charles Thomas first shows up in Truckee history in 1884. In the spring of 1885 he started a soda works manufacturing plant in the Joe Gray cabin on Bridge and Jibboom streets.
Soon after the Chinese deserted Chinatown, Thomas moved his soda works to the Herb Shop. He made lemon soda, ginger ale, sarsaparilla, orange soda, Mountain Dew, cream soda and other popular carbonated drinks. He bottled water from local springs and sold them as mineral waters.He advertised that his soda waters were 99 percent pure from mountain spring water. This was at a time that the Truckee domestic water system, though some of purest in the Sierra, was considered unhealthy and not fit for drinking.Thomas also opened up the Eureka Brewery in the cellar of the then named Truckee Soda Works and Eureka Brewery building. He was partial to steam-brewed beers, touting their healthful benefits. He created his own Thomas Steam Beer, Eureka Steam Beer and a Felson Beer and sold it in all of the Truckee, Boca and Lake Tahoe saloons.By 1905 the Soda Works and brewery were fitted up with the latest improvements, such as 50 acetylene gas lights and a high pressure steam boiler. He built his own ice house, buying ice cut on local ponds in the winter, and storing it until summer. He then used the ice to keep his flavorful drinks cold. He also distributed other drinks, such as Schlitz beer, Rainier Beer, and other national brands of soda. By 1917 at age 69, Thomas was feeling his age, and he leased out the Soda Works building to F. L. Matthews. Matthews didn’t carry on the success of Thomas and the business was dormant for a few years.In the 1920s, the Truckee Soda Works was purchased by William Englehart. The manufacture of soda drinks continued and soon it became the home of Truckee’s own Coca-Cola bottling plant. During prohibition, a bit more than soda was brewed in the cellar. The Engleharts built a block warehouse next to the Soda Works for the distribution of soft drinks, which eventually became an automotive repair garage for several decades. The reconstructed garage doesn’t look anything like its former self. The restoration of the Herb Shop brings the building forward to a new chapter in Truckee history.Gordon Richards is the president and research historian for the Truckee Donner Historical Society. Comments and history information are always welcome. Please visit the Truckee Donner Historical Society Web site at http://truckeehistory.tripod.com. The e-mail address is email@example.com. You may leave a message at 530-582-0893. Past articles by Gordon Richards are available at sierrasun.com in the archives.