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Herb shop an important link to Truckee’s Chinese history

From The Files of The Truckee Donner Historical Society

On Saturday, Feb. 28, the Chief Truckee chapter of the E Clampus Vitus will be rededicating a plaque and an interpretive sign on the historic Chinese Herb Shop. It is located on the corner of Brockway Road and Southeast River Street, next to the Truckee River. A brief history of the Chinese community in Truckee and of the building will be presented by the Truckee Donner Historical Society.

The Chinese Herb Shop is one of the most interesting, albeit mysterious, buildings in Truckee. It is also the last remaining structure of a large Chinese community which was part of Truckee’s second Chinatown between the years 1878 and 1886.

Chinese American laborers are credited with providing the vast majority of the labor that went into completing the first transcontinental railroad through the Sierra Nevada.

The Chinese, numbering around 10,000, were brought over the summit by Charles Crocker, one of the “Big Four” who, along with Leland Stanford, Mark Hopkins, and Collis P. Huntington, provided financial backing for the Central Pacific Railroad.

According to the 1870 census, approximately 1,400 Chinese people lived in Truckee, most of them men. They worked as lumberjacks, mill hands, ice cutters and teamsters, woodcutters, as well as a number of other trades. At the time, Truckee was said to have the second largest Chinatown on the West Coast.

Chinese labor not only helped build the town of Truckee, but nearby communities also came to rely on their labor, which was sold on a contract basis out of Truckee by both white and Asian labor merchants.

During most of the 1870s, Truckee was the scene of racial unrest in which Chinatown was repeatedly burned and Chinese Americans driven from their homes. The fires were only a small part of a grand scheme to rid Truckee of its Chinese inhabitants.

Truckee’s original Chinatown was located above Brickelltown, mostly on the hill just west of downtown. For more than eight years its residents inhabited a congregation of tightly packed wooden shanties.

In August 1874, a series of four fires in a 10-day period was reported.

The local newspaper proclaimed that Chinatown was a “tinder box” and a threat to the downtown area and suggested paying the Chinese to “relocate across the river, near the Indian camp.”

Inevitably, on May 29, 1875, Chinatown suffered a devastating fire. Since arson was suspected, several Chinese men were assigned to look out for fires and serve as guards while their community began the task of rebuilding their rickety shacks on the same site.

Although arson was suspected, no suspects were apprehended, and threats against the Chinese population by several white vigilante groups continued.

On June 17, 1876, seven white men set fire to the roof of a cabin housing Chinese woodcutters on Trout Creek and fired on the terrified men as they ran out the door, killing one man. A controversial trial ended with no convictions.

In addition to the threat of fire to Truckee, the other problem between the races was economical. The lumber industry was suffering from a depression and most of the jobs were going to the lower-paid Chinese, while white workers were unemployed. Locals also complained that the Chinese sent their money to China, rather than spending it locally, which was a detriment to the local economy.

Three times in 1878, Chinatown caught fire, threatening all of Truckee with destruction. The fires were put out by the town’s three volunteer fire companies.

Finally, on Oct. 28, 1878, another suspicious fire broke out, this time consuming all of Chinatown. The fire was followed by an “order” issued by Truckee’s “601” vigilantes for all Chinese to leave town within one week. Red ribbons, the traditional 601 warning, were tied to the few remaining structures.

The Chinese responded by arming themselves with Henry rifles as they began rebuilding their shanties and threatened a major war with the whites if they interfered. Emotions ran high, fueled by prejudicial newspaper reports.

Truckee residents and businessmen contributed to a fund, administered by the Safety Committee, to buy out the old Chinatown lots. But seeing that the Chinese were rebuilding on the old site, the whites carefully disassembled the rebuilt shacks.

Thanks to the efforts of several sympathetic citizens, including Joseph Gray, Frank Burckhalter, E.J. Brickell and J.F. Moody, arrangements were made for a somewhat peaceful relocation of the Chinese to land owned by Charles Crocker on the south side of the river, the area now known as Southeast River Street. Many of the old lots were purchased by the Safety Committee.

By December 1878, construction was completed on Truckee’s new Chinatown, across the river along today’s Southeast River Street. The newspaper dubbed the community the “East Ward.”

Very little is known about the experience of the Chinese during their move across the river, except that it took only five weeks to move the entire population of 2,000. More detailed research will be done on this subject.

Stories circulated of crowds of whites lining the streets downtown, while young boys threw rocks and spat at the cold, starving Chinese, as they carried what remained of their belongings through town and cheering as the remaining buildings in old Chinatown were demolished. Whites who dared to assist the Chinese were themselves threatened; however, newspaper accounts also say that Truckee’s Safety Committee gave them rice, lumber and shingles to speed the relocation along.

The Chinese Herb Shop became the cornerstone of Truckee’s new Chinatown. It was constructed like a fortress, with brick walls 17-inches thick and fireproof iron doors to protect both front and rear entrances, which could be slammed shut in the event of a fire or raid by vigilantes. Photos of the period show the new community’s buildings to be on par with many of the rest of the town’s buildings, not just shacks.

Few facts are known about the herb shop’s earliest occupants or its usage, but it appears to be the only survivor of Chinatown’s third major fire of suspicious origin, which broke out on June 17, 1886.

According to the newspaper, most of the structures in new Chinatown were lost, as firefighters focused their efforts on saving the bridge. When the roof of one building caught fire, it was reported that rescuers failed in their attempt to break down the iron doors of the brick building which could possibly have been the Chinese herb shop. Further to the east another brick building belonging to the Quong Sing Lung Company had also been built in 1878.

“Two Chinamen were suffocated in the cellar of Tuck Chung,” the paper reported. “Their names were Ah Juy and Tem Ah Yeck. It is generally believed by the whites that they were locked in by other Chinamen, but the finding of a key to the iron door on the body of one of them, would serve a measure to dispel that belief.”

Following the fire, Chinatown was never rebuilt. The Chinese economic strength was finally destroyed in Truckee in a general boycott in 1886, led by C.F. McGlashan. Within a period of five weeks, Truckee’s entire Chinese population had left town. Townspeople held a torchlight parade in celebration of the event.

The building has undergone considerable change since its first Chinese owners. Not only has the original herb shop been surrounded by numerous frame additions, but more recently a large concrete block structure was added to the east side of the building. These additions have dramatically changed the roofline of the original structure and the concrete addition to the east bears no resemblance to the original building’s architecture.

According to the current owner’s engineering report that was submitted to the town, the building is eight different structures of different ages and construction. Much of the old building is in danger of collapse should an extremely heavy winter occur.

According to the building’s former tenant, Rob McCarthy, about two feet of dirt covered the floor of the attic in the original herb shop, serving as insulation and fire protection for the wooden beams in the first floor ceiling.

McCarthy operated a sign shop at the location for 25 years and knew every inch of the structure. “The basement was said to be a place for Chinese men to be serviced by Chinese women,” he said with a smile. “It also served as an opium den.”

The building’s basement remains somewhat of an enigma, perhaps fair game for some future archeologist. Opening the trap door revealed only a sea of spider webs covering some old tires. “I’ve never gone past the stairway,” McCarthy said in 1998.

It is highly probable, but not certain, whether this is the same basement where two Chinese men were asphyxiated in 1886.

After the Chinese left the area, the block was bought out and many of the jobs were taken over by the Italian families. The Tonini, Franzini, Cicini, and Armatti families became the major landowners.

During most of the twentieth century, the Englehart family owned the building. William Englehart, Sr. operated a soda and bottling works in the building. During the prohibition years, it is rumored that some of Truckee’s finest bootleg whisky may have been produced in this building.

It is the period of the 1920s that the restoration will approximate. It will include the removal of the western portion, closest to the bridge, and the portion connecting to the garage.

In later years, the building served as a garage operated by the McCully family and later by Joe Crawford. The building is currently owned by John McManus.

Today, the Chinese Herb Shop serves as the only tangible reminder of Truckee’s beleaguered and maligned Chinese population. It is a story that cannot be remembered with pride.

Truckee has recently entered into a new chapter of historic preservation and restoration. The proposal for restoration for the Chinese Herb Shop is an excellent example of this process.

There are no appropriate monuments commemorating Truckee’s Chinese culture or the contributions of these hard working people whose labor helped build the town of Truckee. Only this single building remains.

The Chinese experience in Truckee is one of the most important ethnic histories in California. For nearly 20 years the Chinese struggled, to no avail, to make Truckee their home. The torment and hatred they experienced must be known and understood as a part of a time and place in history so that it is never repeated.

The Truckee Donner Historical Society commends building-owner John McManus for his efforts. The Chief Truckee chapter of the E Clampus Vitus is a great contributor to documenting and preserving Truckee’s history.

This article was written by Guy Coates, former research historian for the Truckee Donner Historical Society. Some updated information was provided by the new research historian, Gordon Richards. The Truckee Donner Historical Society encourages the preservation of Truckee’s history. Please visit the Web site at http://truckeehistory.tripod.com for additional information on Truckee’s rich history.


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