Unraveling the mystery of the Chinese Herb Shop
The Chinese Herb Shop is one of the most interesting, albeit mysterious buildings in Truckee. It 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 labor, which went into completion of 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 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 also nearby communities 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 riots and 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 were 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. 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.
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.
Thanks to the efforts of several sympathetic citizens, including Joseph Gray, Frank Burckhalter, E.J. Brickell and J.F. Moody, arrangements were made for peaceful relocation of Chinese to land owned by Charles Crocker on the south side of the river, the area now known as Southeast River Street.
By December 1878, construction was completed on Truckee’s new Chinatown, across the river along today’s East 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 is recorded, except that it took only five weeks to move the entire population of 2,000.
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 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.
The Chinese Herb Shop became the cornerstone of Truckee’s new Chinatown. It was constructed like a fortress, with brick walls seventeen 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.
Little factual information is known about the building’s earliest occupants or its usage, except that it was 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. It is unproven, but presumable that this building was the Chinese herb shop.
“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, 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 building’s current tenant, Rob McCarthy, about two feet of dirt covers 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 has operated a sign shop at the location for 22 years and knows every inch of the structure. “The basement was said to be a place for Chinese men to be serviced by Chinese women,” he says with a smile. “It also served as an opium den.”
McCarthy laughs when he relates the story of the night that he came to his shop to finish some work and heard someone moaning in pain upstairs. As he nervously climbed the stairway he discovered a man precariously stuck in a small attic window.
“He appeared to be a hippy, and as before I helped him out of the window, I asked him what he was doing here,” says McCarthy. The man replied, “I heard there was some real fine opium in this building, man.” To this, McCarthy replied, “Yes there was, but you’re 130 years too late.”
The building’s basement remains somewhat of an enigma, perhaps fair game for some future archeologist. Opening the trap door reveals only a sea of spider webs covering some old tires. “I’ve never gone past the stairway,” McCarthy says.
It is highly probable, but not certain, whether this is the same basement where two Chinese men were asphyxiated in 1886.
During the 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 fine bootleg whisky may have been produced in this building.
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.
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 racial 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.
Guy Coates is a Truckee resident and historian. Echoes From the Past appears every other week in the Sierra Sun.
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