Gordon Richards

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November 28, 2004
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When Truckee boycotted Chinese workers

For the first two decades of Truckee's existence, the Chinese community comprised a large segment of the local population. Their dedication and search for economic freedom is well chronicled in California history. A new book by Wallace Hagaman details the events that led up to the 1886 economic boycott by Truckee's citizens against the Chinese community, and their subsequent eviction.The Chinese came to California in the height of the Gold Rush, and remain to this day. Very quickly, prejudice against their distinct and mostly separate culture resulted in an anti-Chinese atmosphere in California society.In 1864 the Central Pacific Railroad was starting construction of the transcontinental railroad, but it was suffering from a chronic labor shortage. As the crews moved up into the foothills, Charles Crocker hired Chinese laborers to fill the shortage. Soon Chinese men were imported directly from China to drill, blast, cut and fill the grade for the railroad.The Chinese came to the Truckee-Donner area in great numbers in 1867, with as many as 2,000 living and working here by 1870. Many continued to work in railroad construction and maintenance after the completion of the railroad in 1869. Hundreds more were laboring away in the firewood, charcoal, and lumber industries, some as independent contractors, but most were employed by Truckee businessmen.The first Truckee Chinatown was located along Donner Pass Road, just west of Commercial Row running up the hill to High Street. The Chinese had their own gardens, butchered their own animals, ran their own stores, had their own doctors, lawyers and court system. They maintained their own cultural identity, rather than assimilating into Truckee's frontier society. As few Chinese women were ever in Truckee, it was a very male-oriented community.Anti-Chinese sentimentThe anti-Chinese feelings were heightened in 1875 as a series of fires burned portions of Chinatown and threatened the business district of adjacent Front Street. In 1876 the friction escalated into violence when a Chinese woodcutter was murdered on Trout Creek north of Truckee. The all white jury acquitted the Truckee men who committed the crime, but Truckee gained a reputation of violence from it.The decline of the Truckee lumber business in the mid 1870s was a result of the business practices of the Bank of California, which controlled the Virginia City mines, the Virginia & Truckee Railroad, and extensive lumbering operations at Lake Tahoe. The bank and its syndicate conspired to limit the amount of Truckee lumber being sold in the Virginia City area. The result was hundreds of unemployed white working men who resented the hard-working lower-paid Chinese.In 1876 the Caucasian League was formed in Truckee, when 300 workingmen and businessmen felt threatened enough to organize. At the time, the white businessmen began to replace their Chinese workers.In 1878 Chinatown suffered a destructive fire that consumed most of the town and just barely spared Front Street again. The citizens refused to allow the reconstruction on its former location. Instead a plot of ground was provided by sympathetic Truckee businessmen across the Truckee River on what is now South East River Street.The cry "The Chinese Must Go" was first printed in the Truckee Republican by owner-publisher Charles Fayette McGlashan in November of 1878 when the reconstruction of Chinatown had started. The anti-Chinese feelings began in earnest in that period.Economic boycott takes effectThe White Labor Club encouraged an economic boycott as early as 1879. One by one, Caucasian League members and Truckee business owners fired their Chinese workers, stopped contracting with them for services and started voicing the popular slogan openly. Lumber company owners such as George Schaffer and Joseph Gray were some of the first to concede to the Caucasian League crusade. Others, such as Elle Ellen, the Champion Brothers, George Marsh, and David J. Smith took longer to be convinced of the disadvantages of ignoring the prevailing opinion of the townspeople. By 1886, all remaining Truckee employers of Chinese were under severe pressure to boycott or fire them.The last of the major employers to withstand the anti-Chinese economic boycott was Sisson, Crocker & Co. These railroad-related merchants were not Truckee based, so they were reluctant to see things the way the Truckee people did. In the end they canceled their contracts with their Chinese woodcutters and sold their general merchandise store to the Truckee Lumber Company.The impact on Truckee was not what the white citizens were hoping for. The jobs that had been performed by the low-paid Chinese were largely eliminated, moved to other areas, or were taken by the next wave of low-paid immigrants. The railroad started switching their locomotives to coal to avoid paying the high price of Truckee fuel wood. Lumber operations moved north to the Mount Shasta area where lumber could be cut cheaper, and Italian immigrants came take the place of the Chinese. Indeed, much of the Southeast River Street area became one of the Italian areas in Truckee. Truckee's Chinatown suffered another fire, and the last remnants of Chinatown were mostly forgotten. One of the few buildings to survive was the Chinese Herb Shop, which is now undergoing restoration. Now that the later additions have been removed, the original structure is more visible than it has been in many decades.Read all about it"The Chinese Must Go" is a wonderful, readable in-depth history that is an excellent version of half of the story of the Truckee anti-Chinese boycott. The Chinese side has never been told to the full extent that would be necessary to understand the whole story. The new book by Nevada City Historian Wallace Hagaman is his third book on the Chinese in Nevada County. His first books were about the Chinese cemeteries and temples of the Nevada City - Grass Valley area. This book is a great addition to Truckee history. The book is available from the Truckee Donner Historical Society and local bookstores. The society will have all three of Hagaman's book available at it's Christmas at the Cabin on Dec. 3 from 4 to 9 p.m. at the TDHS Research Cabin at 11015 Donner Trail Road in Meadow Park behind the Truckee Donner Public Utility District. Historical photos and vintage collectibles will also be available to purchase for Christmas presents.Gordon Richards is the research historian for the Truckee Donner Historical Society. Comments, story ideas, guest articles, 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 tdhs@inreach.com. You may leave a message at 582-0893.


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Tahoe Daily Tribune Updated Nov 28, 2004 01:14PM Published Nov 28, 2004 12:00AM Copyright 2004 Tahoe Daily Tribune. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.