Truckee’s sole Chinatown survivor is now restored
The last remnant of Truckee’s late 19th century Chinatown, the Chinese Herb Shop, is looking brand new these days thanks to a painstaking two-year restoration.
The structure, built in 1878, is the only building to survive the fires that ravaged Truckee’s Chinese neighborhoods.
“It is the last remnant,” said Gordon Richards, historian and president of the Truckee Donner Historical Society. “That’s what makes it so important.
“All the other buildings down there burned.”
The structure on the corner of Southeast River Street and Brockway, which for nearly a decade was the center of Truckee’s Chinatown after it was relocated to the south side of the Truckee River, will now be leased as retail or office space.
Contractor Steve Isbell undertook the process of preserving the historic materials of the building while making the shop structurally sound and updated. Each board or timber that was removed and restored was returned to its original place, Isbell said.
“We had to remove, mark and replace each board,” said Isbell, standing outside of the Herb Shop’s wood-sided, western exterior.
The exacting restoration has earned Isbell the Commercial Project of the Year award from the Contractors Association of Truckee Tahoe, a recognition the association gives out to one of its members. The building’s owner, John McManus, will also be recognized by the Truckee Donner Historical Society.
“I think the end result speaks for itself,” said contractors association director Pat Davison. “(Isbell) put his heart and soul into it.”
In the process of taking apart and reassembling much of the structure, Isbell found many signs of the Herb Shop’s traumatic and varied history.
Burnt timbers and siding, which workers found as they peeled back layers of wood, demonstrate the many times the building endured flames. Fire burned through Truckee’s Chinatown several times, which is why the brick-walled Herb Shop is the only remaining Chinese building left from the era.
Isbell also found that the small second floor of the building was covered in dirt. Dirt on an upper story was a primitive fire extinguisher, he said. When a blaze ate into the roof, the second floor would unleash the dust and dirt, which would often extinguish the flames. “That was a common fire protection in Truckee,” Richards said.
Mysteries still linger around the restored building. Historians believe the basement of the building may have been used as an opium den, as was the case with many cellars in the late 1800s.