In the novel The House on Harrigan’s Hill, not one Chinese man or woman lived in Truckee. By the 1880’s – 1882 California law no longer allowed Chinese to immigrate to California - Truckee was known for its decision to drive the Celestials from the town. Nowadays, the only evidence of a Chinese community once estimated at more than 1000 people is the curiosity that remains on the south bank of the river where the last Chinatown existed. The ramshackle Chinese Herb Shop can be visited.
It is also true, however, that once the Central Pacific railroad was completed, Truckee survived during the last quarter of the nineteenth century because of the relentless hard work done by men Charles Crocker brought over from China. Truckee was a tiny settlement until the tracks and grades and tunnels followed the CP line surveyed through the mountains to Truckee and on to Nevada.
When work on the railroad had finished, a community of Chinese remained in the town, doing laundry, hewing wood, cutting ice, and making charcoal for purchase in town and also at the silver mines of the Comstock Lode in Nevada. Once the Comstock Lode diminished production about 1877, jobs were no longer needed. Then the Caucasian League, a vigilante group, began to stir up feelings against the Chinese. Unemployed white laborers wanted the remaining jobs.
In the 19th century fire was a constant fear in Truckee. The Chinatown constructed behind Front Street, burned down in 1875 which agitated the Americans who benefitted from a prosperous town. A rebuilt Chinatown population had enough strength that even a Chinese slave girl who had escaped from her Chinese master was protected. She was eventually arrested by the town constable, and bad feelings about foreigners grew worse. Next, the Caucasian League attacked and burned another set of shacks that were homes for Chinese wood cutters working for the Brickell, Burckhaulter, Moody, and Gray Company. Finally, the Chinese who had not wandered off to other parts of California agreed to relocate in an area outside town limits south of the river. As rickety as other Chinatown buildings, it burned and was torn down. The last Chinese were driven away in 1886.
Enduring constant racial harassment, one wonders why the remainder of the 10,000 Chinese brought over by Charles Crocker did not return to China when the railroad was finished. The Chinese who heeded the promise of California gold were the young, impoverished by crop failures in Canton. Few wished to return to the turmoil in the 19th century Middle Kingdom. In spite of ridicule and malice, when lured onto ships bound for Gold Mountain, the Chinese who believed the myth stayed and managed to find a valuable place in California.
- original post March 29, 2014