A City Within a City: Truckee’s Chinatown

River Street on the Truckee River Bridge with the Chinese Herb Shop. | Courtesy Truckee-Donner Historical Society

The Chinese labor workers on Donner Summit were the literal muscle that constructed the Central Pacific Railroad (CPRR) and played an intrinsic role in propelling Truckee into becoming a lumber capital from 1868 to 1878. However, their history in Truckee’s Chinatown is an untold story due to anti-Chinese sentiment at the time. Let’s reflect for a moment on Chinatown and its inhabitants. 

Dozens of special events are planned as part of the 150th anniversary of the Transcontinental Railroad; details in the Event Calendar 

Truckee’s first Chinatown was located on the corner of Spring and Jibboom streets, behind Front Street in a triangular area. The Truckee Weekly Tribune recorded on Sept. 9, 1868, that Truckee contained:25 saloons, ten dry goods and clothing store, five grocery stores, seven lodging houses and sixteen ‘china shops.’” Besides local newspapers, The New York Tribune in 1869 raved about it: A city of John Chinamen, with an appearance of Irish Shanties, the inevitable saloons, a very comfortable Railroad hotel, and certain thriving marks of infinite variety. …There are long streets of Chinese laundries, barbers stores, tea stores, peanut stands, and nondescript booths, all alike as two peas in a pod, and adorned with big signs, persuasive no doubt, to the Celestial mind, and impenetrable to us. 

In 1870, the federal population census reported Chinatown as 407 individuals in a town of 1,467 people with 731 dwellings. The Chinese represented woodcutters, merchants, laundrymen, doctors, and prostitutes. In feeding the steam engines on the railroad and hearths in Truckee, woodcutters were crucial and made up more than 170 laborers, who were paid $1.50 per cord, the equivalent of $20 today. Merchants and grocers owned 96 percent of the land in Chinatown and there were 11 grocery stores in town such as Fong Lee’s store and a gambling hall that was worth $8,000. Laundries were embedded in nonChinese neighborhoods serving the greater community. Wau Lee’s laundry, south of the railroad tracks, offered a bathing house that was enjoyed by many locals in town. Four doctors practiced in Chinatown and were considered successful in treating venereal diseases. In the male-dominated town, 22 prostitutes worked in eight houses, adjacent to the houses of nonChinese prostitutes.  

From 1870 until 1875, Truckee prospered from the benefits of the CPRR, which was heavily exporting lumber and cords of wood to Virginia City’s silver mines via the Virginia & Truckee Railroad.  

Bird’s eye view of Truckee, 1884, Chinatown seen from Hilltop. | Courtesy Truckee-Donner Historical Society

On May 29, 1875, Chinatown burned down. It is estimated that Chinese establishments lost $50,000 from this devastating fire. Four days later, The Truckee Republican reported on “The New Chinatown” and an effort to protect Truckee’s residents. The newspaper reported:The plan is to have no more Chinese houses built on Second Street, below this street, and to have none built on the south side of the street at all. They will be allowed to extend their town back on the hill as far as they will find it necessary and the land given to them at reasonable rates. …The question seems to be amicably settled at present, and, however desirable it may be to have them removed, taking all things into consideration, we believe the citizens will have reason to be satisfied providing these terms are carried out. 

Even though fire devastated Truckee’s Chinatown, the Chinese were resilient. When Virginia City’s silver production declined, hostility toward the Chinese grew. Like any recession, it is best articulated in funds, which peaked in 1877 ($36 million) then drastically fell in 1878 ($19 million) when 50 percent of the sawmills shut down, leading to significant layoffs of skilled mill labor. Resentment of the Chinese mounted. This view was reflected in The Truckee Republican, which stated on July 10, 1875, that Chinatown had “a very good appearance.However, by 1877, the newspaper said: “Stores, gambling dens, tailor shops, bootmaking establishments, cigar and tobacco, opium and prostitution houses —each were visited and each were found as uncleanly and filthy as the preceding. We cannot foresee wherein our country is to be benefitted by their citizenship.”  

In 1878, the Chinatown caught fire three times and it was projected to be by the work of anti-Chinese vigilantes, known as the Caucasian League 

In taking control of the situation, the Safety Committee bought the lots owned by the Chinese on Jibboom and paid to relocate them outside the town’s limits across the Truckee River to South East River Street on land purchased by Charles Crocker. Of the 1,195 residents in town during the 1880 federal census, 303 were Chinese and half were working as woodcutters.  

Between 1878 and 1881, the Virginia City silver mines spiraled into a decline and by 1881, Truckee’s mills were closing drastically. With unemployment of Truckee’s workforce high, antagonism intensified against Chinese residents. On Nov. 25, 1882, The Truckee Republican printed “The Cue Klux Klan: To the people of California, and especially to anti-Chinese leagues, we suggest the bloodless remedy of cue (sic) cutting as an escape from serious complications, and a sure cure for the Chinese pestilence.” 

The anti-Chinese Caucasian League heavily targeted employers of the Chinese, such as the town’s biggest woodchopper employer, Sisson, Wallace & Co. The town’s anti-Chinese views had escalated and included prominent businessmen, championed by Charles McGlashan, in boycotting the Chinese and riding all the Chinese from town by summer of 1886 

Today, the only building from Truckee’s Chinatown that exists is the Chinese Herb Shop located at 10004 South East River St. The little shop, built in 1878, is a brick, fireproof building with iron metal shutters that has survived many fires. From the 1920s up until 1960s, it was used as the Truckee Bottling Works by the Englehart family and was rumored to have the finest bootlegged whiskey in town 

For a list of summer activities that celebrate the sesquicentennial of the Transcontinental Railroad, visit goldspike.org or Donner Summit-Truckee Golden Spike Celebration on Facebook. 

By Corri Jimenez 

 Corri Jimenez is an architectural historian and historic preservation professional working in the Tahoe area.