General Area of the first Chinatown

 

When the Transcontinental Railroad was completed in 1869, about 1,400 now out-of-work Chinese laborers traveled to Truckee to seek new jobs building railroads through the Sierra Nevada mountains. Within a period of a few months, one third of Truckee's population was Chinese. The Chinatown there was the second only to San Francisco in its size.

 

Anti-Chinese resentment built up quickly in the ranks of the white workers of Truckee. For several years there were isolated incidents of white men beating and stealing from Chinese merchants, but on May 29, 1875, a fire of unknown origin broke out in Chinatown. Soon the entire area was in flames.

 

The fire spread to several white-owned businesses, but a volunteer fire brigade prevented it from spreading further. No effort was made to save the Chinese buildings, which were completed destroyed. Officials claimed the fire was due to negligence by the Chinese; the Chinese proclaimed their innocence. No cause was ever determined, but the white citizens' dislike of the Chinese in Truckee now turned to fear and hatred.

 

Soon after the fire a group of white men started a vigilante committee called the Caucasian League. They began to plan ways to rid the town of its Chinese residents. Some League members wanted to act more quickly than others, and in June, 1876, a small group of white men attacked several Chinese woodcutters outside of town. They set fire to the woodcutters' cabins, and when the Chinese ran out the attackers shot and wounded several of them. One of the Chinese men died the next day.

 

Seven men were arrested and stood trial, but in spite of direct testimony by two of the defendants against the other five all were acquitted after the jury deliberated for just nine minutes.

 

During this time, the Chinese had rebuilt much of their original community in the same location in Truckee. At least two more fires destroyed parts of the newly rebuilt Chinatown over the next two years. In May, 1878, multiple fires broke out again in Chinatown, and soon most of it was in flames. The few homes that survived the blaze were blown up by someone using dynamite a few weeks later.

 

There is no record of any Chinese deaths or injuries from the blaze or explosions, but contemporary accounts were highly unreliable. The local newspaper was published by Charles McGlashan, who was both the attorney who defended the white men in the 1876 trial and the leader of the Caucasian League.

 

Using public safety as an excuse, town officials declared that the Chinese could not rebuild on the same site and ordered them to move across the Truckee River to a relatively remote area. Having survived multiple fires and on-going violence, the 700 Chinese men and women who now remained in Truckee began building on the new plot of land in hopes that they might be left in peace.

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Sources: Hagaman, Pfaelzer, Sandmeyer, Saxton

 

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About this site: The location of Truckee's first Chinatown is well documented in contemporary maps and newspaper articles. Many shops and homes are known to have occupied this street and the hillside behind it. The brick building on the left is the old Truckee Jailhouse, which was built after the Chinese businesses and dwellings here were destroyed. The Jailhouse is now maintained by the Truckee Donner Historical Society, which has a small collection of Chinese pottery and other personal artifacts that were excavated from the hillside behind the building.

Truckee

© 2017 Tim Greyhavens. All rights reserved.

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