Ghosts of Sierrans Past: Truckee’s Chinatown

By Duncan A. Kennedy

Truckee is today a bustling town of about 16,000, where myriad tourists come to ski, shop or unwind, while trucks transit the town via Interstate 80, one of our nation’s largest transportation arteries. Yet this destination, which markets itself for its historic character and authenticity, is missing what was once one of its’ most notable components – a Chinese-American commercial district. And Truckee didn’t just boast any average Chinatown; at its height, Truckee’s Chinatown was the second-largest in the Western United States, behind only San Francisco’s now globally famed community. So, what happened?

During the construction of the First Transcontinental Railroad from 1868 to 1869, Chinese immigrant laborers were recruited by the Central Pacific Railroad upon arrival in the states. These immigrants were refugees fleeing a bloody civil war started by a failed local bureaucrat who grossly misinterpreted pamphlets he received from a Protestant missionary and awoke from a fever shortly thereafter claiming to be the younger brother of Jesus Christ; the war was bloody and riddled with famine, so it is little wonder that these emigrants fled for less war-torn reaches of the globe. Ultimately, these Chinese immigrant laborers proved to be the saving grace of the railroad, being key in helping connect Salt Lake City, UT, with Sacramento, CA.

A great number of these immigrants settled in Truckee, constructing a Chinatown of their own in the town. This first Chinatown, according to a Sierra Sun article by local history buff Corri Jimenez, was located in a triangular district of town uphill from downtown proper, bounded by Spring and Jibboom streets. Today, this area is home to a few small businesses and some private residences, but in the 1860s and 1870s, one could find laundries, clinics, stores, saloons, brothels, a gambling hall, and a fairly comfortable hotel. At the 1870 Census, 407 people out of a town population of 1,467 were Chinatown residents; many of them were employed as woodcutters in the surrounding forest.

The Central Pacific Railroad was the key to Truckee’s timber prosperity, exporting lumber and firewood to Virginia City during the early 1870s; Chinese laborers were heavily involved in both aspects of the timber industry. However, Sinophobia in the community was already on the rise when the original Chinatown burned down in 1875; it was soon rebuilt upon that site. Shortly after, the “Truckee Caucasian League” was organized in an effort to drive the Chinese population from the town. Tensions finally boiled over on June 17th, 1876, when seven Caucasian League members set fire to two cabins housing six Chinese woodcutters, then shot at them. One man was fatally wounded, and another was injured in the line of fire.

The seven men involved – George Getchell, Calvin McCullough, G.W. Mershon, J. O’Neal, Fred Wilbert, Frank Wilson and future Town Constable James Reed – were arrested in August 1876. A trial occurred in Nevada City the following month; however, after nine minutes of deliberation by an all-white jury and fierce testimony by forty Truckee residents at least loosely connected with the Caucasian League, all defendants were cleared of arson charges. O’Neal, the only man accused of murder, was found not guilty in the process.

As a recession hit and Virginia City’s fortunes waned, so too did Truckee’s economy, and thus anti-Chinese sentiment increased noticeably. The Chinatown district burned three times in 1878, seemingly thanks to the Caucasian League, and after the third time the Truckee Safety Committee purchased the burned lots and paid the owners to relocate to a new Chinatown. This new Chinatown was located on what is now SE River Street, right off of Brockway.

These opinions were heightened by the vehemently Sinophobic editorial policies of Charles F. McGlashlan, owner of the Truckee Republican (now the Sierra Sun), who would in the future become a state assemblyman and later a butterfly farmer. One of his proposals, published in an 1882 editorial titled “The Cue Klux Klan”, was to offer rewards to those who forcibly cut the braided ponytails, or cues, of Chinese men in Truckee as a humiliation tactic. In 1886, McGlashlan successfully organized a two-month townwide boycott of Chinese businesses and customers alike that drove the last of the population from the town. Truckee celebrated the success of the “Truckee Method” with a parade, and today the only sign that there was ever a Chinatown is a single building at 10004 SE River Street.

In recent years, the idea of reparative action towards minority communities for past discrimination and property destruction has become a widespread yet divisive idea across the United States. However, as Truckee continues to thrive and diversify, the community’s businesspeople, developers and town government may want to look to the past once more, and draw inspiration from it to invest in the re-construction of this piece of town history. Such a measure would add to the diverse character of the town’s population, improve its image of historical accuracy and preservation, and attract new businesses and residents to the area of an underrepresented community.

And if there’s one thing Truckee could definitely stand to invest in as a town, it’s an authentic Chinese restaurant or five.

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