Remembering the ‘Long Streets’ of Truckee’s Chinatowns

Celebrate the new landmark on May 10

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By Heidi Sproat

Around 1870, about one third of Truckee’s population of approximately 1,500 was Chinese. Truckee had one of the largest Chinese populations on the West Coast. Yet little marks this fundamental part of the town’s history. In fact, the only building left of the once bustling Chinatown — of which there were actually two — is the Chinese Herb Shop, located off Bridge Street south of the Truckee River. That’s likely because the brick shop was built like a fortress with iron metal shutters and had the ability to survive multiple fires over its history.

CHINATOWN FORTRESS: The Chinese Herb Shop, the building pictured with a car parked in front circa 1930, is the only remaining Chinese building in Truckee from the 1800s. Photos courtesy Truckee-Donner Historical Society

The Truckee Chinese community is due for recognition beyond this single remaining building, and this May, a resolution to honor this past is coming to fruition. In April 2023, the Truckee Donner Historical Society submitted an application to the Nevada County Historical Landmarks Commission seeking acknowledgment of Truckee’s Chinatowns. The commission, tasked with preserving the county’s historical resources, approved the application the following June, then a month later the Nevada County Board of Supervisors unanimously voted in favor of the submission, establishing landmarking status by Resolution No. 23-282.

“This long overdue acknowledgement identifies and honors those many Chinese people, who contributed to Truckee’s viability and sustainability, in the late 19th century. Besides laboring to build the Transcontinental Railroad, they were merchants, cooks, teamsters, domestic servants, gardeners, doctors and launderers,” the commission stated in a press release.

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“Without such businesses to support the Chinese population and Truckee residents, Truckee may not have survived and thrived,” continued the release. “The Chinese deserve due honor to be a recognized part in the history of Truckee.”

Vital to the building of the transcontinental railroad on Donner Summit, many Chinese laborers had landed in Truckee after the last spike had been pounded. The first Chinatown was located off Jibboom Street, behind downtown, with shops and homes lining the street and the hillside behind it. An excerpt from the New York Tribune describing what Vice President Schuyler Colfax saw from a passenger train on a March 1869 trip described Truckee as “a city of John Chinaman with an appendage of Irish Shanties.” The article describes “long streets of Chinese laundries, barber’s shops, tea stores, peanut stands, and nondescript booths, all as like as two peas externally, little wooden barracks ten feet square, and adorned with big sign boards persuasive, no doubt, to the Celestial mind, but impenetrable to us.”

“We saw the thrifty creatures eating their rice with chopsticks chattering to each other like magpies in words that seem all consonants or plying their various avocations,” the article continued. “They did not think our coaches worth the trouble of staring at and accepted our stares as a modest tribute to their elder civilization.”

TRUCKEE’S SECOND CHINATOWN, established when the Chinese were pushed out of downtown, was located south of the railroad tracks and across the Truckee River.

In a February 4, 1870, article from the Hartford Courant, there is a detailed account of the breadth of the Chinese businesses in Truckee at the time:

“We stopped a day at Truckee over in Nevada, and got up an appetite for breakfast by taking a long stroll through the Chinese section of that wild and bustling village. We found the Lee family largely represented: Hop Lee did washing and ironing, and so did Tae Lee; Quong Lee had a lottery shop on one side of the street and Sam Lee had a similar shop on the other side; Ah Lee kept a rice store on one block, and Yang Lee dealt in tea and dried fish on the next block; while Guy Lee and Angle Lee were rivals in the medical profession; and How Lee sat sedate and serious on [paper folded, unreadable] appear to be wholly desirable members of the community, and one of the doctors had such an air as I fancy belongs to adepts in the black art; but otherwise the Lees and their neighbors looked like worthy and industrious persons, taking down their shutters, sweeping out their shops and stores, putting things to right on the sidewalks, and generally going about their business as though they meant business.”

Despite this entrenched first Truckee Chinatown, scant remains can be found today. The old Truckee Jailhouse on Jibboom Street, maintained by the Truckee-Donner Historical Society, has a collection of Chinese pottery and other artifacts that were excavated from the hillside. As is being increasingly documented, a concerted effort to displace Truckee’s Chinese community raged in the 1870s, with the first Chinatown being destroyed by several fires and then finally the Chinese, estimated to be 300 strong at this point, were pushed to a new location across the river, establishing Truckee’s second Chinatown. It is from this new iteration that the herb shop came. Alas, multiple fires also destroyed this community and it finally succumbed to the success of the now infamous “Truckee Method,” at the time considered to be lawful and nonviolent, that aimed to rid the town of Chinese residents.

To revive this history of a population that helped build Truckee, this landmark status will identify and honor these two Chinatowns, in existence from 1867 to 1886.

ROCK OF THE COMMUNITY: The plaque commemorating the two Chinatowns will be mounted on granite rock in the front of the old Truckee Jail Museum. The building sits on two lots, 32 and 33, sites of some of the first Chinatown dwellings. The rock is a remnant of hand-drilled granite rock, a fitting tribute as the Chinese used this technique to build the train tunnels over the Sierra. Chinese red poppies, courtesy of Villager Nursery, are planted around the rock. Photo by Greg Zirbel

The application process to the Nevada County landmark commission is not onerous, but it is time consuming. The Truckee area is represented by the fifth district commissioner, currently Barbara S. Czerwinski, who has submitted a number of successful applications with assistance from volunteer Truckee-Donner Historical Society members. Volunteers generally submit the applications backed by historical records, maps, reference materials, and other primary source documents.

Over Czerwinski’s 12-year tenure, the commission also has approved commemorating the Lake Tahoe Railroad & Transportation Co. in 2019 and the McGlashan Butterfly Collection in 2021, currently on display at the Truckee-Donner Recreation and Parks District Community Center on Truckee Way.

The Truckee Chinatowns recognition will be celebrated by a plaque unveiling on May 10 at 10 a.m. at the Old Truckee Jail Museum, 10142 Jibboom St., on the 155th anniversary of the building of the First Transcontinental Railroad. Tahoe Forest Hospital Chair of the Board of Directors, Alyce Wong, will be the keynote speaker.

DEDICATION on May 10. Courtesy image

~ Heidi Sproat is a volunteer researcher with the Truckee-Donner Historical Society and has been an active member since 2012. She is intrigued by historical research and images of times gone by. Heidi grew up in Oakland, but now splits her time between Truckee and Frederick, Maryland.

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