Saturday, December 5, 2015

The Chinese in Yreka

Yreka's Chinatown, circa 1899.

The first Chinese to arrive in Yreka came in 1853.  They came to the west because in their own Kwang Tung Province in Southern China (today known as Guangdong, which essentially surrounds modern day Hong Kong) civil strife and crop failure caused many to immigrate to California with one of six major Chinese Companies, essentially as indentured servants. 

            The New York Daily Times on June 28, 1853 (page 3) likely reprinted an article from one of our more local papers, stated:  “It was a shocking arrival this day in June when 35 Chinamen arrived here in Yreka.  They are the first of this kind who have made their appearance here, and their arrival created quite an excitement in town.  The Chinamen promptly tendered the amount of the foreign miner’s tax, but no officer was authorized to receive it.  There was great discussion of what to do among the men present, and after quite some discussion they were permitted to remain.”  Between 1860 and 1870 the Chinese population doubled in Siskiyou County to 1,176 persons ~ but was likely higher as women weren’t always counted in the census at that time.

            The Chinese in Yreka did not have an easy life.  At first attitudes towards them were tolerant, but once it became apparent that they were not going to purchase many American made goods and better the local shopkeepers pocketbooks as well as embracing their different customs and lifestyles, attitudes against them hardened.  The majority of the Chinese worked in mining, while the older or less physically able may have worked as cooks, washers, or as Chinese shopkeepers selling goods largely from China.

            There were 3 different “Chinatown’s” in Yreka over the years.  The first area settled by the Chinese was on the south side of the 500 Block of West Miner Street, but many of them moved from that location by 1868.  Many merchants discouraged them from being on Miner Street as they were reported to live in “shacks” that caught fire easily, and had poor sanitary conditions, especially the laundry houses.
The Joss House in Yreka's Chinatown 

            The second location of Yreka’s “Chinatown” and likely the longest residency was along Main Street which was on both sides of the street from Center to Miner about half way up the block.  Their stores would have stopped just short of the location where the Rex Club is today at 111 South Main Street, Yreka.  In 1871 a great fire devastated Yreka and a great deal of the business section of town burned, including the Chinese section.  They went to work and rebuilt right away, this time many buildings were rebuilt with brick.  Misfortune came to the Chinese again when in 1886 the Main Street Chinatown was once again consumed by fire.    A “citizens meeting” followed immediately on the heels of this fire and a new Chinatown was created across Yreka Creek on what was then the far east end of Center Street. 

            In less than 5 years at the third Chinatown location, tragedy struck again.  The hard winter of 1889-90 followed by warm rains caused massive flooding in Yreka Creek and throughout the county.  The vast majority of Chinatown was literally washed downstream.   By 1900 there were only 4 or 5 Chinese stores that operated within a total of 14 buildings occupied by the Chinese settlers.  Today there is nothing left of the last “Chinatown” in Yreka, when Interstate 5 was created it essentially was built right over the top of the remains of Chinatown at the central exit.  While there were no buildings left by the time the freeway was constructed, some archaeological digs were performed in the area.

            There are many local stories and lore regarding the Chinese here in Yreka, for further information one can contact either Yreka Preservation or the Siskiyou County Historical Society.  Information for this article was found largely from the Meamber Research Files located at Yreka Preservation as well as some information from an article by the former Museum Director, Mike Hendryx as well as the 1990 edition of the Siskiyou Pioneer published by the Siskiyou County Historical Society.

Copyright:  Claudia East, 2015