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A Chinese ghost in California


The concept of ghost towns has always fascinated me.  They provide windows with which one can examine the past.  As a scholar and teacher of Asian history, the very idea of a Chinese ghost town in California generated even greater excitement.  It was thus with great anticipation that I spent the better part of a day in May of  2007 exploring the remains of “Chinese Camp” deep in the heart of Gold Rush country in northern California.  This part of California boasts many ghost towns, but in many ways this is one of the most neglected and thus most authentic.

Today any casual motorist driving along California Route 49 through Tuolumne County would hardly recognize the clump of abandoned buildings adorned by a sign “Chinese Camp” as being one of the biggest and most significant early settlements of Chinese in the United States. It was a placer-mining center settled by Chinese miners in 1849. Much work was done in the 1850s, and the piles of soil and gravel turned over in the search for gold can still be seen in nearly every gulch. The placer mines of this area are credited with producing $2.5 million in gold. Today the town consists of numerous Gold-Rush era buildings, most of them abandoned.  A few ramshackle dwellings on the outskirts  of town house a few remaining residents, but there are no Chinese left here and one can’t even buy a dish of chow mein.  The last of the Chinese left in the 1920s leaving behind one of the most significant Chinese ghost towns in the United States. 

The late 1840s were a period of growing desperation for many Chinese.  Wide spread starvation accompanied domestic rebellions and further incursions by the West in the wake of the Opium War (1839-42). At the beginning of the year 1849 there were in the state only fifty-four Chinese. At the news of the gold discovery a steady immigration commenced which continued until 1876, at which time the Chinese in the United States numbered 151,000 of whom 116,000 were in California. This increase in their numbers, rapid even in comparison with the general increase in population, was largely due to the fact that previous to the year 1869 China was nearer to the shores of California than was the eastern portion of the United States. Another circumstance which contributed to the heavy influx of Chinese was the fact that news of the gold discovery found southeastern China in poverty and ruin caused by the Taiping rebellion.

When news of the California Gold Rush reached Canton in 1848, many thousands of Chinese boarded boats to “Gum Shan,” or “Gold Mountain”  Many of the Chinese made their way to Tuolumne County to such towns as Sonora, Columbia, Jamestown and Chinese Camp where they staked their claims and built significant Chinese communities.  The vast majority of Chinese were young men looking for a quick strike  so that they could return to China, buy a plot of land and start their own families.  The few women who came were mainly prostitutes, virtual “slaves,” although a few Chinese merchants brought their wives.  This was a man’s world, lonely, and very isolated surrounded by a hostile white population, but the dream of wealth and memories of the misery of life in China gave them incentives to stay.

The first settlement here was known as Camp Salvado after a group of Savadorians who worked as miners, but a group of Cantonese miners arrived by 1849.  Who they were and why they came remains a bit of a mystery.    In 1849, a group of three dozen Cantonese miners arrived at the Camp and began prospecting.  Where they came from remains a mystery.  Some accounts imply that a ship’s captain abandoned his ship in San Francisco bringing his entire crew with him.  Another version has it that the Chinese were employed by a group of English speculators.  What is known is that the mining brought large amounts of gold which in turn brought thousands of additional miners, including first hundreds and later thousands of Chinese.  Miners including many Chinese developed a number of towns, but most Chinese settled in what became known as “Chinese Camp.” Facing virulent discrimination in other areas, and after  being driven away from other diggings, or having just arrived in the country, the Chinese miners gravitated here, feeling safe and comfortable among others of their nationality.  There were some white miners there, but by the mid-1850s the 5,000 residents of the settlement vastly outnumbered the whites.

At first the streets of Chinese camp were solidly settled with store tents, built mostly of pine boughs with canvas stretched over the top and dirt floors.  Others were of pine boughs topped with brush.  The first substantial building was an adobe structure completed in 1851 which served as a store.  A Catholic church, St. Xavier, first constructed in 1854, still stands today – in good shape, but clearly abandoned sitting forlornly on a hill outside the town.  The Chinese later built several distinctively Chinese buildings including three Joss houses, traditional places for worshipping a variety of indigenous Chinese deities.    By 1859 Chinese Camp had settled into what contemporary accounts say was a “law-abiding and respectable community.”  .  At its peak, perhaps 5,000 Chinese resided here. Even as late as the 1880s, patient Chinese miners were still eking out a living here mining gold. of settling differences

The camp continued to grow, and due to the large number of Chinese inhabitants, became known by such names as Chinee, Chinese Diggins, and Chinese Camp. When the post office was established on April 18 of 1854, the town became officially known as Chinese Camp. The only reminder of its earlier cognomen, Camp Washington, lies in the road Washington Street. The town’s location made Chinese Camp the center of transportation for a large area, several stage and freight lines made regular daily stops here on their way to other points.

Most of the Chinese who came to California and thus to Chinese Camp were unskilled and uneducated laborers.  Many found solace through the “Six Companies,” Chinese benevolent associations who helped Chinese survive  in an alien environment.  Most of the business transactions of the Chinese were done through the  “Six Companies.” The Companies often contracted for large bodies of laborers. These Companies simply acted as clearing-houses for all sorts of transactions among the Chinese, as they had found that they could handle things in a strange land more satisfactorily through such associations than they could individually.  Four of these “Companies” were represented in Chinese Camp.

Life could be rough for the Chinese in the early days.  In 1856, it was the site of one of the earliest tong wars in the gold fields, when members of the Tan Woo Tong faced off against Sam Yap members. About 1,000 men scuffled; fortunately casualties were light due to the preferred choice of weapons–swords.   When American lawmen finally intervened to halt the bloodshed, there were four dead and several more wounded. 

When the gold mines in the area petered out after the Gold Rush, many of the Chinese miners moved on, but a few brave Chinese hung on until the last two returned by train to Chinatown in San Francisco.  They left behind a remarkably preserved ghost town and, one presumes, the ghosts of many of the lonely Chinese miners who died there, their dreams of returning to China with pockets full of gold permanently thwarted. 

Today one can walk the streets of the old town.  A few residents live on the outskirts of town, but most of the buildings stand in the blazing sun, empty save for the ghosts of the original miners who gave life to this town. A stone and brick post office dating from 1854 is still in use; the St. Francis Xavier Catholic Church is still maintained. The Wells Fargo Building also still stands.

California has many incredible ghost towns, but Chinese Camp is the only one that reflects the Chinese mining heritage of the 1849 gold rush.  It is well worth a visit.

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