Chinatown, Evanston Wyoming


To the north of the railroad tracks lay "Chinatown," a huddled group of shanties built on railroad land. All kinds of material were used in the construction and the houses resembled the work of half-grown boys more than that of men. When lumber gave out, packing boxes and building paper were substituted, and many of the roofs were made of tin oil cans flattened out. Here lived a few merchants, half a dozen laundry men, and vegetable peddlers who cultivated truck gardens near the river. They irrigated them by means of water wheels patterned after those of their native land. On the end of each of the rough wooden spokes an open tin can was nailed, which was filled, by the flowing tide. The weight of the water made the wheel revolve, and on reaching a certain angle the contents were emptied into a wooden trough that led to the irrigating ditches running between the orderly rows of hardy vegetables. At a time when white men were too doubtful of the short summer to attempt gardening or farming, these thrifty people raised a crop that supplied the town. From a pole across his shoulder from which hung two baskets so heavily loaded that few white men could lift them, John Chinaman trotted through the streets with his delicious "lettucie, cabbage and ladishee", and such peas as grow only in these high altitudes. Root vegetables were in his stock, too, and his potatoes were justly famous.

During the daytime most of the houses seemed deserted, but when the whistles of the Almy coal mines blew, Chinese miners to the number of four hundred or more came traveling into town, some walking, some riding in lumber wagons. In 1880 there were less than twenty white miners in the Almy mines, but from that time on the number gradually increased, the recruits coming mainly from England, Scotland and Wales. There were Chinamen, too, working in the railroad section gangs, and they, too, made Evanston their headquarters. All crowded into the shanties, many of which were opium dens and gambling houses, and among them were to be seen many sickly and yellow faces, but there was much laughter and friendliness. All wore their queues in that day, and all worshipped at the Joss House. This and the Masonic Temple were the most imposing buildings in Chinatown. There was a two-story porch in front of the Joss House, and a flag pole on the roof- The door was flanked with carved panels and within hung many banners and richly embroidered draperies. Behind the gates of carved teakwood was an elaborate altar, on which fragrant Joss sticks burned before their idol, whose placid face looked out from between deeply carved wooden panels covered with gilt.

For many years this Joss House was one of three in the United States, and during the '70s and early '80s thousands of Chinamen came to worship here on "China New Year". The date was about the tenth of February. The popping of hundreds of firecrackers would announce the coming of each trainload, and the early arrivals were stowed away in some inexplainable way until "'China Big Day" arrived. Schools were dismissed-most wisely, for all the inhabitants of Evanston attended the celebration, and were courteously received. There was a parade led by the great dragon, a curiously constructed monster about two hundred feet long. It was made of gaudy embroidery, which hung down to within two feet of the ground on both sides, and revealed only the legs of the fifty or sixty men who carried the writhing reptile through the streets with its massive head swaying from side to side.

Games followed in the great open space before the Joss House, and the chief excitement centered around the explosion of a large rocket which sent up a wooden ball. All of the Celestials watched breathlessly its course, for the lucky man who caught the ball as it f ell was to be keeper of the Joss House the coming year. So intent were they upon gaining this honor that a struggle was inevitable, and at one time several were killed in the melee. After this, town officers were on the ground and things went more tamely.

With the passing of the mass of Chinamen from Evanston and the change of the ideas of the latter generations, the Joss House lost much of its meaning. On January 26, 19,22, it was burned to the ground, and its destruction was lamented only as the loss of a historic relic.

Ah Say was for many years the Chinese contractor of coolie labor. He was a well-educated Chinaman and a citizen of the United States, though he never gave up his queue. There is a story that he was the original of Bret Hart's "Heathen Chinee", and whether true or false, his character possessed much of the shrewdness of that famous Celestial. He was the one Chinamen who brought his wife here, a dainty, small-footed woman seldom seen outside his home. There were five children born here, and they were often seen on the street attended by a throng of -admiring coolies, at least one to a child. They made a pretty picture in their bright robes, each head surmounted by a red and green cap with a hole in the top, showing the shiny stiff hair of blueblack. Ah Say was most hospitable, and a dinner at his house was an event long to be remembered. The table was set in the room entered from the street. At one end stood an altar with smoking censors, before which the host prostrated himself with libations of steaming tea before sitting down to eat. The furnishings of the room were a strange mixture of elegance and shabbiness-wonderful embroideries and carvings against a background of grimy walls and rough furniture. Dinner favors were in vogue and sandlewood fans, embroidered shawls, silk handkerchiefs, boxes of choice tea and cigars were among the gifts.

Two large mercantile establishments of Evanston had Chinese clerks, men of ability and undoubted honesty. Sisson, Wallace & Company employed Ah Young, and he gave lectures to has countrymen on subjects dealing with their daily living. Ah You was in the employ of Blyth and Pixley. He was a fine-looking, intelligent man, and the big words rolled glibly from his tongue-"superior quality", "excellent material", etc. Like all Chinamen, he was capable of strong friendship, and he still keeps up a correspondence with Mr. Blyth. In 1917 Mr. Blyth and his daughter, Mrs. Keith, were his guests at a magnificent banquet in Hong Kong, where he occupied a position of prominence. It was an all-night entertainment, eating being interspersed with music, dancing and theatrical numbers.

One of the prominent Chinamen on the western division of the Union Pacific was Sam Sling, whose life, as written by his son for the Union Pacific Magazine of July, 1922, is a veritable romance. Well born but poor in this world's goods, frail in body but of fine mental capacity, he began work on the section under a foreman known as Tim Riley. His promotions, first to the position of office boy, and later to that of stock clerk and general assistant to the superintendent, are a tribute to the far-sightedness and kindness of W. B. Doddridge as well as to the ability and faithfulness of the youth. When the O. S. L. was built he became storekeeper and stationery clerk for that line, and was one of the most valued employees. At the World's Columbian Exposition in Chicago he was manager of the Chinese exhibits, but at the end of two years returned to the Union Pacific as passenger agent, with headquarters first at Chicago and later at Hong Kong, where he is one of the most progressive citizens.

On the hillside east of town lay the graveyard, where yellow men were buried near their white neighbors. A Chinese funeral was the occasion for a great procession, a mass of fluttering red papers to keep the evil spirits away, and roasted pigs and chickens to put on the graves for the use of the departed. But the bones of the Chinamen did not rest long in foreign soil, and a few years later all were dug up and sent across the Pacific.

In 1877 a Welchman by the name of David Jones came to Evanston. to work and to teach among the Chinese, and to learn the language preparatory to entering the "Inland Mission", a religious movement in China. He was a Presbyterian and was assisted by that denomination in his services, though he made no demands of a financial nature and supported himself as a miner. A schoolroom was fitted up, and it was usually crowded to its full capacity, especially on the nights when singers from the various churches met with them to teach the gospel hymns, in which the Chinamen joined with fervor. Mr. Jones remained a year or more, and doubtless reached many by means of his self-sacrificing life and sincere message. He never reached China, for shortly after his departure from Evanston word was received that he had laid down his life in New Orleans, where he had gone as a volunteer nurse during an epidemic of cholera.

Occasionally a dozen or more Chinamen would march in a body into the church, and it is to be hoped that some received a more just impression of the meaning of the service than the one who gave his description to Mrs. Charles Strong, by whom he was employed as cook on the work train. He told of their entrance into the sacred edifice where Mr. Arnold was "big boss", how the people gathered round the stoves near the door and shook hands with each other and with them, and then seated themselves and joined in singing, "everybody velly happy". He considered the prayer as a break in the joyful occasion, saying that the pastor swore, and the ladies bowed their heads and wept. He thought this moved the leader to regret, for again they sang, Mr. Arnold "talk velly kind", and after more singing they went happily to their homes.

But these picturesque scenes were soon to end, for there came a day in the fall of 1885, when Chinamen huddled together in frightened groups and white men listened with horror to the story of the Rock Springs massacre. A few agitators of the Molly McQuire type, then common in the coal fields of Pennsylvania, had attacked the miners at that place, and the scenes rivaled those of the Coeur d'Alene riots. Defenceless Chinamen were driven from their homes and hunted to death in the hills, and some were burned in their huts. The survivors were brought to Evanston and troops from Fort Bridger under Captain Green and Lieutenant Carr, were sent here for their protection. Barracks were constructed. near the freight house and for a time the town had a military air. Finally, a delegation of six miners was sent to confer with Governor Warren, who had come to look into the situation. They were Leban Heward, John Haldane, John Shaw, William Reese, Samuel Young and Hezekiah Turner, men who owned their own homes, and so thoroughly did they impress the governor with their loyalty to their adopted land and their law-abiding spirit that the original plan was changed. The Chinese miners were moved to Rock Springs and Almy became a white man's camp.

In the ensuing trial at Washington it came to light that not one of the leaders in this horrible tragedy, the foulest blot on the fair name of Wyoming, was an American citizen, either by birth or naturalization, and some had not even taken out their first papers.

Gradually race prejudice, that cruel offspring of the selfish and narrow mind, has been conquered by a more just and wider understanding, and we see today our Chinese inhabitants in their true light. Honesty is one of their outstanding virtues, and is found in the vegetable peddler, who is still a welcome visitor at our back doors, as well as in hotel and restaurant proprietors.

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