Big Lake in the Sky


Truckee Centenniel


by John Michael Gorrindo


“I tell you true and verily, Petronious, the pantheon has gone to the dogs of disrepute!  The shiftless rich have arrogated power by brazen means!  Pollyanna picks poppies nowadays- not daisies- and she milks them for their narcotic milk.  Imagine the divine maiden of Americana driven to slaking the thirst of the aggrieved with such a palliative elixir.  That is the state of the State.  I fer one am quaking in my boots at such pilfering and purloining of the Commonwealth.  What say ye, oh once purblind brother whose eyes have been cleansed?”

“Honorable Clydus, the tear ductus weep unconsoled.  The Emperor Norton himself rolls and roils and his bones rattle and shudder and give the graveyard cause to think the Great Quake of ’06 has returned with a call to vengeance.  When the hewgag brays it used to perk my tin ears and stir my soul to courage.  Now, it is more like a mournful cry of a bleeding lamb; the mouth of the hyena clamped tight to its throat.  All gone to the dogs indeed, oh Clydus.”

“And now, ‘midst our dour doldrums we must muster the gussie, good Petronious; ready our regalia and sharpen our thirst.  The Grand Centennial is upon us, and as good brethren of Clamperdom, we must put aside our misgivin’s and stride forth to embrace the august day when the Golden Spike was driven deep into the desert sands of Provo in 1869.  If not us, then whom?  If not now, when?”

“Yes, my brother, it is time to stand, be counted, and honor our four fathers and five mothers. And of the Imperishable Hall of Ovations, which shall it be for this grandest of historical commemorations?”

“Ah, yes, Petronious.  This much the Noble Grand Humbug has decreed, ‘Let it be the Capitol.’ ”

“Oh, I do believe our Eminence has chosen the emporium of libation well.  What grand standing at the great wooden edifice and polished bar run it shall be!  And what of delusionary displays of mocksterness?  Has our Eminence provided for the duels of dudes?”

“Yes, oh inquiring mind of mendacity allayed.  We brethren are all of equal indignity, verily, and are called upon by said Grand Noble Humbug as once suffering supplicants to clean our bores and right the rifling of our rods before packing our irons in a bundle to be so presented for inspection to The Clamps Petrix.  He shall eye the bores and producing the dum-dum deleted duds make sure they pack properly in the spinster’s spindle.  Then the Clamps Matrix shall call us to dawn our leather and show our steadfast stances of dum-dum defiance to make sure we have rehearsed in proper the anti-possum posture of possiedom.”

“These are tidings of gladness and help to dispel the woes I have ignominiously weighed thee down with at first facing, oh faithful Petronious.  That we may fill the air with the crack of doomlessness and raucous righteousness is tribute to the Titans of the Tracks is a pleasure dome decreed, indeed.”

“Oh good Clydus, Chief Truckee himself would be proud, and his good Injun spirit shall guide us in absentia just as he brought the first of our four fathers and five mothers to these mountain meadows along the banks of our fair river.” 

“Shall we ever lift our spirits, even in these dark hours, and roister the unruly to reify the raiment bequeathed us by the Emperor Norton I himself.”

Clydus and Petronious were upstandin’ when they choose or were otherwise able to stand up.  Their tried and true friendship boded well for the ole railroad town of Truckee.  These two long standin’ members of E Clampus Vitus helped to rally the town’s spirit in time for the Grand Centennial Commemoration, even in the midst of bleak news from the fightin’ front in Viet Nam.  The paternal pals had just eighteen months prior proudly patted the freshly shaved pates of their own boot-camped readied boys, conferrin’ their blessins upon the youngins who were fresh for the fightin’ and off to defend the Union from the Commies in the Indochinese jungles, followin’ in the proud footsteps of their dear ole paps who had themselves served their country bravely in the Battle of the Bulge.  Well, as things turned out, the boys’ first orders put ‘em square in harms way.  Their baptism under fire was in none other than the greatest of debacles, the Tet Offensive.  It was just as onerous as the Battle of the Bulge they’s daddies fought in, but the U.S. Army had won that particular engagement.  Lucky the two boys made it through that fire fight.  At least Clydus and Petronious hadn’t received any death notices to the contrary.

An Asian hadn’t been sighted in downtown Truckee since before the Viet Nam War, and probably for some years before that.  Tweren’t good timing a’tall to be pegged for a Chinaman or Gook in God Fearin’ Truckee due to the war; but come to think of it, it weren’t ever safe. 

History’s usually ain’t nothin’ more than an orphaned child and treated no better, ‘cause a man can be a sight aware of it but choose only to use and abuse its teachins’ ‘stead of simply learnin’ from it straight away as taken to heart.  But it’s more common that same man don’t care to know it a’tall, and bein’ a sight ignorant is so common as to be expected.  So when a man in the know confronts the redneck ignoramus with the historical facts, he might well make sure he’s got some plan for safe exit to extricate himself a possible confrontation.  Tryin’ to learn the unteachable’s no different than tryin’ to teach a pig to sing or bear to dance ballet after squeezin’ it into tights and a tutu. The ignorant find safety and comfort in numbers, and quick to find insult usually mob together to attack the likes of a fancy pants who would learn ‘em a thing or two unsolicited like.

Well, I’m bound ‘n’ determined to be that feller who would lay some facts at the table without no cordial invitation, and can afford the potential retributions as that table is jus’ a piece of paper which will serve as my proxy.  Meanwhile, I’m a hidin’ away somewhere no one will every find me.  Call me yella, but it’s a sight safer that way ‘cause I’m too old a cuss to defend myself or survive the humiliation of a tar and featherin’ due to preachin’ some untarnished history in an emporium of libation. (‘Sides that, I swore of liquor quite some time ago; truth be told)  I speak of that as bein’ the most likely venue for the stalwart ‘n’ brave itinerant scholar cum missionary ‘cause the rabble there need some ministerin’ too most likely when it comes to the real truth as compared to the yarns they generally confabulate for entertainment’s sake and otherwise confuse with the natural facts.  I reckon when the dust settles I’ll only suffer at the hands of written criticism- which will all be libel on any account as I’m pretty self-righteous ‘bout such things and pretty sure the folks doin’ all the complainin’ will be just be sore over nothin’.  ‘Sides, most of ‘em can’t read er write any how.

Like I sorta implied, the history of Truckee’s Chinese immigrants ain’t really known these days let alone appreciated.  Well- let’s be honest.  How many of you all really care a tick’s ass one way or t’other?  Raise yer hands!  I’m a gonna speak my peace nonetheless.  So here goes:

Startin’ around 1866 or so them Chinese built they own shanty town stretchin’ up bank from the Truckee River with scraps of wood from the forests ‘n’ the local sawmills.  What brought ‘em there was the railroad barons who had hired ‘em partly to help blast through the granite and lay some track across nearby Donner Pass to help complete the last link of America’s first transcontinental railroad.  It twere real dangerous work, and even the Paddies weren’t too keen on riskin’ they hides over the trouble.  In fact, of the four thousand railroad laborers the Central Pacific Railroad hired to complete the tracks through Donner Pass and down into Truckee, three thousand of ‘em were Chinese. There was a depression and floods and droughts and all manner of terrible goins’ on back home in China, and riskin’ they’s lives buildin’ a railroad was a sight better life than starvin’ back home. And then there was they’s family who was starvin’, too.  They had to work in order to send money back home or else they’s kid’s and wives and parents might well perish. So riskin’ life is a matter of perspective, but nonetheless, lots of them Coolies were blown to pieces by accidents with dynamite or fell to their untimely deaths off the faces of sheer granite fetches as the track beds had to kinda be notched outta the rock cliffs for miles cross the high Sierras.  Because the Chinese folks were doin’ work no one else cared to venture and it meant the railroad would finally be finished, people sort of tolerated ‘em.

Now some of the Coolies moved on east and followed the tracks bein’ laid on route cross the state of Nevada to the Utah where the Central Pacific were to meet the Southern Pacific fer a monumental couplin’, but some of ‘em took a likin’ to Truckee and wanted to stay on.  Chinatown became a kinda fixture in Truckee. 

Now Chinatown t’weren’t a real pleasant place.  It were filthy for one thing- being that almost everybody there was a man of some sort.  In fact, early on they’s was about four hundred men and only twenty-three womens, but most the womens was there to relax the men only.  Tarts like that don’t do the regular laundry and cookin’ for four hundred- not on a regular basis, no how.  I feel really sorry for the few women servants and the two wives the men had on hand to take care of domestic-like duties.  They musta had a heap o’ work to do that was never done no way, no how.  The Chinese were real partial to raisin’ livestock of all sorts.  But the place was mainly foul with pigs, chickens, horses, and a few stray cows as well as some other unsightly creatures runnin’ free and doin’ their best to make the place smell to high heaven.

To disparage Chinatown on account of its hovels and pig scat t’aint really right, though. They’s weren’t allowed to own land accordin’ to the law, and so they had to put up on what ever land they could find that no one else was usin’.  In Truckee, that amounted to a small lot that all the Chinese had to squeeze on to ‘cept those who found jobs as domestics for some of Truckee’s higher class folks. The Chinese knew how to take care of their own.  It must be said that if anything the Chinese were a resourceful bunch- how they survived without no outside help a’tall.  They did things the white folks didn’t think possible- like establishin’ the only vegetable gardens known to Truckee.  They raised cabbage, turnips, carrots, parsnips, beets, onions, lettuce and peas. They also made a good income sellin’ their produce to Truckee restaurants and families.  The white folk even learned a thing or two from ‘em and started there own summer gardens.

And the Chinese men knew how to relax right and proper.  They had their gambling halls all decked out with chimes and gongs and live music so people could let off a little steam whilst they lost they’s hard earned money which put ‘em into deeper servitude than they already was.  Liquor really didn’t go down they’s gullet too well so the companies they worked for helped ‘em import their favorite substance for relaxation, opium.  There was a also an opium den in Truckee, too, and I reckon it helped deliver ‘em for a spell from havin’ to think about their poor wages, back breakin’ work, and terrible treatment; all comin’ at the hands of just about everybody who was white.

The Chinese took time out for their New Year’s celebration in January, too, which was a particular cold time of year and bound to have snow in great plentitude pilin’ up everywhere. The weather never stopped ‘em though, and they carried on right festive with their parade beatin’ gongs, burnin’ bundles of incence sticks, shootin’ off fireworks and throwin’ shreds of paper to the wind all on account of wardin’ off the devil and his minions. They even offered to protect the white inhabitants from demons for a small sum of $1,000. The local newspaper, the Truckee Republican, thought it was a great bargain and urged townspeople to cough up the money.

The fact is, Chinatown had a bona fide community concern progressin’ nicely and bein’ thrifty and all and filial pious-like sent whatever money they could home to starvin’ relatives.   An 1870 census showed that amongst Chinatown’s four hundred men were railroad workers, woodchoppers, laborers, laundrymen, cooks, four doctors, four grocers, six gamblers, and one opium den owner.  Now I’m not real sure about the six gamblers, but the rest of it seems a sight close to the kernel of truth.  I think what that really means is six gamblin’ den owners.  It tain’t no secret how much the Chinaman likes to gamble.  Outta four hundred men, maybe four paid it no mind.

Like I said, the Chinamen’s homes were hovels and all sorta piled up next to each other, too.  They kinda had no choice but to huddle up as there weren’t very much land available.  Even all cozied up close and neighborly-like they’s scraps o’ wood didn’t keep out the winter cold nearly good enough.  The Coolies woulda been better off learnin’ what kind of structure to build from the local Injuns.  That woulda been the real smart thing to do, I reckon.  Well it’s too late to advise ‘em, so I gotta accept they settled for wood scrap, bein’ they didn’t know no better and couldn’t afford no different than what they had apparently. During the winter Truckee could be as frigid as the ire of a woman scorned could be hot, and fires had to be kept ablaze in those hovels to keep people from freezin’ to death.  It was a perty pitiful existence once the snow took to fallin’ come October or November.

In such crowded conditions, all those camp and cookin’ fires were bound to cause a heap of real trouble.  As it turned out, the Chinese burned down they own shanty town more times that history can recall.  The fires threatened the white folks and their businesses in downtown Truckee as well.  It gave everyone a real fright and cause for anger.  Like most Western towns, everything was built with what was most available- wood.  The hoary face of fire was the face of the devil hisself.  It could take a town out and destroy the building and lives of the people in a few hours time.  Tweren’t no jokin’ matter no way for nobody.

The Chinese were real hard workin’ folks and kept to themselves and all, but their Chinatown was becomin’ a real nuisance.  So when the railroad was done ‘n’ finished in 1869, things that had been percolatin’ ‘neath the surface sort of came to a head. 

So it came to pass when the denizens of Chinatown weren’t causin’ their own conflagrations, white brethren of the town took to tryin’ they best to burn the Chinamen out for some years after the railroad was through bein’ built.  You see, everybody was scatterin’ with the wind lookin’ for work all over. Seems the fellers like those members belongin’ to the Workingmen’s League got real frown-browed bothered after the industrious Chinese moved on to cornerin’ all the jobs  cuttin’ choppin’ fuel wood for any employer within’ hearin’ distance of a hundred caterwauls at wages that undercut the white man’s threshold of dignity.  How could those coolies who were no better than indentured servants take away a Whiteman’s God-given right to work?

Now it’s no accident of history since the beginnin’ of the industrial revolution that the rich have always had a vested interested in workin’ men willin’ to work for cut-rate wages in an effort to secure what jobs were available.  In fact, it tweren’t no different in Truckee.  The railroad barons were real partial to the Chinese cause they’d kill themselves workin’ and for wages that put ‘em only one step higher on the rung above the Negro slaves- turned sharecroppers. And that is a big fat “maybe.”

But most of us are workin’ class fools, and so we’s all in the same boat but ‘cause we compete for the same jobs we end up hatin’ are own kind stead of takin’ the issue to the people’s who’s really exploitin’ us all.  We’s just a pack of fools on account of this and several other mendacities that I just don’t have the heart to mention right here and now.
This here is bad enough.

So the railroad barons did things like helpin’ the Chinese communicate with family back home, get ‘em their opium (well, they controlled the amount, too, and for good reason), and in general keep the immigrants outfitted with a few reminders of back home.  But the barons lived back in San Francisco, and lavished themselves on their riches while everybody else up in Truckee was workin’ like yoked beasts jus’ to survive.  They weren’t around and didn’t seem to care a hoot for the trouble a brewin’ between the poor white men and their competition, the Chinese. 

So it was the workin’ man- usually of European descent- who hated the Chinaman.   And so they started a bandin’ together

When fire and beatings and false arrests, and general defamation against race and character didn’t do no good, members of groups like the Caucasian League and 601 Vigilantes and other men folk like that took to committin’ acts of even greater hate and terror. 


finally were finally able to round ‘em up and sent ‘em packin’ in box cars on the very rails the poor immigrant fellers had built them very selves. It took ‘em a while, cause the law weren’t exactly on their side.  They had some figurin’ to do on that account, and waitin’ as well.

As patience is not the vigilantes’ inherent virtue, it rankled ‘em good bein’ hog-tied and all until in accordance to the federal Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 the Federal Gov’t give ‘em some legal teeth to rid Truckee of the Chinese vermin. The good ole boys of Truckee felt sure enough to proceed, even though the four hundred Chinamen and their twenty-three whores weren’t covered by the act as they had immigrated early on when it twas legal to be a Chinese immigrant.  Legal-schmegal; such technicalities were to be defied and overlooked for goodness sake.  And grandfatherin’ the law and twistin’ the meanin’ of its provisions t’was a natural way of thinkin’ and doin’ things for towns like Truckee.  The good citizens of the town were only followin’ suit with the likes of all manner of like-communities all over the great West.

People are natural born partial to drama, and a build-up to violence is what makes brutality all the more enjoyable.  Those bands of white thugs like the Workingmen’s League, the 601’s, and the Caucausian League held a fair share of gatherin’s, sometimes upstairs above the downtown bars, and built themselves up to a feedin’ frenzy somethin’ powerful while under the influence of whiskey and hard feelin’s.  The point is they didn’t go runnin’ off killin’ the Chinese straight off. Like the Chinese, they had they’s own rituals, on buildin’ themselves up to a self-righteous fury was certainly one of ‘em.  The leaders of these vigilante groups got plenty of practice exercisin’ their oratory and whittlin’ down their message of hate against the Chinese to a fine, sharp point.

I can only try ‘n’ imagine what one of them vigilante diatribes might have sounded like sometime in late 1869:

“Men, you know why we are so gathered here tonight!  It is time to stop our grumbling in pairs or threes of fours or worst of all, alone; gnashing our teeth to no avail like children over a dilemma that is shared by all of us.  There is power in solidarity, and we are here to organize around our common cause and in defense against our common enemy- the Chinaman!

“There’s a time in a man’s life when he must stand up for a cause bigger than himself.  So for us, let it begin tonight, and as the good Lord is our witness we will pledge to take the law into our own hands in order to save our livelihoods.  The problem is all too manifest for any other course to be rightfully considered. 

“We have nobody on our side but ourselves and God.  That is surely enough if we are only courageous enough to stand together on principle.

“We all know the problem too well.  Now that the transcontinental railroad is finished, our options for work have diminished.  The lumber and wood chopping industry hold the only good number of jobs available in this region.  The mines in Virginia City are crying for lumber and these fair hills are covered with mighty pines as big as Paul Bunyon himself.  Those jobs should be ours- this is our country- but the treacherous Chinaman is willing to work for next to nothing, and is outbidding us.

“The employers who hire them are mostly white, and that makes them a disgrace to their creed.  The shame is at their feet, but their greed and cupidity has made them forget their own.  We, the workingmen of Truckee, are an endangered breed.  We came to this land to make a life for ourselves, and now many of us have families.  The women and the young are in danger as well. 


The two main gambling dens, with their chimes, gongs and other musical attractions, were a place of joy for the Chinese, but a source of irritation for the rest of town. The local constable was called upon by Truckee to close gambling dens several times around 1870. The operators paid bribes and fines and went back into operation.

Opium was the drug of choice for Chinese men. Living thousands of miles from home in a foreign, sometimes hostile country, Chinese men escaped reality by smoking opium. This habit was controlled by the Companies, and it served to keep them dependent on the Companies.