Lake County History, Chapter 104: The Chinese Pioneers, Part 1

In Lake County, men searched in the heavens and dug in the ground for discovery and for wealth. Gold and quicksilver were discovered in California in the 1850s, but nobody thought overly much about the Chinese. They worked in the Lake County Cinnabar mines, and they worked hard.

The Chinese were coming to California by the thousands. Five to six thousand made port in San Francisco each year for a decade from 1856 on. There were regular runs between San Francisco and Hong Kong on the Pacific Steamship Line, and the crews were all Chinese. When the 1868 Burlingame Treaty opened immigration between China and the U.S., the flow became a flood. By 1890, a tenth part of Californians were Chinese. Chinese came to California to find gold. Also, the Chinese Opium Wars drove many to leave China. Still, other reasons were the Tai-Ping Rebellion and the Punti-Hakka feuds, which caused large numbers of Chinese from the Canton Area of Kwangtung Province to come to California.

A method, called the ‘Credit Ticket System,’ made it easier for the Chinese to reach the United States. Employers advanced the passage money to the immigrant, and he was expected to pay the cost of the ticket back to the employer out of his future earnings. These were men that did not plan to stay in California but intended to return to China and their families after they had made their fortune.

Not much has been written about the Chinese in the Clear Lake Basin or in Lake County. We do know that Chinese worked at Sulfur Bank Mine, next to Rattlesnake Island. That single mine produced two thousand tons of Sulfur in 1865. When the sulfur was finished, the mine reopened eight years later as a quicksilver mine and cranked out nearly a hundred thousand flasks of mercury.

The Chinese laborers did all the many different kinds of work needed by the mine owners. They shoveled and hacked great holes and tunnels under the ground to find the sulfur and the mercury. After the passages were made, the Chinese mined and sorted the ore, cut and transported the shoring timbers to keep the tunnels from collapsing, and brought in the firewood to refine the raw ore.

Mercury is toxic. Inhaled as gas or swallowed in the water, Mercury can kill. It leaves the victim a wreck for life. White miners, more familiar with the hazards, usually refused those tasks. They left them for the Chinese.

A small group of Chinese workers did the most dangerous jobs. These were called the ‘Soot’ men. These hapless Chinese crawled into the hot condensers that held the mercury vapors to clean out the soot. One observer reported: ‘The effect of the vapors on the lungs and bodies of the ‘soot men’ soon reduced them to shaking, toothless wrecks.’  Exposure to the mercury vapors was a certain one-way ticket to a permanent disability worse than a clean death.

Despite their low wages and value to the mine owners, Chinese laborers were considered, for the first time, in the 1870s, to be a serious threat to white workers’ livelihood. Their employers paid the Chinese a dollar and twenty-five cents a day as compared to white workers earning three dollars a day. Anti-Chinese sentiment grew until legislation was passed restricting immigration.

Prejudice was common. One might see a dozen ‘No Chinese Help Wanted’ signs in the windows of nearly every kind of establishment, and, by 1920, less than twenty thousand Chinese remained in California.

Next episode; The Anti-Chinese Laws


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visit Gene’s website; http://genepaleno.com/

Gene Paleno

Gene runs his life at a full sprint. In his ninety-three years he's dug ditches, painted signs, played semi-pro football, worked as a taxicab driver, an insurance agent, and a school teacher. He's been a technical artist, a marketing director, and a business owner. He served in World War II, raised four children, and was married to the love of his life for fifty years. He's an accomplished oil painter and skilled in ceramics. He's written fifteen books, including the definitive Lake County History, and doesn't show any signs of slowing down.

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