The rise and fall of Carson City’s Chinatown |

The rise and fall of Carson City’s Chinatown

Trent Dolan
For the Appeal
This elderly Chinese man reading in front of his house was one of the few remaining residents of Carson City's Chinatown in the mid-1940s. Daun Cohall collection/Nevada State Museum

In the shadow of the State Capitol Building just to the east of the Supreme Court stands a monument to Carson City’s former Chinese residents.

North of the Third Street exit to the state printing office at the parking lot is a plaque placed a few years ago commemorating what was the largest minority settlement in the state in 1880. At its peak, Carson City’s Chinatown had some 789 residents and included a Joss House and Chinese Masonic Lodge. A human powered water wheel was used to take water from the creek that ran through the property to the homes and businesses. Sixty different occupations were listed in that year’s census. Of the 789, there were 83 women and 19 children. At that time the Chinese edged out the Irish for the largest foreign-born population in the state.

Stand at the Supreme Court building on the second landing, look east to the five block area between Stewart Street, and Roop Street. To the right is the state printing office. A block ahead is the employment security office. To the left is the armory. At this point you are near the western edge of Chinatown. The V & T Railroad ran down the middle of Stewart Street at your feet.

Except for the plaque, there is nothing in Chinatown today that hints at the people who cut the trees, grew the vegetables or washed the laundry … no sign that they even existed in such great numbers in Carson City.

The Early Years

The Chinese came to America to find gold and ended up building the railroads. They had a significant role in the development of Nevada. Anywhere there is a railroad, you will find Chinese settlements. There’s one between Washoe City and Pleasant Valley, at Gold Hill and Virginia City, to name but a few.

The Chinese were some of the earliest residents here, having come to Genoa with Col. Reese in 1855-60 to work building irrigation trenches for the mines. In fact, Dayton’s earliest name was Chinatown.

In Dan DeQuille’s The Big Bonanza, he mentions that the Chinese wouldn’t have anything to do with shaft mining, but would only work quartz veins in Gold Canyon. Come fall of 1859, most left for the California Gold country. Later arrivals weren’t allowed to work in the mines and were delegated to the most menial of tasks, including cutting wood. Later on, laws were passed prohibiting “miscegenation” or the marriage or cohabitation of Caucasians and other races. The Chinese were prohibited from becoming citizens. Minorities were prohibited from testifying against whites. In 1882, the Chinese were prohibited from entering the United States for 10 years. While Carson City’s Chinese population was at its peak, the nation was in a depression. Bank failures and hard times made the Chinese a scapegoat for economic troubles. The phrase: “He doesn’t stand a Chinaman’s chance,” came about.

In 1880, one in five persons in Carson City was Chinese.

In 1908 a mob burned Reno’s Chinatown. Gradually the Chinese population in Carson City decreased to near nothing in the 1950s. In the 2000 census, there are over 1,100 Chinese listed as living in Carson City.

The Decline

Chinatown burned three times over the years, the last time from the Hunter’s Lodge fire. At the end the remainder was demolished for construction of state buildings. One of the few items to remain of Carson City’s Chinatown is the altar from the Chinese Masonic Lodge. Located in the Nevada State Museum, the altar was cut from area trees by Chinese wood cutters and painted in Carson City. The inscription at the top of the altar reads: “great inspiration for heavenly powers.” On the left are names of those who furnished money to build the hall. The altar was donated to the Museum by Harold Brooks, then sheriff of Ormsby County.