CHINESE RIOT AND MASSACRE
In many ways the history of Rock Springs is like that of a dozen other mining towns that you could name, neither better, not worse. A pitifully small number of “God-fearing” clergymen, Catholic and Protestant, supported and sustained by a few spiritually minded men and women, did their best to combat the rude temptations of the town, while the open saloon continued to compete with the gambling den for the dollars that the mothers and little children needed for food and clothing, and up “on the hill,” the noise of a rickety piano joined with the obscenity of fallen women. So far it might be the story of Butte City, Helena, Denver, Deadwood or a host of other old western mining towns.
But there is one unique blot in Rocks Springs’ past that is solely and wholly her own, reminding her of a day of violence and black injustice, when the blood of innocent men soaked her soil and the stench of burning flesh rose from smoking ruins. That day is Wednesday, September 2, 1885, the day of the Chinese riot and massacre.
Chinese workmen, who were to be the focal point for so much bitterness and wrath on the part of the white miners, were not brought to the town until November of 1875. As is to be expected, many rumors have been current ever since then, allegedly explaining why the Union Pacific Railroad chose to import the Chinese. The following account, written by Herman Glafcke, editor of the Cheyenne Leader and an outspoken opponent of Chinese labor, probably can be accepted as being as accurate as any that could be found. Editor Glafcke wrote:
Clark obtained his laborers through Beckwith Quinn and Company, whose main officers were located in Evanston, and who operated general stores in all the railroad company’s various coal towns. The agreement with the store that functioned at Carbon was the same as that by which it was run in Rock Springs: the store did not pretend to be the official Union Pacific Railroad store, but merely had an agreement with the railroad company to handle the work of paying the miners’ wages. This arrangement proved a great convenience and economy for the railroad company and at the same time established a means for workmen in the union to obtain credit at the stores. The workmen could, if they wished, charge goods during the month and have the payments taken out of their pay.
The contract for the importation of the Chinese provided for the Beckwith Quinn and Company delivering to the Union Pacific Railroad Company at Ogden, Utah, as many Chinese laborers as the railroad company should require. The railroad agreed to employ the Chinese on its tracks during the summer when they were not needed in the mines.
In protest of this action, a large number of the white miners went on a strike. They were immediately discharged by the company and left town when it became evident that they were not to get their jobs back. Work was resumed after the strike with the employment of fifty white miners and one hundred and fifty Chinese. The remaining white miners were considerably chastened on seeing the summary manner in which the railroad company dealt with the strikers, and for some time there was no open trouble.
From the first the Chinese employed in the mines of the railroad company were given many privileges and they appropriated many others. This situation proved a continual source of bitterness and friction between the whites and the Chinese, but the coal company made it plain that the Chinese were under special protection and that injury to them would be punishable by discharge. The result was that, while the white miners might express themselves very forcibly about the Chinese in conversation with other whites, they were very circumspect in their contact with the Orientals.
The protection given the Chinese can best be illustrated by an anecdote. One of the mine clerks who had a very crooked nose became abusive to a yellow workman. The Chinese was quick to resent this treatment and called on the superintendent to protest. The latter tried to identify the offending clerk from the workman’s description, but the Chinese kept repeating, “I not know his name. I no savvy.” “Well, can’t you tell me something about what he looks like, so I can tell who he is?” the official insisted. The Chinaman’s face lighted up and he replied quickly, “Yes, Yes. I savvy now.” And pushing his nose to one side with his forefinger, he said, “He allee same this fellah.” The superintendent instantly identified the clerk, sent for him and delivered a sharp reprimand.
Frequent incidents of this sort built up a deep resentment that was none the less bitter because it was of necessity partly concealed. More and more often, as the Chinese increased in number, would white tempers flare up, and sometimes fights would result. On one memorable occasion a number of Britishers who were engaged in rock work in one of the mines sent one of their number, a Scotchman, out before lunch to have their mine picks sharpened. It was not twelve o’clock, but the Chinese blacksmith was already busily engaged in eating his noonday meal. The Scotchman insisted that his picks be sharpened, pointing out to the blacksmith that the whistle had not yet blown. He put his picks in the forge and Wo Hung promptly threw them out of doors. This occurred three times, when Sandy, angered to the very core to be thus defied by a Chinaman, knocked the blacksmith down and choked him until he was unconscious. Then the miner hurriedly reentered the mine and rejoined his companions.
When the blacksmith returned to consciousness he set up a great outcry, and the superintendent and other members of the staff rushed into the blacksmith shop exclaiming, “What’s the matter with you, Wo? What’s happened?” Before Wo could reply, Sandy also rushed into the shop, exclaiming, “What’s the matter, Wo?” By this time Wo was beginning to feel better and glaring at the man, he said “You heap smart fellah, you heap savvy. What’s the mattah, you tellum bossee man what’s the mattah.” Naturally the officials turned to the miner for an explanation, but Sandy only shook his head doubtfully at him, and replied, “If you’re asking me, gentleman, I’d say the Chinaman has had an epileptic fit. You’ll notice his lips are purple, and he’s frothing at the mouth and he doesn’t talk rationally. Aye, I’m sure it’s an epileptic fit.” Then he launched into a long explanation of a similar case of epilepsy he had witnessed while working in West Virginia. The officials were unconvinced, but the Scotch miner stuck to his story and they were forced to give up their inquiry.
By 1885 the number of Oriental workmen had been increased to three hundred and thirty-one, as compared to one hundred and fifty white miners. The white men, who had maintained their union and had repeatedly agitated for the removal of the Chinese, were ready for a showdown. The [illegible] of the U. M. W. of A. mailed the following two letters from his office in Denver on August 28, 1885.
Last Updated April 2005
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