Sunday, May 22, 2011

Chin Lin Sou: Out of sight and out of mind

If you pulled the down side of the one-and-half-inch sisal rope on the pulley-driven mechanism, the entire floor, in about a 10 foot by 12-foot section, would gradually start to drop. Keep the continuous loop of rope moving and it would take maybe as long as a minute to drop to the level below. The platform elevator toward the back of the old Exon Mercantile building (turned Dolores Star’s print shop) would lower you into the damp, dark underworld of a time long forgotten. 

The basement was mostly empty, except for some long-outdated Christmas ornaments that were once put up on all the light poles around Dolores, and several large wooden boxes in the high dry area. Interestingly enough, the wooden crates were covered with undecipherable foreign writing that I could only imagine what was said. I was told that the boxes probably dated back to the time when Chinese workers labored locally on the railroad.
Under the golden dome here in Colorado, there is a stained glass portrait honoring of Chin Lin Sou at the State Capital. Also called “Willie Chin,” he founded six companies here in Colorado, including one, known as the Chinese Trading and Insurance Companies, that sold supplies to Chinese railroad workers. He is credited with enabling the completion of the Kansas Pacific and the Union Pacific in Colorado.

Chinese immigrants working on the railroad, of course, was commonplace throughout much of America’s western expansion. 

Chin Lin Sou arrived in America in 1859, and because he was fluent in both Chinese and English, he became a foreman working on the completion of the transcontinental railroad in California and across the West. During the 1860's, 10,000 Chinese were said to be involved in the building of the western leg of the Central Pacific Railroad.

Chief Engineer Sam S. Montague cites the Chinese in the work force in his message to the Board of the CPRR for 1865: "It became apparent early in the season, that the amount of labor likely to be required during the summer could only be supplied by the employment of the Chinese element, of our population. Some distrust was at first felt regarding the capacity of this class for the service required, but the experiment has proved eminently successful. They are faithful and industrious, and under proper supervision, soon become skillful in the performance of their duties. Many of them are becoming very expert in drilling, blasting, and other departments of rock work.
In fact, it was a Chinese crew that laid the last rail.
"When the railroad was completed on May 10, 1869, an eight man Chinese crew was selected to place the last section of rail – a symbol to honor the dedication and hard work of these laborers. A few of the speakers mentioned the invaluable contributions of the Chinese ...” according to the National Park Service.
“The more famous A.J. Russell photograph could not include the Chinese workers photographed earlier participating in the joining of the rails ceremony because at the moment the famous photo was being taken it was after the conclusion of the ceremony and the Chinese workers were away from the two locomotives to dine at J.H. Strobridge's boarding car, being honored and cheered by the CPRR management,” according to the Central Pacific Photographic History Museum.
When railroad building slowed in the 1870s, Chin resettled in Blackhawk, hit pay dirt in two of his own mines which he sold for a tidy sum.
“During this time,” according to History Colorado, “Chinese workers were discriminated against. Many white people thought they were stealing American jobs. Anti-Chinese violence erupted in many cities, including Denver. Using his language talents, Chin tried to find jobs for fellow Chinese, but it was hard. In 1882, the U.S. government made it even harder. It passed a law that prohibited Chinese immigrants from becoming citizens, which meant they could not defend themselves in a court of law.”

Despite this environment, Chin prospered because of his command of both languages and his solid business acumen, but it wasn’t easy. Examples of negative treatment for Chinese Americans, particularly in the mining communities of Colorado, which were dominated by other ethnic collections of newly-arrived Irish and Italian immigrants, made for pronounced racial tension. 
Following are local examples.
• From January 20, 1900 edition of the Silverton Standard:
“Hop joints raided."
“Last Tuesday night Marshal Lyle and Night watchman Leonard raided a few “hop’ joints took the inmates who were “hitting the pipe.” The following, almond-eyed heathens were gobbled up by the officers: Joe, Dutch, Wang and Tom, who gave bond to appear before Squire Watson’s the following day. The places raid are located over the Saddle Rock Restaurant and Jack Smith’s place opposite Ludwig’s dance hall on Blair Street. No one was found in the latter dive. 
The case was continued until Wednesday. Case was called promptly on time and resulted as follows: Joe, $18.70; Wang pleaded not guilty and was accessed $8.70. Tom pleaded guilty to smoking and fined $27.70. Dutch, for keeping joint $37.70. We failed to find out what they did with John Doe and Richard Roe.
"These dens of iniquity should be raided every opportunity as it’s rotten spot on the character of the city the size of Silverton to be infected with such hell-holes. The officers in doing their duty deserve the thanks of the entire community.”

• From February 28, 1891 edition of the Silverton Standard:
“Chinese Leaving.”
“About three-fourths of the Chinks have left Silverton and ‘ere long the bland face of a Chinaman will be a curiosity.”

Chin Lin Sou was an influential Chinese leader in Colorado and in 1870 was elected mayor of Denver's Chinatown, or "Hop Alley," an enclave that was eventually razed in 1950.

The Chinese-inscribed boxes in the basement of the Exon building never were satisfactorily explained to me, but I suspect it was much like the photos taken of other workers finishing the transcontinental railroad: out of sight and out of mind.

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