Following the completion of the Transcontinental Railroad, Reno—like other towns in the West—became a home for displaced Chinese laborers. The Sacramento-to-Reno section of the Central Pacific Railroad was completed in the spring of 1868; Chinese laborers who had risked life and limb laying track over the Sierra Nevada received final payment and were left along the line to fend for themselves. Many constructed flimsy bare-wood structures at the crossroads of Virginia and First streets along the banks of the Truckee River. Reno’s Chinatown was born.
On Aug. 3, 1878, fire consumed the Chinese quarter. Tensions had been running high since May when the San Francisco-based firm Lung Chung & Company received the contract to construct the proposed 33-mile Steamboat Ditch irrigation canal from near Truckee into Reno. Local Workingmen’s Party members were vocal in their condemnation of the Truckee and Steamboat Springs Canal Company for employing Chinese labor. Coincidentally the Workingmen’s Party held a meeting that very same evening to discuss and adapt a series of resolutions on “the Chinese question.”
Few incidents of violence or physical hostility occurred in Chinatown for more than 20 years after 1878, when the Chinese community agreed to relocate out of town to First and Lake streets.
In November 1908, a Washoe County Grand Jury ordered the razing of Chinatown—a “plague spot” and “disease-breeding place” according to Dr. James L. Robinson of the newly formed Reno Board of Health. Only the Joss house (a place of worship), and some of the more-frequented brothels that housed Chinese prostitutes were spared.
The events in Reno created a stir along the West Coast, drawing protest from Washington State to San Francisco. The Reno Chinese community reached out to San Francisco’s Chinese Consul, and even hired an attorney to file a suit against the City of Reno for $7,000. The Chinese proved to be mostly powerless, however, because many of the buildings in the Chinese quarter had been situated on land owned by white proprietors.
The final remnant of Reno’s Chinatown on Lake Street, Bill Fong’s New China Club, disappeared in the 1970s as Harrah’s expanded to build a larger parking garage. The only indication of northern Nevada’s Chinese past is Nevada Historical Marker No. 29 located in Sparks. The plaque, dedicated in 1964, celebrates Nevada’s centennial and the salutes the contributions of Chinese pioneers.
A more recent memorial—the Chinese Pagoda Pavilion—was built in Reno’s Rancho San Rafael Park in 1984 as a result of leftover funds donated by Reno’s Joss House Society. Today, these markers serve as the only remaining evidence of a displaced culture’s trials and tribulations in the Truckee Meadows.