Formerly the Site of Eureka Chinatown
4th and E Street
The California Gold Rush of 1849 brought the first Chinese immigrants to Humboldt County, many of whom stayed in the area after the gold boom, providing labor for the building of Humboldt’s first roads, working in salmon canneries along the Eel River, or laboring in various trades in town (such as laundry and domestic servitude). By the late 1870s, E and F streets and 4th and 5th streets in what is now Old Town Eureka were home to a bustling Chinatown, where established and newly-arrived Chinese residents lived, worked, and leisured.
However, social, political, and economic tensions between white and Chinese settlers nationwide eventually led to the expulsion (or attempted expulsion) of Chinese people from many American towns and cities. Some of the Chinese communities most severely affected were in areas along the West Coast, including those in the neighboring towns of Eureka and Fortuna in California.
Tensions between Chinese and white residents in Eureka climaxed when, on February 6th, 1886, a Eureka City Councilman was mortally wounded in the crossfire of a gun battle between two quarreling Chinese men. An emergency meeting was held at Centennial Hall on 4th Street between F and G, where it was decided that all Chinese residents were to be expelled from Eureka immediately. By the next morning, the more than 300 Chinese residents of Eureka were rounded up and placed on two steamers, the Humboldt and the City of Chester. However, due to poor weather conditions, the steamers were unable to depart until a week later on the morning of Saturday 14th, 1886. Back at Centennial Hall following the departure, Humboldt County’s “unwritten law” excluding any Chinese person from living and working in Humboldt was put into effect. It would be enforced for the next 60 years.
Today, a stroll through 5th and F streets and 4th and E streets in Eureka will reveal no visible traces of Humboldt’s Chinese history. One does not need to stay here long before noticing the lack of a Chinese population and culture in Humboldt. We shouldn’t find this too surprising, given the fact that following the Chinese Expulsion of 1886 Chinese people and culture were systematically excluded from living in Humboldt for nearly half of the 20th century—a result of Humboldt County’s “unwritten law.” The absence of Chinese cultural remnants in Eureka is part and parcel of the larger absence of a Chinese community in Humboldt County. As Keith Easthouse observes in a 2003 cover story on the Humboldt Chinese Expulsion for the North Coast Journal Weekly, “the past treatment of the Chinese lives on today in the form of a population that does not contain nearly as many Asians as it might have.”
The city of Eureka desperately needs come to terms with this dark chapter in its history. I look forward to the day when we have a bronze statue of Charlie Moon or the unnamed Chinese man with a carrying pole atop his shoulders placed at the former site of Eureka’s Chinatown. Until then, I’m afraid that the remembrance of this history will have to be found in the very absence of cultural and embodied historical traces in Eureka, as well as the narratives and images that we have kept to remind us of this troubled history.