By Ed Diokno
An important piece of Asian American history almost went up in flames last weekend. One of the old wooden buildings in the town of Locke, California caught fire and threatened the entire town of old, wood-frame structures built by the Chinese laborers who worked on the transcontinental railroads and transformed the California Delta into one of the richest farmlands in the country.
“We all thought the whole town was going down, the way it was burning,” said Judie Wall, owner of Al’s Place bar and restaurant on Main Street.
“We had to evacuate Al’s,” a few doors down, she told the Sacramento Bee.
The fire department responded immediately to the 2nd story fire that started around 4:15 Sunday in an apartment above a storefront. Multiple fire departments – including from the surrounding communities of Walnut Grove, Clarksburg and Elk Grove quickly dispatched assistance.
All of Locke’s wooden buildings are equipped with fire sprinklers but for some reason, the sprinklers didn’t automatically turned on. Fortunately, the fire did not spread to the adjoining buildings. The investigation continues as to the cause of the fire.
When the Transcontinental Railroad was completed in 1869, thousands of Chinese laborers, primarily from Guangdong Province, were hired to work on an extensive levee project in California’s Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta. Their knowledge of how to develop farmland in river valleys, learned from farming the Pearl River Delta region in southern China, was used to construct a large network of earthen levees that eventually turned 500,000 acres of swamp into some of California’s most valuable farm land.
There used to be a half-dozen such Chinese built towns in the Delta. Locke is the last and has been designated as a National Historical Landmark.
When Walnut Grove’s Chinatown burned down, the Chinese immigrants persuaded rancher George Locke to lease them land to build their town because California law at the time prohibited Chinese immigrants from owning land. By the time Locke was founded in 1915, the levees had been completed and the workers turned to agriculture
In the 1940’s restaurants, bakeries, herb shops, fish markets, gambling halls, boarding houses, brothels, grocery stores, a school, clothing stores, and the Star Theatre lined the bustling streets of Locke. At its peak 600 residents, and as many as 1500 people occupied the town of Locke.
By 1920, Locke was a popular location for Prohibition-era speakeasies and was providing recreational facilities to both the agricultural workforce and non-Asians from nearby cities.
On August 2, 1970, Locke was added to the registry of national historical places, by the Sacramento County Historical Society, because of its unique status as the only town in the United States built exclusively by the Chinese for the Chinese.