In researching our McDonald family, a request for information about our family was made. Tim Bousquet, then the Editor of "Chico Examiner" in 2000. Replied he would be happy to help out and would write an article for the paper. At one time this was online but has disappeared.
A Snapshot of Chico, Circa 1870
By: Tim Bousquet
Editor of the Chico Examiner in 2000
Chico, circa 1870 – With its wooden sidewalks, general and drug stores, multiple saloons and fighting miners and ranch hands, Chico could have been lifted right off the set from a western movie.
The town was predominately male; the survivors of the gold rush mixed with later-day adventures. The easy pickings of the gold fields had played out many years before, but it was still possible to get work as a hand at one of the massive hydraulic operations; the miners would head up into the mountains for the summer work season then, when the winter rains and snows made mining impossible, head down to the valley floor and Chico to enjoy themselves in the stereotypical rowdy ways. But let's get beyond the stereotypes and take a tour of the place.
Chico had a population of about 5,000 people, mostly clustered in a small grid about a mile square wedged between Big and Little Chico Creeks.
To the north, across Big Chico Creek, sat Rancho Chico, John Bidwell's sprawling ranch. Bidwell arrived in California in 1841, when this state was more properly known as Mexico, and through industry, saving, and diplomacy acquired the Rancho del Arroyo de Chico, a Mexican land grant of several leagues, for the proverbial song. He made a quick peace with the local Indians, a band of about 100 called the Mechoopda: they could move their small village onto Rancho Chico and receive Bidwell's protection against the incoming 49er swam, which had proven itself to be not especially concerned for the welfare of the original inhabitants. In return, the Mechoopda would work Bidwell's ranch.
By the 1870's the Bidwell ranch had become an elaborate and productive affair, and was possibly the largest such farming operation in the United States, with a few dozen fruit and nut orchards, a cannery, a flour mill, and the assorted operations associated with the same. Bidwell's mansion sat on the bank of the creek, immediately opposite the town he had laid out in 1860.
That north end of town hosted the more established businesses; Bidwell's General Store at Front (or First) Street and Broadway; the post office facing the creek on Front, between Main and Broadway; Noonan's Drug Store on Main between First and Second; Graves Drug Store, a sturdy two-story brick structure, at Second and Main (now Zucchini and Vine). The City Hall, with its small jail behind, sat on Main between Second and Third, and the fire station was around the corner on Second, between Main and Wall (now Panama's Bar). Any number of smaller operations --men and women's clothing stores, saddleries and leather shops, the ubiquitous saloons and liquor stores, doctors offices and barbers, a few Chinese laundries – were interspersed with the larger establishments.
We will discuss in a general nature the prevalence of drinking in Chico. Through advertisement and news reports in the Chico newspaper of 1875 to 1876, I've compiled the following list of saloons and drinking establishments in about a ten-square block area of Chico:
Liquor was also served at the saloons inside the hotels, including:
The drug stores in town primarily catered to customer's drug and toiletry needs, but even the up-scale Graves Drugs offered "Pure Wines and Liquors" with the understanding that they were to be used "for Medicinal and Communion Purposes" only. Noonan's and Lee's Drug Stores also sold liquor, and every General Store in town did as well. And of course, the brothels also offered drink, albeit of a lesser quality.This list, I might add, is only cursory; there were no doubt countless other drinking establishment, as well as the usual personal flasks and home liquor cabinets.
It's not too much to say that drinking was an industry, perhaps " the industry" in Chico.
Besides the important retail trade, drunks who, too poor to post bail, worked off their jail sentences shoveling sand performed much of the street maintenance. Almost every single day at least one drunk was found passed out on the sidewalks, and often there were as many as seven or eight.
On the south end of town sat "The Junction," where Main and Broadway intersected the Humboldt and Oroville Roads, the two major routes out of town.
The Oroville Road went, naturally enough, to Oroville, the County seat, about a three-hour stage ride away. This road saw an increasing commerce between the two growing towns, as well as people doing legal business at the County Courthouse, and the daily sheriff's wagon transporting prisoners to the County jail.
The Humboldt Road lifted out of the valley floor and ambitiously headed over the Sierra Nevada to the Humboldt River in Nevada. For a couple of years in the late 60's there was a collective delusion in Chico that held that this road would be the major transportation system for the American interior, and Chico would become the provider of the Nevada and Idaho mining operations then opening up and the terminus for the returning gold and silver.
And indeed, thanks to Bidwell's influence, the US mail route to Idaho was directed over the road, and it looked like the trade might take off. Each spring hundreds of wagon teams would await the thawing Sierra snowpack at the Junction, working their teams through the streets of Chico in what was described as "a perpetual stage wagon." Then, when the snow broke, the first wagon train was led over the mountain by the famed Indian hunter Hi Good, who had led the massacres of the Mill Creek villages just a few years before and was understood to know how to "deal with" the dangerous Piaute in Nevada.
But, as critics had maintained from the start, the grand hopes of the Humbodlt road were dashed when the railroad connecting Sacramento to Nevada was completed. By the 1870's, however, the Humboldt road realized it commercial potential as a transportation corridor connecting the dozens of sawmills then clearing the sugar pine forests of the Sierra. A lumber flume, stretching forty miles up Chico canyon and connecting the mills, was built mid-decade and eventually extended to the lumberyard just east of The Junction, at Eighth and Pine. The Junction proper remained a hub for travelers, with stables and carriage houses, blacksmith shops, hotels, saloons, and the new Chico Brewery, at Eighth and Broadway.
On the east and west ends of town sat Chico's two Chinatowns, holding between them 500 people, roughly a tenth of the population. Like everybody else (besides the Indians), the Chinese came to California in search of gold, but series of discriminatory mining laws and taxes kept them out of the diggings. But at nearly the same time the massive railroad projects of America were being constructed, and eastern capitalist found the Chinese to be a dependable and inexpensive labor force. By the 1860's, however, railroad work was drying up, and the Chinese began to filter down into the Sacramento Valley. There was often work to be found on Bidwell's ranch, and nearly every middle-class family in the prosperous town had its Chinese domestic servants. Other employment opportunities were available as cooks and porters at the hotels, and at the many laundries.
Besides their value as workers, the Chinese citizenry provided a cultural diversion for the Anglos. Perhaps the most noteworthy event of the year was the Chinese New Year parade, in which a long dragon snaked its way from New Town, on the west end of town, to Old Town, on the east, thence back to New town, where it terminated at the Josh House, or Chinese Temple, at the corner of Eighth and Cherry Streets. The dragon was followed by nearly the entire Chinese population, costumed, carrying banners, and lighting fireworks. Most every Anglo lined the streets to watch the spectacle.
Chinese-white relations were always strained, and especially so when the economy turned sour, as it did when Wall Street collapse of 1873 caught up to Chico in 1877. A labor dispute at a sash and door factory associated with the Sierra Lumber Company soon turned ugly, with political organization called the Caucasian League demanding that whites fire their Chinese employees. At one point a delegation of women, wives of unemployed workers, marched through town with baby carriages and signs declaring that " we will stop having these unless the Chinese go." Finally in August of 1877, six Chinese laborers at the Lemm ranch, just east of town where the Bidwell Park deer pen now stands, were shot, four fatally, and several attempts were made at burning down each Chinatown. After some investigation a secret "Labor Committee" was credited with the assaults, and a half dozen men were sent to the state pen.
Usually, though, there existed an uneasy peace with the Chinese. Old Town, on Flume Street between Fifth and Sixth, was a center of the various vice trades – gambling, prostitution, and above all, opium – and the police would periodically raid the houses. The Chinese soon learned to connect their basements, an even to extend new tunnels under Flume Street, so that when one building was raided the occupants could safely emerge down the road and escape out the back of another. This is the origin of the legendary "Chinese Tunnels" in Chico. Many decades later, at the turn of twentieth century, competing an non-cooperating utility companies established an elaborate network of tunnels beneath the streets in the business district of town – one for water, one for gas, and another for sewers, and a fourth for electricity ---none of which had anything to do with Chinese, but in the common mind the earlier labyrinth beneath Chinatown was confused with business district tunnels, such that nowadays every utility service duct in town is referred to as a "Chinese Tunnels."
Continuing with our tour, we find on the west side of town, just north of New Chinatown, sits the railroad station. The Southern Pacific line was extended up the Sacramento Valley to Chico in the 1860's, and the small town, once a remote frontier outpost, found itself only a day's travel from San Francisco, the urban metropolis. The railroad was a mixed blessing. On the one hand, the latest in foods, materials, and news readily came to town; on the other, sophisticated strangers, not all of them benign, could be found wandering about town with who knows what designs. Thanks to the railroad, the latest in women's and men's fashion were displayed at downtown shops, but con artists, thieves, and libertines were forever coming though town also. Still, on the whole, the railroad was a boon for the town; a collection of warehouses surrounded the depot, and the railroad served as the life-giving artery for Chico's growing manufacturing enterprises.
At the northeast corner of town, tucked behind the business district and across the creek from Bidwell's mill, on the first block or town of Wall Street, was the brothel district. Here some two to three dozen women lived and worked. Their stories are many and varied, ranging from women abandoned by the husbands on the frontier, to orphaned children who made the best of a bad situation, to proud independent women who saw their careers as a sure route to riches. The women took care of each other, and at the times were even prosperous, although there was also a terribly high number of suicides and drug overdoses.
The 1870's were probably the high time for the "Tenderloin" –openly tolerated by the city officials who needed a safe outlet for the thousands of single men coming through town, the brothels had not yet been taken over by the organized crime syndicates of the twentieth century. By all reports, these women were respected and likely by the populace at large, and when the police made occasional raids. Chico juries refused to convict "the nymphs of Wall Street."
This was Chico in the 1870's. Just as its physical geography roughly coincided with the movie stereotypes, so did Chico's social geography. The main social conflict of Chico's early years was between the rough-and-tumble element—gold miners, ranch hands, and the like – and the "settled" element, best represented by one Annie K. Bidwell, the young bride of John Bidwell brought west after a stint as congressman in Washington, DC.
Annie was of the monied and sophisticated East Coast Kennedy family, and her presence in Chico could not have been more out of place. Still, she was a head-strong woman, and immediately set to work civilizing the place. First, Annie confined her efforts to "Christianizing" the Mechoopda villagers on the ranch, demanding that they wear clothes and go to Sunday church. She established a sewing school for the Indian women, rally more of way to subversively westernize them than to teach them to sew, a before long the Indians were at least nominally Christian.
Buoyed by her success, Annie began organizing other women in town. The women established a Lyceum, a debating and reading society meant to encourage the young men to town to turn away from hooliganism in hopes of landing a respectable wife. A library and reading room was established, and traveling lecturers were invited to speak in Chico.
It was a long row to hoe. In the early years there were absolutely no hope that Chico could be anything much more than a rowdy drinking town. But as time passed Annie would bring what sophisticated mores as she could to town. Towards the end of the century, Chico became a center for both the abolitionist and Suffragette movement, and Annie can be credited --- or blamed—for the eventual shutting down of the brothels and the saloons.
But that was decades in the future; in the 1870's Annie's efforts were at best tolerated, and more often openly ridiculed. For the time being, Chico was the place to raise hell. Saloons did a booming business, and were often open all night, hosting card games and sporting roulette tables. When the town elite urged the Marshal to crack down on gambling, the gambling and saloon element ran their won candidate for Marshall, and the issue was soon dropped. Although gun battles, were rare, one could find a fistfight on any night of the week. "Our hoodlums are getting on the rampage again, stoning Chinamen, interrupting Church services, breaking the plastering from cisterns, etc." the Chico Record reported, more or less casually. The deputies were employed largely to get the passed-out drunks off the streets, but if the inebriated deposited $5 in the morning they could make back to the saloon by noon.
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Uploaded February 2006
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