The Prairie Chinatown That Disappeared

Jun 7, 2019

Wyoming is one of the least racially diverse states in the country-but it wasn't always that way. A museum in Evanston chronicles a time when the state bustled with international immigrants.

The Joss House in Evanston has a false front, like lots of Western buildings that hearken back to the 1800s. It looks like it could have been an old saloon in Laramie, or a general store in Rawlins. But when you get closer, you notice there's intricate swirls painted in red and gold on the top of the porch. Around back, there's a tiny arched bridge over a koi pond. And a gazebo painted with Cantonese characters.

"The Joss House is a temple-a Chinese worship temple," said Kay Rossiter, the director of the Uinta County Museum, which runs the Joss House. "This particular building was constructed in 1874."

In the middle of the 19th century, the U.S. was on a mission to spread railroads across the country. At the time, droves of Chinese men were arriving in California, to be silver and gold miners. That's where Union Pacific recruited them to be railroad workers. And in 1868, the brand-new railroad reached the spot on the prairie that's now Evanston.

"Evanston is the result of the railroad," said Rossiter.

So Chinese immigrants were among the first citizens of Evanston, and other towns along the railroad. After it was built, these men stuck around to be coal miners. A few years passed, and, right next to the Evanston tracks, a robust Chinatown emerged. "There was a barbershop and laundries and storekeepers and herbalists," Rossiter said.

But anti-immigrant sentiment was growing. In the late 1800s the U.S. passed a series of laws that barred all Chinese immigrants from coming to the United States. Newspaper opinion columnists warned that the Chinese would take jobs from white people.

White coal miners believed their employer treated Chinese miners better-when in reality the Chinese were paid less, and were charged higher prices for rent. But prejudice persisted and in nearby Rock Springs, in 1885, white miners killed 28 Chinese miners-brutally, with pickaxes--and burned their homes. Newspapers called it the Rock Springs Massacre.

Chinese people trickled away from Evanston over the next few decades. "They closed the mines," said Rossiter. "Of course that was all the real work for these men to really support their families, and they just left. They just drifted away to other communities for work."

Until finally, in 1922, with only about a dozen Chinese folks left living in Evanston, a fire decimated Chinatown.

Nobody knows how the fire started. Rossiter says some people think maybe Union Pacific lit it to clear the land. "The other story is that the few Chinese people that were here were so angry at the Union Pacific that they just burned the whole thing down." She said she assumes they were angry at Union Pacific "because they told them they had to move. You know, 'we're going to reclaim this property, and you need to move on, move out.'"

"I've only seen it referenced a couple of times," said Phil Roberts, a University of Wyoming Professor of History Emeritus, about the fire. But he said the conflagration was typical of communities close to the tracks. "The big problems often arose on windy days when embers from the coal-fired steam locomotives would float over and land on wooden roofs. And the fire would start, and it would burn."

Still, no one living knows exactly what happened. After the fire, most of the rest of the Evanston Chinese disappeared-many of them moved back to China.

"Wyoming in 1890-forty percent of the population was foreign-born," said Roberts. "And you look around Wyoming now and you say, gee, we're rather homogenous. But we're probably more homogenous than we've ever been."

But, still, there's evidence of a different Wyoming.

Before the fire, when Chinatown was already mostly abandoned, whites from Evanston raided it. They took the things left behind: pottery, photos. "All these things that people took in what I fondly call the raid, these are the items that ended up in the museum here," said Rossiter.

The original Joss House burned in the 1922 fire, along with the rest of Chinatown. But the city rebuilt it from photos in the 1990s, and made it into a museum. Rossiter says she wishes everyone in the state could see two panels that were on either side of the front door. Originally they were covered in gold leaf, and red and black paint.

"You know, I have a lot of Chinese people from all over the world that come here to see this Joss House," Rossiter said. "I had one man from London in here. He looked at those panels and he said, wow. He said, they must have thought they were going to be here forever. Of course I questioned him about that, and he said, in China, these kind of panels are only on palaces and government buildings. And here they are on this little bitty building in the middle of Wyoming."

Rossiter said you can still smell the cedar.