The Journal of San Diego History
January 1964, Volume 10, Number 1
Jerry MacMullen, Editor

By R. P. Middlebrook

HAND-HEWN HARDPAN, ON THE SORRENTO GRADE; Santa Fe's 135-pound rails have replaced the light   It is difficult to say just when or how the first Chinese arrived in California; we do know that Charles Crocker imported several ship loads of Chinese coolies to do the pick and shovel work during the construction of his Central Pacific Railroad. Upon completion of this work, most of the Chinese were left without jobs, and hundreds flocked to the mines where, by painstaking labor in tailing-dumps and worked-out creeks, they made a fair living. Some moved into San Francisco and other coast cities where they started up restaurants, wash houses and other businesses. Several hundred worked around Columbus gathering and refining borax, while others worked as teamsters hauling ore to the railhead at Wadsworth. Many were employed on the Carson & Colorado Railroad, building south from Mound House.

When logging was first started in the Lake Tahoe area in the early 1870s, many Chinese were employed around the logging camps as cooks, waiters and roustabouts. Gangs worked in the woods as sawyers and loggers; mention is made of an early-day logging train running wild down the mountainside, resulting in the death of four Chinese loggers.

Charcoal was in great demand at the smelters, for refining silver ore. Many charcoal camps were set up and ovens constructed, and these ovens required a large amount of wood and attention. The whites would not do this hard, dirty labor, so Chinese were brought in to cut the wood and tend the kilns. Periodically the whites, resenting the steady employment of Chinese and fortified by fire water, would declare an open season, burn and destroy the Chinese camps and shoot up the place in general. The terrified Chinese would scatter to the hills and hide, later to return and rebuild their destroyed shacks and resume the routine work again.

In the early 1880s the California Southern Railway was projected, from National City to San Bernardino and Waterman, to connect with the Atlantic & Pacific for a new through route east. Chief Engineer Joseph O. Osgood sent to San Francisco for Chinese labor, and construction camps were established at various places along the route; hundreds of Chinese were soon hacking out cuts and making fills. These laborers boarded themselves, and lived in huts of brush or any scrap material that would make a shelter. There were large camps at Temecula and at Sorrento. The Temecula camp housed over 2,000 laborers who were at work cutting and blasting a right-of-way through the rugged Temecula Canyon to Fallbrook The work was hard, hot, dusty and dangerous, many of the Chinese suffering bruised and broken hands and feet from the blasting and rock slides. Conditions were so bad that at one point they threatened to quit and return to San Francisco.

Work on the Sorrento hill was much easier, the bottom of the hill being a clay formation and easy to dig; but near the top the soil was like cement, and full of round cobblestones. The cuts were not slanted, but were dug straight up-and-down. So hard was the soil that even today, if one knows just where to look, faint pick marks may be seen at intervals, although in late years steam ditchers and bulldozers have destroyed most of the signs of Chinese digging. The cuts were as much as forty or fifty feet deep, and up to two hundred feet in length. Every bit of dirt was loosened by picks and carried out in baskets or two-wheeled carts. Two or three of the deeper canyons were bridged, to be filled in later.

With the grading finished, the Chinese were again without jobs, although part of the crews were kept on as section hands for track maintenance. A section gang would consist of a white foreman and six to eight Chinese laborers; each gang generally took care of about five miles of track, going and coming as necessary with push cars to carry tools and the section foreman, who was averse to walking. As a rule, the foreman or one of the workmen acted as brakeman, with a long pole stuck down through a hole in the bed of the car so that it could apply friction to one of the wheels. On the down-grade, they all rode. One obliging foreman at Sorrento was in the habit of furnishing a push car and motive power for the neighbors, whenever they wished to go to the beach near Del Mar for Sunday picnics.

NEARING THE SUMMIT AT SORRENTO, 1912; Little old No. 11 brings in the morning train from Escondido.After the floods of 1884, hundreds of Chinese were again employed in rebuilding the railroad through Temecula Canyon and at other points where washouts occurred on the line. Many did not return to San Francisco, but stayed in Southern California and went into other lines of business. The Oceanside paper of September 1885 proclaimed the newest sensation: a “John Chinaman Wash-House” was now open for business. Others went into the restaurant business and hardly a town or division point between National City and Winslow was without a Chinese restaurant. Many are still in existence today, operated by third or fourth generation descendants of the original owners.

From the very first survey, the railroad had plans to tunnel under the hill between Sorrento and Elvira siding, but shortage of funds and other causes kept postponing the work. As late as October of 1907 when the line-change at Del Mar was discussed, President E. P. Ripley of the Santa Fe informed the press that, “Work on the new line change would start next week.” This entailed a line along the base of the cliffs to a point near La Jolla, and then a tunnel to Rose Canyon near Elvira, but the “Soledad Tunnel” never was built. By 1907, the line’s name had been changed twice; California Southern Railway became Southern California in 1889, and was finally taken over by the Atchison, Topeka & Santa Fe around 1902.

The old heads used to tell about a Chinese who ran a restaurant in Ludlow. He was a great gambler and would grubstake any prospector, with the understanding that he would get half of any strike. Many of the old “desert rats” spent an easy summer at his expense, but one day a prospector came into the restaurant and handed him a bundle of cash as half payment on a mine he had sold. Some said it was as much as $50,000. He took off his apron and laid it across the counter, shooed the customers out, locked the door and took the first train and ship for China.

THE EARTH WAS REMOVED IN BASKETS An early California railroad construction scene.Fifty or sixty years ago, Mission and Sweetwater Valleys were a vast Chinese vegetable garden. For twenty-five cents you could get the whole back of the wagon full of vegetables; melons were five and ten cents and carrots were just “thrown in.” Several Chinese seemed to be in partnership in working the gardens, some attending to the watering while others weeded and gathered the vegetables. Generally the one who spoke the best English or was the better businessman drove the peddling wagon around town, and the cry, “Wegatabaww!” was a familiar one.

An ingenious method was used to raise water from the river bottom for irrigation. A large A-frame was built, having a horizontal shaft that connected to a second A-frame. Near the center of the shaft was a wooden gear which meshed with an upright shaft; this upright shaft was driven by a blindfolded horse, going around and around. Connected to the horizontal shaft was a large wooden wheel, and connected to this wheel by ropes were a series of paddles that ran in a shallow flume from a pond. As the wheels turned, water was scooped up the flume to a distributing flume about the garden.

MEMENTO OF CALIFORNIA SOUTHERN'S CHINESE After four-score years, faint pick-marks (arrow) may still be seen.Hubbard’s brick yard, located in a canyon that is now Reynard Way, employed several Chinese workers, whose job was to take the bricks from the mixer to the drying area. Mud flowed from the mixer to forms holding nine to twelve bricks, sand was sprinkled on top of the forms and they were loaded onto carts shaped like a wide V. When the cart was loaded, the Chinese would wheel it out into the yard and dump the brick for drying. They would place the mold on the ground, then squat, give a funny little hop and turn the mold over and lift it from the bricks. It was lots of fun watching them. The bricks had to be turned several times before being put in the kiln for burning.

At one time, San Diego had a sizeable Chinese fishing fleet, whose junks anchored in the lee of the steamship wharf near the foot of Third Street. These junks were wonderful sailers, and even on days when there was not enough wind to ruffle the surface of the bay, they would sail majestically down the channel.

About 1907, my aunt worked as a switchboard operator for the old Sunset Telephone Company. The night shift was dead after midnight, as night life was nil. Various schemes were tried to keep awake; one was to call two Chinese subscribers about two o’clock in the morning and hook them together, and listen in on the conversation. Odd as it may seem, with all these shenanigans there never was one single complaint put in at the office.

Today the Chinese are among our most respected citizens, and California would be a decade behind in progress had it not been for the early industry of their forebears.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR: The contribution of the Chinese to building the West is significant, and R. P. (Phil) Middlebrook — author of The High Iron to La Jolla and other bits of railroadiana — tells here of how they dug the Sorrento roadbed. A retired locomotive engineer, he began railroading as an unofficial — and unpaid — fireman on the old La Jolla line, while still attending San Diego High School.