The Rock Springs Massacre
Perhaps the odor of burnt things gave the men some idea of what they were about to see. Mixed with it was a sicker, sweeter smell — the smell of dead things that had started to decay.
The 600 Chinese coal miners had been traveling all day — toward San Francisco, Calif., they had been told, and safety. Then they stopped, and the sound of the boxcar doors being slid open came rumbling down the train. Outside it was after sundown, and dark, but still the men knew immediately where they were. They were right back in Rock Springs, Wyoming. Clambering out of the cars and onto the railroad tracks, they saw that little was left of the homes they fled in panic a week before.
Rock Springs’ Chinatown was gone. Even more horrifying, there still were bodies in what had been Chinatown’s streets. Not that many—perhaps a dozen; two dozen at the most. Some had been buried by the coal company, but these had not. Many were in pieces. These were bodies of their friends, sons, fathers, brothers and cousins, murdered by a mob of white coal miners.
“[M]angled and decomposed,” the Chinese miners reported later to a Chinese diplomat in New York, the bodies “were being eaten by dogs and hogs.”
And now the coal company, owned by the Union Pacific Railroad, expected the miners to bury their dead, put the memories of this abomination behind them and go back to work. Until new houses could be built, they would be living in the boxcars.
The trouble was a long time coming. The boxcar doors rumbled open on a night in September 1885, but there were Chinese miners in the United States at least since the California Gold Rush in 1849. Nearly all came without their families. In California, they could earn ten times as much as they could earn in China. If they were careful, in a few years they could save a lifetime’s fortune to take back home.
California welcomed them, badly needing the work they could do. Soon Chinese men were working alongside whites at jobs from farming to cigar‑making.
When it came time to build the transcontinental railroad east from Sacramento, Calif., over the Sierra Madre Mountains, Chinese workers, though physically small, proved to be reliable, strong and very tough. They had to be. Blasting tunnels through hard rock, cutting ledges for the railroad along cliffs and mountainsides was dangerous, difficult work. Out of the 12,000 Chinese who built the Central Pacific, about 1,200 died on the job. In 1869, the Central Pacific met the Union Pacific in Utah, and the nation had a transcontinental railroad. Thousands of jobs disappeared.
Still, the Chinese stayed. Because their families were not with them, the men did not mind living eight or nine to a room to save on rent. This kept their expenses very low. They could afford to accept jobs at a lower rate of pay. They began, in the eyes of white workers, taking jobs away from the white men.
In July 1870, white workers in San Francisco led large street demonstrations making clear the Chinese weren’t wanted—and should not consider themselves safe. In October 1871, when a fight broke out in Los Angeles between rival gangs of Chinese criminals, whites poured into the neighborhood and murdered 23 Chinese. No one was charged with the crimes.
The Chinese still kept coming to the United States. “Sojourners,” they called themselves, meaning that returning to China was always part of the plan. There was more violence—in Arizona and Nevada as well as California. In 1882, Congress finally limited the number of Chinese immigrants. But the new law was full of loopholes, and the immigration question was as open-ended and confusing as ever.
Coal was the main reason the railroad followed the route it did across southern Wyoming. The trains ran on coal from rich Union Pacific coal mines in Carbon, Wyoming, near Medicine Bow; in Rock Springs; and in Almy, near Evanston.
When the Union Pacific got in financial trouble, the railroad saved money by cutting the miners’ pay. To keep profits higher, the miners and their families were required to shop for food, clothes and tools only at the company’s stores, where prices were high. There were strikes about wage cuts, and more strikes about having to shop at the company stores.
After one such strike in 1871, the company fired the strikers and brought in Scandinavian miners ready to work for less and follow the rules. In 1875, after another strike, the company brought in additional Chinese miners ready to do the same.
It worked. Both times, federal troops came in, and the strikers lost the struggle. After the 1875 strike, the Rock Springs mines started up again with about 150 Chinese miners and only 50 whites. By 1885, there were nearly 600 Chinese and 300 white miners working the Rock Springs mines.
The whites—mostly Irish, Scandinavian, English and Welsh immigrants—lived in downtown Rock Springs. The Chinese lived in what the whites called Chinatown, to the northeast, on the other side of a bend in the railroad tracks and across Bitter Creek. There the miners lived in small wooden houses the company had built for them. Other Chinese who ran businesses—herb stores, laundries, noodle shops, social clubs—lived in shacks they built themselves.
Although they worked side by side every day, whites and Chinese spoke separate languages and lived separate lives. They knew very little about each other. This made it possible for each race to think of the other, somehow, as not entirely human.
Because the Chinese were willing to work for lower wages, everyone’s wages stayed low. This was fine with the company, but white miners resented it. They joined a new union, the Knights of Labor, growing in numbers across the nation at that time. After yet another strike in 1884, mine managers in Rock Springs were told to hire only Chinese.
In the summer of 1885, there were scattered threats against and beatings of Chinese men in Cheyenne, Laramie and Rawlins. Threatening posters turned up in the railroad towns warning the Chinese to leave Wyoming Territory or else. Company officials ignored these signs as well as direct warnings from the union.
On the morning of Sept. 2, 1885, a fight broke out between white and Chinese miners in the No. 6 mine in Rock Springs. Whites fatally wounded a Chinese miner with blows of a pick to the skull. A second Chinese was badly beaten. Finally a foreman arrived and ended the violence.
But instead of going back to work, the white miners went home and fetched guns, hatchets, knives and clubs. They gathered on the railroad tracks near the No. 6 mine, north of downtown and Chinatown. Some made an effort to calm things down, but most moved to the Knights of Labor hall, had a meeting and then went to the saloons, where miners from other mines began showing up as well. Sensing the increasing tension, the saloon owners closed their doors.
In Chinatown, it was a Chinese holiday. Many of the miners stayed home from work and were unaware of what was developing.
Shortly after noon, between 100 and 150 armed white men, mostly miners and railroad workers, convened again at the railroad tracks near the No. 6 mine. Many women and even children joined them. About two in the afternoon, the mob divided. Half moved toward Chinatown across a plank bridge over Bitter Creek. Others approached by the railroad bridge, leaving some behind at both bridges to prevent any nonwhites from leaving. Still others walked up the hill toward the No. 3 mine, north and on the other side of the tracks from Chinatown. Chinatown was nearly surrounded.
About the Author
Tom Rea lives in Casper, Wyo., where he is editor and co-founder, with the Wyoming State Historical Society, of WyoHistory.org. He worked for many years in the newspaper business, and his books include Bone Wars: The Excavation and Celebrity of Andrew Carnegie’s Dinosaur (University of Pittsburgh Press, 2001, 2004); Devil’s Gate: Owning the Land, Owning the Story (University of Oklahoma Press, 2006, 2012); The Hole in the Wall Ranch: A History (Pronghorn Press, 2010).