Last summer, Richard Boulware was looking through some photos that his brother, John, had purchased at an estate sale. The photos were all taken in the small Park County town of Como in the 1890s, when it was an important transfer point on the Denver, South Park & Pacific Railroad.
One photo immediately caught Richard's attention. It showed the smoldering ruins of a house near the center of town, with gray smoke billowing into a bleak sky. On the back, in graceful cursive that looks as though it might have been written by a woman, was the date, Spring 1893, and the words "Burning out the Chinamen. An outrage. I was for the Chinamen."
Richard is an amateur historian who uncovered a forgotten railroad town along the South Platte River in 1999 ("Smelter Skelter," July 26, 2001), but he was startled by the picture in his hands.
"I'd never heard of a race war to 'burn out the Chinamen,'" he says. "I was stunned."
What the Boulware brothers had come across was evidence of one of the uglier but least-known chapters in Colorado history. In the 1880s and 1890s, Chinese immigrants were greatly feared here. Because they were willing to work for less money than the Italian and German immigrants who had crowded into the state's mining camps, the Chinese were subjected to random violence by white workers. Sensationalist newspaper coverage of the "Mongolian invasion" helped to incite racist mobs across Colorado, and the Chinese workers in Como were among their victims.
"There was a big rivalry between the Chinese and Italians in Como," says John, who runs John Boulware Antiques on South Broadway. "There were a couple of mines up there. One had Italians and the other was Chinese. Because they were paying the Chinese less money, the Italians were afraid of losing their jobs. That's how it got started -- it was over wages and working conditions. Then they burned them out of there."
The photographs have changed hands several times, so John doesn't know the name of the Como family who originally sold them. The photo of the house was included with a half-dozen other images, including shots of downtown Como, an overview of the community from a hill above town, and a photo of Breckenridge. (The images were sold again two months ago, but not before Richard scanned them into his computer.)
"Chinese laborers were usually recruited in China by representatives of American companies," says Tom Noel, professor of Colorado history at the University of Colorado at Denver. In California and other states, the immigrants often did the dangerous work of building new railroads, but in Colorado they largely worked as miners or in laundries and restaurants.
"They had agents in China who worked with the mine owners," Noel adds. "They told them there were jobs here."
In 1893, the year the picture was taken, Colorado was hit hard when the price of silver collapsed. Thousands of miners lost their jobs, which undoubtedly played a part in the racial violence in Como.
"Jobs were harder to come by, and workers felt particularly threatened by people willing to work for less," says Noel. "The mine owners wanted the most docile employees. The Irish and Italians were more union-minded." Because the Italian workers traditionally took the lowest-level jobs, they may have felt especially vulnerable.
William Wei, who teaches Asian-American history at the University of Colorado at Boulder, is writing a book about the Asian experience in Colorado. The burning of the Como house was the last act of a long-running feud between Italian and Chinese coal miners, he says. "The Chinese workers came into competition with miners from southern Italy who had preceded them. They basically expelled the Chinese."
In a 1995, Wei wrote a paper on the anti-Chinese movement in Colorado in which he argued that the number of Chinese workers in the state was too small to be a significant threat to white workers. (The Chinese population probably peaked at about 1,000.) However, he says, fear of an influx of Chinese from California who were willing to work for poverty wages was used by politicians to gain support from working-class whites struggling to survive.
Sadly, the anti-Chinese violence in Como was commonplace throughout the West. Denver's own Chinatown was destroyed in an 1880 race riot that culminated in a lynching on October 31. That evening, a crowd of 3,000 men and boys chanting "The Chinese must go!" flooded the area between Wazee and Blake and 15th and 17th streets. The area was known as Hop Alley, named after the slang term for opium. The crowd attacked Chinese bystanders, burned down houses and looted stores. One Chinese man, who worked for a local laundry, was beaten to death and hung from a lamppost.
In his paper, Wei wrote that the victim was 28-year-old Look Young, who left behind a wife, father and mother in China -- all dependent on Look's support.
"The story is, a crowd got there and then re-hung him so they could get in on the fun," says Noel.
Hop Alley was next to Denver's red-light district, and Noel says many of the terrified Chinese immigrants were hidden by the "soiled doves" who worked in the brothels. The Chinese operated laundries and opium dens that were patronized by the prostitutes. Fearing further violence, Denver police kept 185 Chinese in the city jail for three days to shield them from the mob. All over Colorado, frightened Chinese immigrants hid. The four men arrested for Young's lynching were eventually acquitted. None of the Chinese storekeepers were ever compensated for their losses.
The Rocky Mountain News played a large role in the anti-Asian violence. The newspaper ran dozens of anti-Chinese articles in the 1880s, with headlines like "Can Paid Chinese Tools Cower the Workingmen?" Several of these articles refer to the "Chinese-Italian war" in Como.
At the time, the newspaper was owned by W.A.H. Loveland, a prominent Democrat who was working to defeat Republican president James Garfield in the election of 1880. To stir up voters, Democrats accused Garfield of being "pro-Chinese" and toadying to capitalists who sought cheap labor. "Our workingmen are becoming furiously indignant at the Chinese influx and some of the more hot headed are anxious to organize and drive out every Chinaman before it is too late," wrote the newspaper in 1880. "Republican hirelings will find out that the workingmen who are determined to keep the Chinese from ruining them will not be intimidated."
On October 23, 1880, just days before the riot in Denver, the News ran this headline on its front page: "John Chinaman. The Pest of the Pacific Coast. The Heathen Who Have Ruined California, And are Now Slowly Invading Colorado. Some Interesting Facts About the Celestials, And the Effect They Have Upon Labor. Workmen Starving and Women Following Prostitution, Through the Competition of the Wily Heathen."
In 1882, Congress passed the Chinese Exclusion Act, which prohibited any further immigration from China and prevented those already here from becoming naturalized citizens. The law wasn't repealed until 1943.
Denver's Chinatown eventually disappeared, and it would be nearly a century before the state once again had a growing Asian population. Individual Chinese managed to make lives for themselves in towns throughout Colorado, but the Chinese population withered.
"There were a few Chinese around, but no substantial Chinatown," says Noel. "We never had a substantial Asian population again until recently."
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