Chinatown had its revenge
Madera County Historical Society
This 1925 photograph of Sugar Pine was taken three years after fire destroyed the little mountain village and its Chinatown. Although Sugar Pine was rebuilt, its Chinatown never revived.
It is well known that lumber was pivotal in both the creation and growth of Madera County. The city of Madera even received its name from the industry. Between 1876 and 1933, lumber was harvested in the mountains and transported down the flume to the planing mill in Madera.
Throughout the life of Madera County’s lumber industry, three corporations succeeded one another in keeping the business alive. First there was the California Lumber Company, which built the first flume and then went bankrupt in 1878. Next came the Madera Flume and Trading Company, which ran the operation until the Madera Sugar Pine Company acquired its assets and began to improve them in 1899.
The Madera Sugar Pine Company revitalized the industry and soon created a need for additional workers. This was met with the influx of large numbers of Chinese laborers in and near the company town of Sugar Pine in the mountains. To house these workers, the company turned an area just below the sawmill into a Chinatown.
In time the Sugar Pine Chinatown had a “boss” who acted as a labor contractor, supplying the company with the necessary workers, who would descend upon the area each spring from places like Madera, Borden, and Fresno. These Asian workers were said to appear “carrying their bedding, satchels, and crate after crate of white chickens. When liberated, the fowl scattered over the surrounding hills, cackling loudly enough to rival their straw-hatted owners.”
While the Chinese workers supplied much of the vital labor needs of the company, they were not viewed with complete benevolence by the Anglo community. To many, the alleged gambling dens, opium smoking, back-room saloons, and mysterious day and nighttime activities both fascinated and revolted the local citizens.
By 1922, the company decided to hire no more Chinese workers. Changes in immigration policies made Mexican workers readily available and doomed Sugar Pine’s Chinatown. The lumber company then determined to torch the group of shacks that had been constructed so near the flume.
Seven inches of snow fell the night before the firebugs arrived to perform their task, and the thermometer was down to eight degrees above zero. Such conditions were ready made for the burning of Sugar Pine’s old Chinatown, since the flume and other structures would not be placed in danger.
The Madera Mercury reported that officials of the Madera Sugar Pine Company were relieved to be rid of the eyesore, “mainly on account of its unsanitary conditions.” The first match was lit, and started a fire that was a “spectacular sight.” As the flames went from one building to another, “myriad cockroaches and other bugs were driven out.” Within minutes, the Chinatown at Sugar Pine lay in ruins.
The destruction of the Madera Sugar Pine Lumber Company’s old Chinatown was complete. As one author put it, “The musty odor of incense, the fan-tan games, and sing-song chatter of the Chinese...disappeared.” The company had done its work well.
There was, however, a touch of irony in the burning of the Sugar Pine Chinatown. On January 29, 1922, the headlines of the Madera Mercury read, “Chinatown at Sugar Pine is Pile of Ashes.” Eight months later the same paper ran the following headlines: “Sugar Pine Blaze Causes $2,125,000 Damage in Forest.” “Hundreds Made Homeless as Fire Sweeps Through Camp.” In the same year that Sugar Pine’s Chinatown was deliberately destroyed by fire, flames accidentally consumed the rest of the town.
Unlike its Chinatown, Sugar Pine was quickly rebuilt. Portable buildings and provisions were sent to the site. A temporary store, supply warehouse, and dining hall were set up. A movable sawmill was rushed from Los Angeles and began to turn out lumber with which to rebuild the town. Soon the Madera Sugar Pine Company resumed full operations, and its people went on with their lives.
With the burning of the Sugar Pine Chinatown, most of the Chinese throughout the hill country left. Even Madera’s Chinatown was emptied by this time. Conditions had changed, and as with all people everywhere, Sugar Pine’s Chinese pioneers harkened to the call of economic opportunity elsewhere.
They left, however, more than a pile of ashes. They left a legacy of toil that helped to transform Madera County into what it is today. The Sugar Pine Chinatown may have been destroyed, but the memory of its inhabitants still survives.