The summer of 1877 was really a bad one in California, and it all came to a peak on an eventful July night in San Francisco.
The jobless numbered in the thousands in California and white workers blamed the Chinese immigrants. The great railroad construction days were over. The thousands of young Chinese laborers, who had been laying the tracks and blasting holes for tunnels in the Sierra had come to the cities to find jobs.
But there were other reasons for the lack of jobs. A depression that started in Europe had reached the shores of the United States. The failure of the big American bank Jay Cooke and Co. set off a chain reaction of other bank failures. The price of wheat fell. Wages were cut. There was a big railroad strike in Pennsylvania, which evoked supporters all over the country, especially in California.
On July 23, 1877, the Workingmen's Party got a permit to hold a meeting in the sandlot across from City Hall. The purpose was to show support for the railroad strikers.
"Serious trouble is considered possible, if not probable during the night. A meeting of working men in the open air at the new City Hall was largely attended. Some decidedly incendiary resolutions have been offered, and the speakers were interrupted in their remarks concerning the Eastern labor troubles by cries of 'How about the Chinese question?'" reported the Sacramento Union from a telegraph dispatch it got from San Francisco.
The paper reported that 10,000 had shown up at the meeting. An anti-Chinese faction went on a rampage.
"The crowd wrecked a Chinese wash house in the neighborhood. The mass of the throng dispersed towards their homes, but several hundred banding together, proceeded to the corner of Geary and Leavenworth streets, which is occupied by a two-story frame building, containing a Chinese laundry and fruit store on the ground floor and the residence of a family above. The crowd attacked the Chinese place, broke the street lamps and set the building on fire. ... They then came down Geary street to Dupont (Grant), with the evident intention of raiding the Chinese quarter. On their way they attacked and cleaned out a number of Chinese wash houses. By the time they reached Dupont street they numbered 500 or 600."
The rioting continued for two days.
On July 24 a group of businessmen headed by William T. Coleman organized the Committee of Public Safety. Coleman asked the federal government for help. Five naval vessels from Mare Island with 1,700 rifles from the Benicia arsenal were sent for Coleman's use. He decided it would be too dangerous to issue the guns to the 6,000 men who had volunteered to quell the riots. Most of these men got armed with pick handles and gained the name of the Pick-Handle Brigade.
On July 25 more Chinese wash houses were broken into. Clothing was stolen. The crowd threatened to burn down the Mission Woolen Mills and the docks of the Pacific Mail Steamship Co., whose ships were the way Chinese immigrants arrived.
Coleman's brigade worked with the San Francisco police and the docks were saved. However, four people had been killed. Twenty Chinese laundries had been destroyed. Damages to Chinese businesses totaled $100,000. And the problems for the Chinese immigrants got worse.
Days Gone By appears on Sundays. Contact Nilda Rego at firstname.lastname@example.org.