By Barbara Ching
Nestled in the heart of the Sacramento Delta, roughly midway between Sacramento and Stockton, lies the historic town of Locke. In terms of years, Locke is not very old, having been founded in 1915. However, it holds the distinction of being the only town in the United States to have been built entirely by Chinese. It is also believed to be the only Chinatown in the U.S. that has not been ravaged by fire. Historically speaking, the origins of Locke are closely tied to the nearby town of Walnut Grove. Here in the late 1800’s there was a sizeable Chinese community-at least 600 or 700 of the Chungshan dialect, and many more of the Toisan dialect.
Many of the first levees in the Delta were built by Chinese, who came to the region from the gold fields and the railroad gangs. They started coming in the 1850’s, and their numbers grew as it became known that the Delta was a fertile region for farming. In 15 building the levees to reclaim the land, they labored with pick and shovel, earning but
pennies for each wheelbarrow of earth that they moved.
Today the Sacramento Delta is a region that is largely unfamiliar to most Californians. The two longest rivers in the State, the San Joaquin and the Sacramento, meet here before flowing into the San Francisco Bay. The Delta is laced with over 1000 miles of waterways that encircle more than fifty islands. Miles of levees-man-made embankments parallel the waterways, thereby reclaiming thousands of acres of rich farmland from what would otherwise be marshland.
Although smaller than Chinatown in San Francisco, the Walnut Grove Chinatown was also a busy and bustling place. There were the necessary establishments of business such as markets, restaurants, dry goods stores, as well as the entertainment establishments that provided women, gambling, and other recreational pastimes. There were sufficient
Chinese in Walnut Grove to prompt a visit by Dr. Sun Yat Sen in his campaign to gain backing for his cause.
Similar to Chinatowns of the past. the one in Walnut Grove consisted of closely packed wooden structures lining a dirt road. In October of 1915, tragedy struck in the form of a fire that raged through Chinatown, fanned by strong winds. When it was over, nothing remained but ashes, and many Chinese who had been fortunate enough to achieve
some degree of prosperity found themselves once again homeless and penniless.
In the week following the fire. a rather significant decision was made by the Chungshan members of the Walnut Grove Chinatown. Plans were made to rebuild the community away from the old site. They selected a nearby region where the Southern Pacific Railroad had already established a shipping wharf. A few other buildings had also been erected a few years earlier by several Chinese, but not much else existed besides pear orchards. The Chinese approached the owner of the land, Mr. Locke, about their idea of building a new Chinatown and found him most agreeable. Since it was illegal for the Chinese to own land, Mr. Locke agreed to lease nine acres to the group.
It is interesting to note that some of the Caucasian citizens of Walnut Grove were unhappy to see a large segment of their Chinese community move away. In fact, they tried to talk the Chungshan people out of their original plan. However, the Chinese stuck by their decision, and soon a new Chinatown sprang up in the Locke orchards.
In the beginning, Locke was small and quiet, but as more Chinese moved to the Delta from San Francisco and adjoining areas, the town grew and prospered. By the late 1920’s, it was alive with businesses of all types-restaurants, drug stores, hardware stores, markets, and the usual recreational facilities. Before World War II, the population swelled to over a thousand, but after the war the Chinese residents gradually drifted away, lured by the big cities.
The Locke of today is a quiet town with a population of about 160 residents, fewer than half of whom are Chinese. The original buildings remain, giving the town a unique nostalgic charm. The property was recently acquired by Hong Kong interest, and it is speculated that there are plans to turn the community into a tourist attraction.