Chinese Riot

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Rock Springs, September 1885


From History of Union Pacific Coal Mines, 1868-1940

A handwritten transcription of this chapter is in the files

of the Sheridan County Fulmer Public Library

In many ways the history of Rock Springs is like that of a dozen other mining towns that you could name, neither better, not worse. A pitifully small number of “God-fearing” clergymen, Catholic and Protestant, supported and sustained by a few spiritually minded men and women, did their best to combat the rude temptations of the town, while the open saloon continued to compete with the gambling den for the dollars that the mothers and little children needed for food and clothing, and up “on the hill,” the noise of a rickety piano joined with the obscenity of fallen women. So far it might be the story of Butte City, Helena, Denver, Deadwood or a host of other old western mining towns.

But there is one unique blot in Rocks Springs’ past that is solely and wholly her own, reminding her of a day of violence and black injustice, when the blood of innocent men soaked her soil and the stench of burning flesh rose from smoking ruins. That day is Wednesday, September 2, 1885, the day of the Chinese riot and massacre.

Chinese workmen, who were to be the focal point for so much bitterness and wrath on the part of the white miners, were not brought to the town until November of 1875. As is to be expected, many rumors have been current ever since then, allegedly explaining why the Union Pacific Railroad chose to import the Chinese. The following account, written by Herman Glafcke, editor of the Cheyenne Leader and an outspoken opponent of Chinese labor, probably can be accepted as being as accurate as any that could be found. Editor Glafcke wrote:

In the autumn of 1875, the railroad company employed about five hundred white miners in their Rock Springs mines. The company paid a very liberal contract price per ton for mining coal. It enabled the men to earn from six to ten dollars per day, but they worked only about three days in the week.  

The winter was approaching, and the company required more coal. The writer was present when Mr. S. H. H. Clark, then General Superintendent, notified the miners that the company must have an increased supply of coal, requesting them, during the next three months, to so arrange their forces as to produce an increase in output of at least twenty-five per cent. The miners replied that they would consider the matter and report their decision to him in the evening. 

A meeting of the miners union, the Knights of Labor, was called and after a lengthy discussion it was decided to decline Mr. Clark’s request, and not to increase the output. A committee thereupon called upon the Superintendent and communicated to him the action of the union. Mr. Clark, naturally, expressed great surprise. Addressing the committee, he said, “Does your union propose to dictate to this company regarding the amount of coal it is to mine? Do you intend to limit our supply of coal from our own mines when we are ready to pay the regular price per ton heretofore agreed upon? Do you wish to cripple us in failing to give us an adequate supply of our own coal for the purpose of running our trains and to supply the needs of the people residing along the line of our road who depend on us for their necessary fuel?”  

“If that is your purpose, gentlemen,” continued Mr. Clark, “I herewith give you notice that in a very short time I will have a body of men here who will dig for us all the coal we want.” This ended the interview and as no further reply was received from the miners before Mr. Clark’s departure the following morning, that gentleman proceeded at once to provide ways and means to protect the interests of the company. Within sixty days three hundred Chinese laborers were at work in the Rock Springs mines. 

Clark obtained his laborers through Beckwith Quinn and Company, whose main officers were located in Evanston, and who operated general stores in all the railroad company’s various coal towns. The agreement with the store that functioned at Carbon was the same as that by which it was run in Rock Springs: the store did not pretend to be the official Union Pacific Railroad store, but merely had an agreement with the railroad company to handle the work of paying the miners’ wages. This arrangement proved a great convenience and economy for the railroad company and at the same time established a means for workmen in the union to obtain credit at the stores. The workmen could, if they wished, charge goods during the month and have the payments taken out of their pay.

The contract for the importation of the Chinese provided for the Beckwith Quinn and Company delivering to the Union Pacific Railroad Company at Ogden, Utah, as many Chinese laborers as the railroad company should require. The railroad agreed to employ the Chinese on its tracks during the summer when they were not needed in the mines.

In protest of this action, a large number of the white miners went on a strike. They were immediately discharged by the company and left town when it became evident that they were not to get their jobs back. Work was resumed after the strike with the employment of fifty white miners and one hundred and fifty Chinese. The remaining white miners were considerably chastened on seeing the summary manner in which the railroad company dealt with the strikers, and for some time there was no open trouble.

From the first the Chinese employed in the mines of the railroad company were given many privileges and they appropriated many others. This situation proved a continual source of bitterness and friction between the whites and the Chinese, but the coal company made it plain that the Chinese were under special protection and that injury to them would be punishable by discharge. The result was that, while the white miners might express themselves very forcibly about the Chinese in conversation with other whites, they were very circumspect in their contact with the Orientals.

The protection given the Chinese can best be illustrated by an anecdote. One of the mine clerks who had a very crooked nose became abusive to a yellow workman. The Chinese was quick to resent this treatment and called on the superintendent to protest. The latter tried to identify the offending clerk from the workman’s description, but the Chinese kept repeating, “I not know his name. I no savvy.” “Well, can’t you tell me something about what he looks like, so I can tell who he is?” the official insisted. The Chinaman’s face lighted up and he replied quickly, “Yes, Yes. I savvy now.”  And pushing his nose to one side with his forefinger, he said, “He allee same this fellah.” The superintendent instantly identified the clerk, sent for him and delivered a sharp reprimand.

Frequent incidents of this sort built up a deep resentment that was none the less bitter because it was of necessity partly concealed. More and more often, as the Chinese increased in number, would white tempers flare up, and sometimes fights would result. On one memorable occasion a number of Britishers who were engaged in rock work in one of the mines sent one of their number, a Scotchman, out before lunch to have their mine picks sharpened. It was not twelve o’clock, but the Chinese blacksmith was already busily engaged in eating his noonday meal. The Scotchman insisted that his picks be sharpened, pointing out to the blacksmith that the whistle had not yet blown. He put his picks in the forge and Wo Hung promptly threw them out of doors. This occurred three times, when Sandy, angered to the very core to be thus defied by a Chinaman, knocked the blacksmith down and choked him until he was unconscious. Then the miner hurriedly reentered the mine and rejoined his companions.

When the blacksmith returned to consciousness he set up a great outcry, and the superintendent and other members of the staff rushed into the blacksmith shop exclaiming, “What’s the matter with you, Wo? What’s happened?” Before Wo could reply, Sandy also rushed into the shop, exclaiming, “What’s the matter, Wo?” By this time Wo was beginning to feel better and glaring at the man, he said “You heap smart fellah, you heap savvy. What’s the mattah, you tellum bossee man what’s the mattah.” Naturally the officials turned to the miner for an explanation, but Sandy only shook his head doubtfully at him, and replied, “If you’re asking me, gentleman, I’d say the Chinaman has had an epileptic fit. You’ll notice his lips are purple, and he’s frothing at the mouth and he doesn’t talk rationally. Aye, I’m sure it’s an epileptic fit.” Then he launched into a long explanation of a similar case of epilepsy he had witnessed while working in West Virginia. The officials were unconvinced, but the Scotch miner stuck to his story and they were forced to give up their inquiry.

By 1885 the number of Oriental workmen had been increased to three hundred and thirty-one, as compared to one hundred and fifty white miners. The white men, who had maintained their union and had repeatedly agitated for the removal of the Chinese, were ready for a showdown. The [illegible] of the U. M. W. of A. mailed the following two letters from his office in Denver on August 28, 1885.

Beckwith Quinn and Company 

Evanston, Wyoming

Gentleman Sirs:

It pains me greatly to have to call your attention to the fact that the Chinese problem at Rock Springs is assuming a grave attitude. Were it not for the fact that I am sensible there will be an outburst of indignation against these people, I would not trouble you with correspondence upon the matter. But sensible as I am that unless a change is effected immediately there will be an outbreak, I respectfully notify you of the storm that is brewing. It is useless for me to beat about the bush in this matter. The consequences are inevitable. There is nearly seventy-five of our men lying idle at Rock Springs at the present time, while the Chinese are flooding in there by the score. This is not consistent with the principal you approved of whilst we were in Omaha. 

Our men at Carbon are deprived of their just share of work by reason of this unjust way of doing business. I shall hate to see a strike take place, but there seems no alternative to me at present. I am for peace first and always, but it must be such that will concede to our men a fair day’s wage for a fair day’s work! 

Comparing Carbon with Colorado Mines, they are far behind in the race, and Rock Springs’ are much farther still. Please let me here from you what it is that prompts you to this policy which you seem to be carrying into vigorous action. I shall respectfully await a reply. 


John L. Lewis

368 Larimer Street


D. O. Clark, Esq. 

Union Coal Department


My Dear Sir:

Although I have been laying sick in my bed for the past four weeks, I have been flooded with correspondence from Wyoming, the sum and substance of which is that the Chinese are having all the work they can do whilst our men at Rock Springs are left out in the cold. I understand that they are now working almost day and night, whilst Carbon men have worked but one day in the last two weeks. This makes the situation terribly aggravating and in spite of my efforts, will undoubtedly result in a severe struggle if longer continued. 

For God’s Sake do what you can to avoid this calamity. The pressure is more than I can bear. See that justice is done to all men at Carbon and the unemployed portion at Rock Springs. This is surely not consistent with the doctrine preached by Mr. Beckwith whilst at Omaha. 

Please let me here from you early.

Yours truly,

John L. Lewis

368 Larimer Street

Chinese Riot, Part 1 Chinese Riot, Part 2 Chinese Riot, Part 3

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