The Joss House at Weaverville

Joss bridge

The 1840s marked a tumultuous time in Chinese history as civil war, floods and famine plagued the Chinese countryside. When the news of the 1848 gold discoveries reached China, thousands of men emigrated to Gam Saan (Gold Mountain), as they called California. After procuring supplies in San Francisco, Chinese miners headed in droves to the gold mining areas. Hard workers, Chinese placer-mined at the surface and dug hard-rock mines at what are now state parks, including Plumas-Eureka, Malakoff Diggins, Picacho, Bodie and Marshall Gold Discovery at Coloma.

Many Chinese set out to obtain as much gold as possible and return to their families in China with their newfound wealth, while others wanted to stay in this new country of opportunity. Miners thought to be carrying gold nuggets or dust were often robbed, so successful Chinese miners would often melt down their gold to make eating utensils or pots and cover them with soot. If they returned to China, they remelted the items to recover the gold.

At the mines, white miners initially tolerated the presence of the Chinese immigrants, as long as they stayed away from richer gold claims. However, dwindling gold deposits and the large influx of Chinese miners quickly embittered white Euro-Americans, leading to violent racial persecution. In 1850, the California legislature imposed a $20 monthly tax on �foreign miners.� The tax was repealed the following year but reinstituted in 1852, this time at $4 monthly. However, most miners made only about $6 each month, so many returned to China. Those who stayed faced collectors who used force to collect unpaid taxes, claimed property of miners unable to pay, and assaulted miners fleeing from the collectors. An 1862 California Legislature bulletin noted that 11 of 88 reported slain Chinese miners were killed by Foreign Miner�s Tax agents. Starting in 1852, mining towns such as Foster Bar, Horseshoe Bar and Marysville passed town resolutions expelling Chinese immigrants.

As expulsion laws forced the Chinese to flee other mining towns throughout California, Weaverville�s Chinese population grew. Weaverville, established in 1850 in Northeastern California, was set among the rugged, heavily forested terrain of what are now called the Trinity Mountains. Named after prospector George Weaver, the town�s population swelled after Major Pierson B. Reading found gold at two nearby sites in Clear Creek and in the Trinity River in 1848.

Weaverville�s first settlers came from the Mississippi Valley, followed by German and Dutch immigrants. Eager to mine the Trinity River, many Chinese had arrived in Weaverville by 1853. Chinese miners fared well in the treacherous mining conditions of the fast-flowing river, from which they built wooden water channels known as flumes. While heavy business losses plagued Euro-American mining companies during the 1856 mining season, Chinese miners erected six mining flumes along the river. By 1860, more than 1,500 Chinese immigrants inhabited Weaverville, constructing their own Chinatown neighborhood and erecting a Taoist temple, or Joss House. As the Chinese population expanded, rival Chinese Tong groups vied for dominance in the community. In 1854, mining claim disputes and gambling hall skirmishes between the Punti Tongs and Hakka Tongs escalated into a full-scale battle, leaving 8 dead and 20 wounded.

Joss altar

Weaverville Joss House State Historic Park features the oldest continuously used Taoist temple in California. Won Lim Miao or �Temple Amongst the Forest beneath the Clouds� was named for the magnificent scenery of Trinity County. Built around 1853, the temple houses some furnishings imported directly from China. After arriving in San Francisco, the furnishings traveled along the Sacramento River to Colusa, then were packed on a mule train for the 150-mile trek to Weaverville. After fires destroyed the Joss House in 1861 and 1863, reconstruction to the present-day temple began in 1874. The eventual depletion of gold deposits resulted in an exodus of much of Weaverville�s Chinese population, causing the temple to fall into disrepair.

The Weaverville Chamber of Commerce supported initial rehabilitation plans for the Joss House. After a 1934 theft of some of the temple�s valuables, Moon Lim Lee, grandson of one of the temple�s founding contributors, was appointed as trustee for the temple. The Joss House was classified as a California state historic park in 1956; after extensive renovations, it was opened to the public the following year. The interior and exterior of the Joss House remain strikingly similar to its 1874 reconstruction. Bright blue paint covers the temple�s entrance, symbolizing the sky and heaven. The fish ornaments are fashioned after Chow Win Dragon Fishes, symbolically protecting the building from fire. A high wooden gate before the Temple�s entrance doors keeps out evil spirits. The interior of the temple is furnished with clay statues of male and female deities, a praying altar, glass paintings and an offering table. Locals still worship and hold celebrations here. The temple was listed as California Historical Landmark #709 in 1959.