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3 Places to Learn About Chinese History in Yosemite

In the late 1800s, Chinese immigrants faced bitter winters, grueling working conditions and intense racism to help build Yosemite and the West.

When most of us think of Yosemite’s history, there’s a few figures that come to mind: John Muir, Ansel Adams, Royal Robbins. While these white men were foundational to building the park and its culture we see today, there’s an often forgotten piece of park history that has its own set of important historical figures. On your next trip to Yosemite, there’s three places worth visiting that help tell the story of the Chinese immigrants and Chinese Americans who helped build the park: Tioga Road, Washburn Trail and the Chinese laundry building.

In 1915 a group of important politicians and businessmen embarked on a two-week trek through Sequoia National Park. Led by Stephen Mather, this expedition had one goal: convince these influential men of the merits of national parks and how they needed a dedicated agency to oversee them.

Tie Sing poses top center with the Mather Mountain Party c1915 (Photo: NatGeo/Dr. Gilbert H. Grosvenor, Public Domain)

The party camped under giant sequoias, climbed Moro Rock, rode through canyons and even submitted Mt. Whitney. While the area’s incredible natural beauty charmed the group members, the expedition was made even more magical by a Chinese American named Tie Sing.

Sing had made a name for himself as the head chef of the U.S. Geological Survey. So much so that in 1899, a peak on the border of Yosemite had been named after him.

He was the chef on Mather’s “Mountain Party” and Mather’s assistant, Horace Albright, documented Sing’s incredible cooking from plum pudding to fried chicken to venison. Sing was an ingenious backcountry cook and used techniques like letting bread rise during the day close to the bodies of pack mules to keep it warm and wrapping meat in wet newspaper to keep it cool. Sing kept the members of the party well-fed and contributed to the experience that convinced these influential men to eventually create the National Park Service.

Sing was just one of scores of Chinese Americans and Chinese immigrants who helped to build Yosemite and the rest of the West.

How Chinese Immigrants Helped Build Yosemite

In the 1840s, many Chinese left their home country thanks to environmental disaster and social upheaval. Many headed to California to seek a better life with other hopeful miners in the Gold Rush until California’s 1850 Foreign Miners’ Tax made gold mining expensive. Many immigrants searched for other work. For Chinese immigrants this included cooking, like Sing, laundry and manual labor.

Today Yosemite’s Tioga Road, which goes up and over 9,943-foot Tioga Pass, closes to vehicle traffic each winter as road conditions get harrowing when the snow flies. The mountainous road that leads up and over the Sierra Nevada is impressive whether you know its history or not. When you learn that its predecessor was built in 18 weeks with just hand tools, it becomes even more impressive. Add in the fact that this feat was done in winter and it becomes truly stunning.

Tioga Road in Yosemite National Park
Tioga Road in Yosemite National Park (Photo: Getty Images)

The Great Sierra Wagon Road, which became Tioga Road, was built in the 1880s by 250 Chinese immigrants and 90 European-American laborers in 130 days. They blasted their way through rock, built retaining walls and used shovels and handpicks.

How to See It: From Yosemite Valley take Big Oak Flat Road to Tioga Road and turn right to go up and over the pass. Be sure to stop at Olmstead Point and Tenaya Lake to take in the views. Tioga Road is usually open late May through late October.

Chinese workers also built the old Washburn Road, which is now the Washburn Trail between Wawona and Mariposa Grove.

How to See It: Park at the Mariposa Grove Welcome Plaza and hike the 2-mile Washburn Trail to the Mariposa Grove of Giant Sequoias. Hike one of several loops through the grove before either returning on the trail or taking the free shuttle back to your car.

The Transcontinental Railroad Race

North of Yosemite, Chinese immigrants were also vital in connecting the country by building the first trans-continental railroad, stretching from San Francisco to Council Bluffs, Iowa along the Missouri River. Beginning in 1863, two companies began racing to build this marvel. The Central Pacific Railroad started from Sacramento, moving east and the Union Pacific Railroad started from Council Bluffs, moving west. The Central Pacific arguably had the more difficult task, needing to tunnel through the Sierra Nevada mountains in order to head east.

Starting in 1865, the Central Pacific Railroad used a contracting firm to bring over somewhere between 10-15,000 Chinese immigrants from the Guangzhou province to act as cheap labor to build the railroads when they struggled to find white laborers willing to take the job. The work was horribly grueling. Workers blasted and dug 15 tunnels through solid granite, through winter snow and summer sun. They endured blasting accidents, avalanches and 12-hour work days, six days a week. Deaths and injuries were rarely documented so it’s unclear just how many Chinese workers died to build the railroads but some estimates put the number at more than 1,000. Despite risking their lives, Chinese immigrants were still paid significantly less, and received fewer benefits, than their white counterparts, according to Stanford’s Chinese Railroad Workers in North America Project.

ChineThe Central Pacific line eventually was completed up and over the Sierra Nevada mountains at the infamous 7,000-foot Donner Pass and in May 1869 the two railroads met at Promontory Summit in Utah, 66 miles northwest of Salt Lake City. This new railroad linked up with established routes east of the Missouri River, completing the first railroad that ran from coast to coast, revolutionizing America. The new railroad made transport of goods, as well as settlement in the West much easier.

Despite the country’s first trans-continental railroad being literally built on the backs of Chinese laborers, Chinese immigrants began to feel the effects of intense racism. In 1882, the Chinese Exclusion Act was signed by President Arthur, prohibiting the immigration of all Chinese laborers for 10 years. This was the first U.S. law ever implemented specifically banning immigration from one ethnic group or nation.

The impact Chinese immigrants had in building important parts of the West is one that’s often lost in time. Much of the Yosemite history would have stayed lost had it not been for one park ranger, Yenyen Chan. She did much of the research to uncover the vital role Chinese immigrants played in building Yosemite. Her work resulted in the Chinese laundry building near Wawona being restored and new educational exhibits telling the history of these immigrants in building the park we see today.

How to See It: Visit the Yosemite History Center in Wawona spring through fall to walk around more than 10 historic buildings that tell the history of the park. One of these is the Chinese laundry building, which you can go inside.

As you visit Yosemite Valley and Tioga Pass, take a moment to appreciate the deep history that remains quietly hidden in the park.