Pioche, Nevada was a mining town. Rough and ready it was. Ready for a fight, and gunfights happened regularly in front of businesses that sit on the steep hills of Main Street.
Pioche in its earliest days was equal to any others that could be mentioned in the days of the Old West. It was a time when the six-shooter was the law, and it spoke often.
Professor Phillip Earl, formerly of the Nevada Historical Society, notes as a mining town, even an up-and-coming one, shortly after the Civil War and into the early 1870s, there was a new and different group of settlers making their way into Lincoln County: Chinese immigrants. Many came from the goldfields of California, nearly played out by this time. And they came from the Chinatown settlements in San Francisco, plus those along the American River in California, eastward into the Sierra Nevadas.
A good many had worked on the Central Pacific Railroad that pushed through the Sierra Nevadas to make the transcontinental railroad in 1869. With the next gold and silver strike being in the mountains of eastern Nevada shortly thereafter, they came here too.
The Chinese lived their own lifestyle in a small area of downtown Pioche, operating restaurants, laundries and import businesses.
Although described by the Pioche Daily Record as “industrious, frugal, cheerful, and quiet workers, who stayed on the job and worked for less than Caucasians,” the Chinese were limited in employment opportunities. Still, their little sub-community flourished and by the 1870 census, there were twenty-three Chinese listed in the records for the town of Pioche.
Federal and state regulations passed in 1873 stated that only persons who held natural U.S. citizenship or who filed with the intent to become citizens, could lay claim to a mine. Most Chinese, while able to be residents of Nevada, were not U.S. citizens, and therefore could not be mine owners. In addition, they could only work in the mines at the expressed permission of the owner, or work on claims that had been abandoned by the white miners.
Nonetheless, the people of Pioche did support the Chinese businesses that grew up in a sort of little Chinatown.
For the most part, the Chinese kept to themselves, living in a kind of world of their own, a Chinatown section located just below where the Pioche branch of the Nevada Bank and Trust building used to be.
For the most part, the white residents of Pioche preferred the Chinese keep to themselves, which they usually did. But, at the same time, some of the Chinese merchants were considered highly respected members of the community.
They operated several stores, at least one laundry and a few casinos and opium dens.
Many of the white residents of Pioche undoubtedly visited the opium dens from time to time, but kept it somewhat hush hush.
That was something you only talked about behind closed doors. The use of opium was considered sinful in many circles, in particular, among the more religious members of the community.
Small cells where the drug was purchased and used were plentiful in Chinatown. An article by the editor of the Pioche Daily Record in 1872 notes he saw “several of these Celestials engaged in a game of casino,” while others he saw were lying on rude bunks “enjoying the forgetfulness induced by the use of opium.”
A great game for the many of the young boys in Pioche, girls, too, if they dared, was to sneak by the opium dens, any time of night, with the hope to peek in and see what they could. Was anyone they knew in there?
The general population of Lincoln County declined in the decade between 1870 – 1880, from 2,965 to 2,637, yet the Chinese population increased during the same time from 23 to 100.
Author Mary Ellen Sadovich wrote in her book “Black Mountain Graphics” about the respect some of the Chinese residents had gained in Pioche. One such person was Wo Ling, owner of the Ing Ching Lunz store. In 1887, Ling returned to China for a visit. During his absence, the U.S. Congress passed the Scott Act, which prohibited the return of Chinese laborers to the United States unless they had families in the states or owned property valued at more than $1,000.
Sadovich notes Wo Ling tried to return to Pioche but was detained in San Francisco by the Bureau of Immigration.
His only recourse was to request Lincoln County officials issue an affidavit attesting to Ling’s eligibility for re-entry into the United States. These officials, well known for their support of the anti-Chinese movement in Nevada, nonetheless complied with the request and agreed to support Ling’s cause. After being detained for nearly a month, Ling was released and allowed to return to Pioche.