National Register of Historic Places in Sacramento County, California

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National Register #91000297
Isleton Chinese and Japanese Commercial Districts
Bounded by River Road and Union, East and H Streets
Isleton
Founded 1874

Founded in 1874 by Josiah Pool, Isleton's growth has always been tied to land reclamation and agricultural development, notably sugar beets.

Chinese labor was essential in the construction of levees and the reclamation of Andrus and other Delta islands. Isleton's Chinatown was begun by 1878 on land rented from J. Gardiner and consisted of a contract labor office and businesses designed to meet the needs of the workers who came into the town on their days off. The 1880 federal census recorded 880 Chinese in the town of Isleton, most working as farmers or farm laborers. By the 1890s the Chinese district of town was well-established with 35 residences, four stores, a laundry, and other businesses. The local newspaper in 1894 reported that the residents were constructing a "joss house" in town and that tong hatchet men were using the quarter as a temporary refuge from police raids in San Francisco and other cities.

In the late 19th century, the Chinese quarters of Isleton began to swell with Japanese workers. The Japanese came into the region partially in response to the need for laborers to replace the dwindling numbers of Chinese and partially because of the asparagus boom that began in the Delta after 1895. Along with the workers came merchants who established businesses in the eastern section of the Chinatown to serve the growing numbers of Japanese transient workers.

The Asian district of town grew rapidly during the first quarter of the twentieth century, aided by the construction of several asparagus canneries and the continued agricultural prosperity. In 1910 there were six asparagus canneries between Courtland and Rio Vista and Chinese and Japanese Americans supplied over 90 percent of the labor force. Three of the canneries were located in Isleton. In addition, Asian-American workers planted, maintained and harvested the majority of the asparagus and other crops grown in the region.

The Asian quarter burned down in 1915 but was immediately rebuilt into two separate sections, Chinese and Japanese. Both included boarding houses, rooms, and hotels that housed countrymen working in the canneries or nearby fields, as well as restaurants, grocery stores, soft drink parlors or saloons, and other general businesses. In addition, numerous gambling halls, a "Joss" house, and the Bing Kung Tong building were present in the Chinese section. The Japanese section had several community bath houses, an Association meeting hall, and a movie theater. Aided by the agricultural boom that continued to focus on asparagus and potato production, the Asian population grew by leaps and bounds into the 1920s.

On May 31, 1926 catastrophe once again visited the district. According to newspaper accounts, a fire, started by a kerosene lamp, began at the west end of the district near the Asian school. Aided by fire hydrants that were rusted shut and by the fact that the majority of the men in town were out fishing due to a Memorial Day holiday, the conflagration spread virtually unchecked throughout the district. A reported 1,500 people lost their homes and belongings in the fire and the blaze devastated the entire Asian- American district of six square blocks, destroying 110 buildings.

The Asian-American population immediately began plans for reconstruction. The land owner, Gardiner Improvement Company, expressed plans to build several brick structures in the district as a deterrent to future fires (Sacramento Bee. June 1, 1926, page 1, column 1). Other buildings were also constructed with fire hazards in mind. While Gardiner built a few brick buildings, the majority of the structures were wood framed with tin siding garnered from the local Noah Adams Lumber Yard Company.

Many of the buildings were constructed by Dutch and German carpenters hired by the local lumberyard. Other buildings were built by Chinese American and Japanese American carpenters and laborers.

From 1926 until the outbreak of World War II in 1942, Isleton enjoyed prosperity, directly related to the asparagus and potato crops that dominated Delta agriculture and to the canneries constructed in the region. By 1929 there were ten canneries operating between Rio Vista and Courtland; three of these were in Isleton. Isleton had the distinction of having the only Chinese American-built and owned cannery, one that exclusively hired Asians. The success of the canneries, even during the 1930s depression era, was reflected in the stable and growing Asian-American population that frequented the district's businesses.

When World War II broke out, Isleton was a viable agricultural community and the Asian district was a bustling with businesses owned by the Japanese American and Chinese American merchants and their families. With the bombing of Pearl Harbor in December, 1941, however, the Asian American district underwent a dramatic change. There was growing tension between the two sections of the district. This was particularly evident among the children (Chinn, B. 1990). The incarceration of the entire Japanese American population in May, 1942, helped bring about a decline in the significance of the district.

Although a few Japanese returned to Isleton following the war, they found they had little to return to and soon left. Their community Buddhist church, finished in 1934, had been looted and heavily damaged. The members sold the building and disbanded, joining the Walnut Grove Buddhist Church congregation (Kato et al. 1974:337-228). The majority of the buildings in the old Japanese American section were occupied by other Asians or Mexican workers, and the original occupants could not recoup their losses. Only one Japanese American family remained in town in the 1950s but left Isleton in the early 1960s (Chinn, B. 1990).

Today, the district retains the physical feel of the 1920s and 1930s boom period. The gambling halls and Bing Kung Tong buildings retain their flagpoles and Chinese architectural elements. Asian characters are present on a few of the old buildings, particularly in the Chinese section.

The Quong Wo Sing Company, owners of the local fish bait and grocery store, has been in Isleton since the 1880s and is still owned and operated by the same family. These connections to the past, combined with the high integrity of the buildings and the well-maintained vegetable and flower gardens, are reminders of another time when the streets bustled with activity every Saturday night and Sunday and the town provided a welcome respite from the hard physical demands of cannery and farm work. All of the buildings have cohesive design elements, workmanship, material, and associations and formed the core of the community in the past. The undeveloped nature of the district and the simplicity of the structures are examples of a cohesive, pre-World War II Asian American district in a rural, agriculturally-oriented community.

Adapted from the NRHP nomination submitted in 1991.

 

Name Year Address Remarks Sort Address Sort Name
Garage19263 Main StreetChinese sectionMain 0003Garage
Store19357 Main StreetChinese sectionMain 0007Store
Store192611 Main StreetChinese sectionMain 0011Store
Barber Ship and Pool Hall192613 Main StreetChinese sectionMain 0013Barber Ship and Pool Hall
Store192615 Main StreetChinese sectionMain 0015Store
Store192617 Main StreetChinese sectionMain 0017Store
Store192621 Main StreetChinese sectionMain 0021Store
Store192623 Main StreetChinese sectionMain 0023Store
Bing Rung Tong Building192627 Main StreetChinese section. One of the few buildings in the district that was built by Chinese carpenters and laborers, as opposed to local contractors.Main 0027Bing Rung Tong Building
Store192631 Main StreetChinese sectionMain 0031Store
Store192633 Main StreetChinese sectionMain 0033Store
Store192636 Main StreetChinese sectionMain 0036Store
Restaurant192626 Main StreetChinese sectionMain 0026Restaurant
Store192624 Main StreetChinese sectionMain 0024Store
Restaurant192622 Main StreetChinese sectionMain 0022Restaurant
Residence192618 Main StreetChinese sectionMain 0018Residence
Store192616 Main StreetChinese sectionMain 0016Store
Store192614 Main StreetChinese sectionMain 0014Store
Barber Shop and Garage192612 Main StreetChinese sectionMain 0012Barber Shop and Garage
Commercial194710 Main StreetChinese sectionMain 0010Commercial
Union Ice House19262 Main StreetChinese sectionMain 0002Union Ice House
Firehouse192635 Main StreetJapanese sectionMain 0035Firehouse
Residence192637 Main StreetJapanese sectionMain 0037Residence
Residence192641 Main StreetJapanese sectionMain 0041Residence
Residence192643 Main StreetJapanese sectionMain 0043Residence
Residence192645 Main StreetJapanese sectionMain 0045Residence
Hotel192647 Main StreetJapanese sectionMain 0047Hotel
Residence192661 Main StreetJapanese sectionMain 0061Residence
Garage192663 Main StreetJapanese sectionMain 0063Garage
Office Building192966 Main StreetJapanese sectionMain 0066Office Building
Residence192656 Main StreetJapanese sectionMain 0056Residence
Residence192654 Main StreetJapanese sectionMain 0054Residence
Restaurant192650 Main StreetJapanese sectionMain 0050Restaurant
Restaurant192648 Main StreetJapanese sectionMain 0048Restaurant
Card Room and Casino192646 Main StreetJapanese sectionMain 0046Card Room and Casino
Store192646 Main StreetJapanese sectionMain 0046Store
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