The Coburn Mystery: Chapter 47

Ah Gee was a Chinese servant employed by the Coburns, and other Asian men worked at the nearby lumber mills, in the Gazos, for example. On the South Coast they felt the sting of discrimination less than they did in San Francisco where feeling taunted was a part of daily life. They could not testify in court against a white man and they could not vote.

Asians were sighted on the South Coast as early as the 1870s. Colonel Albert S. Evans, author of A La California , observed Chinese working with Indians digging up potatoes in the fields surrounding Pescadero.

Many Chinese found their niche in the laundry business, and the 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act aimed its poison arrow at their success. They didn’t deliver folded, clean clothes by horse and carriage. Instead laundry baskets were suspended on a pole that was balanced on their shoulders.

Lawmakers came up with a most unusual, new licensing tax that punished the Chinese for their delivery method. It became a misdemeanor to carry baskets as I described.

This led to more Chinese seeking safety in Pescadero. When an angry anti-Chinese organizer from San Jose came to the village to try to rally the locals, he was sent away disillusioned. Some 20 Pescaderans listened to what the man had to say at the Union Hall, but nobody acted on his words.

The new Chinese residents opened laundries, with the hotels their biggest customers. No one had the patience to learn the foreign language so they gave the businesses phonetic names like “Gee Chong Sing Wash House” and “Ah Yick’s Wash House.” The “Tuck Lung and Co.” was located behind the Swanton House.

Their work was so appreciated that when the laundries closed for a day or a week, the locals complained bitterly.

The laundry owners wanted to please their clients in Pescadero. On one occasion when the locals returned from celebrating the Fourth of July at Pebble Beach in the 1880s, they were treated to an encore by the employees of the Gee Chong Sing Wash House.

South of town some 150 Chinese workers did grading work for the Gazos Creek “railroad.” They were on scene when two bulky prairie schooner wagons drawn by 16 mules (brought in from a Nevada quartz mine) arrived to haul lumber and railroad ties from the mill to Pigeon Point. The big wagons were too clumsy for the narrow coastal mountain trails and finally rolled away, out of control, down a steep hill.

Most of the names given the Chinese tell you how well they were regarded. The boss at the Gazos Mill, at one point empowered to hire 600 men, was called “Goo Luck.” The Gazos Gulch was actually a stopover, a stage stop on the Pescadero-Santa Cruz route. There was a post office, store and “whiskey mill.”

The mill was producing pickets and railroad ties for the Southern Pacific–as well as 55,000 feet of shingles, all of it to be shipped from Pigeon Point to San Francisco. In the end the old-fashioned chute at Pigeon Point couldn’t handle the volume and the mill lost a lot of money on the deal, at the same time striking a blow at Pescadero’s fragile economy. Then, in 1885 a terrific southeast gale destroyed the chute and warehouse belonging to Loren Coburn.

Life was not getting easier for the South Coast Chinese. A year before bad weather swept away the Pigeon Point chute, the Chinese laundry behind the Swanton House burned to the ground. The village didn’t have an organized fire department and the three fire extinguishers were not much help. It was said that all that remained of the Tuck Lung laundry was a statute of Buddha, “and it was ruthlessly torn from his perch by young ruffians.”

As fast as the Chinese had come to Pescadero, they were gone again, all except Ah Gee, the servant who worked for Loren Coburn.

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