Locke Historic District: The Delta's Charming Chinatown
The Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta is a 700-mile-long maze of waterways that encompasses over 60 tracts and islands created by 1,100 miles of levees. Over half a million people populate 14 cities and towns in this rich agricultural area.
The Bay Delta was created as a result of the Swamp and Overflow Act of 1861, which was passed by the California State Legislature to encourage the building of levees to reclaim farmland from marshes. Between 1860-1880, hundreds of miles of levees were built, and 88,000 acres of land was reclaimed from Delta marshlands—much of this work accomplished by Chinese laborers.
Today, the Delta provides drinking water to over 25 million Californians, irrigates 4.5 million acres of agricultural land, contains diverse ecological habitats, and is home to the Locke Historic District.
Located 30 miles south of Sacramento along the Sacramento River, Locke is an unincorporated community built by Chinese immigrants in the 1920s. Once a bustling town with over 600 residents, this sleepy hamlet now houses a few museums, restaurants, and small shops.
Chinese immigrants began arriving in California in the 1850s searching for Gold Mountain. In the 1860s, Chinese were recruited by the Central Pacific Railroad to build the Transcontinental Railroad. Later, thousands of Chinese were hired to complete the extensive levees of the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta.
The completion of the levee system created hundreds of thousands of acres of farmland and greatly expanded the agricultural possibilities facilitating a demand for manual labor. Many of the Chinese laborers from the levee project settled in Walnut Grove, Isleton, Rio Vista, and Courtland and became farm laborers and sharecroppers.
In 1915, a devastating fire wiped out the Chinese section of town in Walnut Grove. Rather than rebuild in an area where there were ethnic tensions, a group of merchants headed by Bing Lee leased land from George Locke and financed the construction of nine residential buildings and a general merchandise store. The new town, originally called Lockeport and later shortened to Locke, already had a boarding house, gambling parlor, and saloon built in 1912 by Tin-san Chan and two other Chinese merchants.
California’s Alien Land Law of 1913 prevented non-U.S. citizens (aliens) from owning land; therefore, the residents of Locke were only able to lease the land but retained ownership of the buildings.
Locke catered to farm workers and residents in the area. It consisted of one- and two-story wooden buildings, including numerous residences, a church, a Chinese school, restaurants, boarding houses, a post office, hotels, a theater, grocery stores, hardware and herb stores, a fish market, dentist office, bakery, and community garden.
The one thing lacking were police. Bars, gambling houses, opium dens, and houses of prostitution proliferated, thus providing diversions for the residents, agricultural workers, and Caucasians from nearby towns and cities. One of the most popular gaming houses was the Dai Loy Gambling House, which was owned by Bing Lee, the town’s founder. His establishment served as a social center into the 1950s and today serves as a museum.
Locke began to decline in the 1950s as second-generation Chinese moved to the cities for better opportunities. When the state government shut down the gambling establishments, merchants started to move out as well, negatively affecting the population again.
In 1977, a development company from Hong Kong purchased the town and made plans to develop the area. These plans never materialized, however, and in 1990, Locke was designated a National Historic Landmark. The Sacramento Housing and Redevelopment Agency purchased the town in 2002 and continues to work with the California State Historic Preservation Office and the Locke Foundation to preserve the town.
by Jerrie Beard