Archaeologist and Mokelumne Hill resident Julia Costello gave the Enterprise a tour of Chinatown Gardens, a historic site in town that was recently acquired by the Mokelumne Hill History Society (MHHS), of which Costello is a board member and archivist. The Oct. 30 tour gave a glimpse into the area’s history.
“This came up for sale and we decided to buy it,” Costello said. “That’s ultimately the way you protect historic sites.”
In August of 2015, the MHHS purchased a plot of land on Volunteer Gulch, west of the Catholic Cemetery, that contained a portion of the Gold Rush-era Chinatown Gardens, as well as two lots on China Gulch Road that were once part of Mokelumne Hill’s Chinatown.
Volunteer Gulch had long become overgrown with brush and brambles, but local residents were aware that it contained large, Chinese-built stone terrace walls and the stone foundation of a Buddhist temple.
In September of 2015, the Butte Fire roared up the Mokelumne River Canyon and almost into town.
While much of the brush surrounding the town had been cleared, Volunteer Gulch, a protected riparian habitat, was left alone, and the flames shot up the overgrown drainage.
“It came up to within 50 yards of Center Street,” Costello said. “In doing that, it exposed, in this gulch, all of these big, stone retaining walls … Although we knew the gardens were there, we had no idea what was under all those brambles, the extent of it.”
In their efforts to save the town, firefighters accidentally drove a bulldozer over one of the hidden historic walls, knocking a section of it to the ground.
When the smoke cleared, the Chinatown Gardens went from riparian habitat to historic site. Because firefighters had damaged a historic site during the blaze, they became responsible for helping with restoration. This also allowed fire crews to clear the gulch of overgrown vegetation, which they had been barred from doing before.
Over the past few years, crews from the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection (Cal Fire) and the county jail have worked to clear the gulch. Their work has revealed the foundation of a Buddhist temple, three large stone terrace walls, numerous smaller terrace walls, a water channel, a cabin foundation, a roasting oven, a cistern, mining ditches and historic trees.
“We have a lot of cool stuff that is still being uncovered,” Costello said.
In 2018, the MHHS purchased the remainder of the Chinatown Gardens. The properties now consist of 4 acres total.
The land first became available when June Davies, a large landholder in town, passed away in 2015.
“When she died, and she didn’t have a trust or will, the county had to dispense of all of her holdings,” Costello said. “The only reason we could buy this was a bequeath. Mary Wilborn died, eight years ago now, and left $100,000 each to five different groups in town.”
During the Gold Rush, Chinese made up a sizable percentage of the county’s population, Costello said.
“Most of the Chinese were miners. In the 1860s, 22% of all the people in Calaveras County were Chinese. It’s like one in five. That’s a huge part of the population,” she said. “They had their restaurants and stores and barbers and cemeteries and temples.”
They also had their gardens, Costello said.
“Chinese gardens were very common all over. Wherever you had a Chinatown, you had a Chinese garden,” she said. “They grew just about everything. But the most interesting (crop grown in town) was Chinese water chestnuts, and this required a big pond and eight inches of water.”
Costello said that historical accounts of Mokelumne Hill detail a large pond at Chinatown Gardens, used for growing water chestnuts, as well as a bridge and a tea house.
“This is the confluence of all of the drainages in town, and it has natural springs and it is wet year-round, which is why they put the gardens there,” she said.
Costello pointed to a stone foundation in the gulch just off Center Street, the site of the Buddhist temple.
“They called it a ‘Joss house.’ ‘Joss’ is slang for ‘incense.’ And so Americans called it the ‘incense house,’ but that is not quite respectful – it was the Buddhist temple,” she said.
Costello picked some mint as she passed by the remains of the cistern.
“There’s about three or four kinds of mint,” she said. “We wanted to see what came back, so have kind of left it alone a little bit. We were hoping some exotic Chinese plants would come up again, like the water chestnuts, and we haven’t seen that, but there’s hollyhocks and mints and watercress.”
Several ailanthus, a tree that Chinese were known to cultivate, grow along the drainage.
“The Chinese traveled a lot historically, and they’d go work different areas all over the Pacific Rim, and they had little packets of essential seeds to take with them – vegetables and other things,” Costello said. “Ailanthus, because it grew very fast, it could provide shade and fuel within a year.”
A tall, skinny pear tree grows above the other vegetation. All of its branches are concentrated at the top.
“This is a pear that’s probably left over from the garden,” Costello said. “The reason there’s no branches up to there is that’s how high the berries were.”
In the center of the drainage, the damaged retaining wall has been repaired with the help of local resident Howard Little, fire crews and other volunteers.
“Their knocking down this wall was too bad for the wall, but it gave them license to come in here and do all kinds of stuff and add this to the buffer zone,” Costello said. “Everybody’s happy – the town, Cal Fire – everybody’s thrilled.”
A well-worn road, which was originally a sewer easement constructed in the 1940s, runs along the western side of the drainage.
“What it’s provided for us is this fabulous walking path,” Costello said. “What I think is great about it is that grandmothers, and women with strollers and little kids can walk down here, and a minute from Main Street, you have this nice, park-like walk.”
Multiple stone terrace walls stretch across the drainage.
“If you’re going to reclaim a gulch, you have to make a series of level areas so you can irrigate and have crops,” Costello said.
On the opposite hillside, an old mining ditch could be seen.
“Right off of there is the cabin site – in that brushy area – and the round smoker ruins,” Costello said. “It could have been a watchman over the garden.”
Costello said that the smoker oven was a rare find.
“They look like a chimney-thing. They lowered the meat, pig mostly, through the top, and kind of sealed it up, and then smoke it and roast it, and then take it out. It would be for big celebrations,” she said.
At the edge of the property, thick vegetation reclaims the drainage.
“Looking down this gulch gives you a feeling of what the whole gulch looked like,” Costello said.
The MHHS is encouraging local residents to come and explore the Chinatown Gardens.
“We’re hopeful that people will just come and walk around, and take the path down. Everyone’s welcome,” she said. “The more we learn about our past, the more we understand and appreciate the town we’re in and where we came from.”