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The Firecracker Men who Built Tacoma

There are many creation stories for the City of Destiny, ranging from larger-than-life Waukesha tales of mythical beings to even-larger-than-life floods that could certainly be Washington’s “Big Bang.” I prefer an equally explosive tale of true grit drenched in coal-covered Eastern faces, shrouded by equal parts steam and overcast.

This is the story of the mighty Chinese migrant workers who can certainly be accredited with exploding their way across the West, into the heart of Tacoma, subsequently giving birth to a city who would be the tangible manifestation of Manifest Destiny that was a mere notion in the developed East Coast.

It all started with a dastardly real estate tycoon by the name of Morton M. McCarver. He made his way from town to town, buying up land on the cheap, subsequently laying a framework for the soon to be Northern Pacific Railway’s path. With the route set, none could stop the notion of Manifest Destiny. So naturally, the question of who would build it came next.

The mighty Chinese migrant worker was the natural choice, as historically, Chinese immigrants were known for their tireless work ethic with next-to-nothing in pay to boot. Chinese laborers migrated everywhere from Shanghai to Portland. Quite serendipitously, the Chinese had a knack for seemingly impossible feats, most notably the invention and mastery of black powder. This would prove most advantageous for railroads in the future.

Working side-by-side with Irish railroad workers as well as blue bloods, sweat and toil were shared equally by all. Exploding their way through mountains and hillsides, the Chinese workers, standing nearly a foot shorter than their European counterparts, earned their respect; if not publically, certainly in a glance or a nod.

It wasn’t until the Great Depression where the true might and merit of the Chinese worker was distinguished above all else. Funds ran dry, and the workers of the North Pacific were working on “promised pay.” After months of this, the laying of the iron tracks came to a halt. Morale was low with the help of mob mentality and alcohol. The promised funds were expedited through a tall tale for the ages, involving a fearless wife who rode through rain and soot across Washington and Oregon and melted her gold to sell it, paying the workers. When the workers were finally paid, the white workers, with their relationship to entitlement and/or normal business practices, took their money and left, being done with the hard work and late pay dynamic. All the while, the Chinese migrant workers accepted their pay quietly, already in queue to commence business as usual.

It would be the Chinese workers who would make up the majority of the Northern Pacific Railway’s workers, completing the journey to Tacoma and delivering a payload of unprecedented commerce and subsequently giving birth to what historians refer to as, The City of Destiny.

It goes without saying that the Chinese workers’ odyssey was filled with peril. Many perished, yet most toiled and faced the brunt of danger all off of a promise of sending money home, and eventually being accepted into Tacoma’s bright future. One anecdote of note was when the train car in tow for the whole journey unhinged itself from the rails and had to be hoisted back onto the tracks. This was done with none other than the grit and fortitude of hundreds of Chinese migrant workers’ backs, pulling and flexing to reach the golden spike.

Quite deservingly, on an overcast Washington morning, Commencement Bay and all of its glory was revealed to a Chinese migrant worker. The last spike was hammered, and their job was done. Tacoma would go on to honor these immigrants, as Washington itself, was a place of immigrants through the Homestead Act.

The Chinese would form tight knit communities down by the water, and even established their own China town. The Firecracker men would be given their own building, enshrouded by red lanterns. They would lead quiet lives, and rightfully so, do to their years of fiery and gritty toil. The community would respect them and come to them for advice, unofficially becoming known as, “firecracker monks.”


“An Explosive Epilogue”

The honoring of past service would not last long, as history has a tendency to dissolve when times call for a scapegoat. Before Adolf Hitler rallied the downtrodden German people against the Jews, our very own Albert Johnson rallied Tacoma against the Chinese. There was a sentiment that flipped everything America loved about the Chinese to everything we hated about them. Work ethic and low wages went from a great source of labor to a dangerous taker of jobs, with jealous undertones in tow.

With enough hate mongering, resulting in a mob mentality, things like eugenics could be funneled into Tacoma’s IV drip, just teeming in bubbling misguided hate. A mob formed and forced Chinese residents onto the very trains they brought to Tacoma and they shipped them off. When the mob gained the audacity to confront the Firecracker Monks, the building exploded, just as mountains and hillsides did on the long path of the Northern Pacific Railway’s genesis. The monks chose to go the way they got to Tacoma, and now a Reconciliation Park stands as a reminder and belated sentiment of gratitude. Washington would go on to be the first State to elect a Chinese Governor with the appointing of Gary Locke in 1997.


Photo courtesy of Tacoma Public Library.