Chinese Contributions to Yosemite National Park
Updated: Oct 17
In 4.5 months in 1875, 300 Chinese laborers built a 23-mile road that climbed 3000ft in elevation, that has become one of the most popular roads in Yosemite National Park, connecting Mariposa Grove to Yosemite Valley. Because Washburn brothers, owners of the Wawona Hotel, didn't want to hinder tourism in the spring but saw the need for a road to connect various park destinations, they asked Chinese laborers to build the road through the winter, in snowy and unfavorable conditions. Chinese contributions to Yosemite National Park are not widely known, but the Chinese built many of the roads that connect the National Park as we know it today.
In 1874, Chinese immigrants built the Coulterville Road and Big Oak Flat Road, one of the earliest stage wagon routes that reached Yosemite Valley. Then in 1882-1883, in just 130 days, 250 Chinese laborers and 90 Whites constructed the Great Sierra Wagon Road, stretching 56-miles that began at 4200ft above sea level and reached a breathtaking 9945ft. Furthermore, 100 Chinese immigrants were asked to blast through a 3/4 mile stretch of granite rock near Tenaya Lake. To do so with only picks, axes, shovels, wheelbarrows, and black powder was no easy task. Moreover, the Chinese were paid $0.30-0.70 less per day than their White counterparts. The Great Sierra Wagon Road would become Tioga Road, one of the main roads in Yosemite, and the highest road in the Sierra Nevada. Next time you visit Yosemite, be sure to take a moment and acknowledge the astonishing feat of the Chinese laborers, who constructed those roads centuries ago.
On October 15, 2021, the last remaining laundry from Yosemite's early days opened to the public as a historical exhibit showcasing the contributions of Chinese immigrants to Yosemite National Park, including their work constructing roads and serving as chefs in Yosemite's hotels.
They are so many others were disenfranchised when in the 1850s the Foreign Miners taxes, specifically targeted towards the Chinese and Mexicans, forced all miners to pay at least $3. The Police Tax of 1862 then required the Chinese to pay an extra $2.50 per month for performing any work besides agriculture. As a result, many Chinese miners, who came in the gold rush era, found jobs constructing roads, and serving as cooks and laundry workers.
Two well-known Chinese chefs in Yosemite are Ah You and Tie Sing, recognized for their superior culinary skills and work ethic. Ah You was head chef of the Wawona Hotel for 47 years from 1886 to 1933. Hired by Henry Washburn, owner of Wawona Hotel, he prepared food for presidents Rutherford B. Hayes, Benjamin Harrison, Theodore Roosevelt, and William Howard Taft. Besides Wawona Hotel, most hotels in Yosemite hired Chinese cooks and laundry staff; in fact, a 1925 map of Yosemite Village showed "Chinese Quarters" located near today's Sentinal Bridge.
Wawona Hotel (NPS)
Tie Sing was the chef for Stephen T. Mather, assistant secretary of interior's Mountain Party trip in 1915 and 1916. During the two-week trip, Sing was given the name "The Wizard" for cooking up delicacies in the wilderness. Mather's goal was to increase funding for National Parks from Congress. Thus, he invited businessmen, government officials, journalists, and other influential people on the expedition to convince them of the significance National Parks. As a result of the trip, Mather convinced Congress to fund National Parks and the National Park Service was established in August 1916.
The contributions of Teddy Roosevelt and John Muir in establishing National Parks are commonly told, but often overlooked are the contributions of immigrants like the Chinese who were influential in their development. Next time you visit Yosemite National Park, be sure not to miss the Chinese laundry exhibit in Wawona.
Chan, Yenyen F. "Interpreting the Contributions of Chinese Immigrants in Yosemite National Park’s History." The George Wright Forum, vol. 34, no. 3, 2017, pp. 299-307. Accessed 16 October 2021.
Constante, Agnes. "How a Chinese cook helped establish Yosemite and the National Park Service." NBC News, 22 July 2018, https://www.nbcnews.com/news/asian-america/how-chinese-cook-helped-establish-yosemite-national-park-service-n890221. Accessed 16 October 2021.
Constante, Agnes. "Yosemite's old laundry facilities are being converted to shine light on Chinese labor." Yahoo News, 11 October 2021, https://www.yahoo.com/news/chinese-labor-helped-fuel-yosemite-213232079.html. Accessed 16 October 2021.