“The Chinese in the Sierra Nevada” Student-Proposed Museum Exhibit

Peter Paccone
11 min readMay 20, 2022


Designed for the Museum of the Sierra

At the start of the 2021–2022 school year, four of my AP US History students assumed that they had been hired to produce a wall exhibit for the Museum of the Sierra, with this exhibit to be entitled The Chinese in the Sierra Nevada from 1848 to 1883.

Below are the names of the five SMHS students who worked on this project:

  • Sophia An
  • Esther Lian
  • Natalie Chuang
  • Hannah Hamawi
  • Russell Tsai

The Museum of the Sierra is located in the Sierra National Forest of Fresno County, California. It seeks to preserve the cultural and natural history of the Sierra Nevada through education and curation of historical artifacts and stories.

See below for a step-by-step description of the students’ work.

First, the students researched the topic online

Here are some of the better articles and videos that they found.

Below are two of the better videos the students found, with both of these videos detailing one of the lesser-known stories about the Chinese in the Sierra Nevada from 1848 to 1883.

Then they conducted research beyond the internet

The students reached out to the Truckee-Donner Historical Society to learn more about the role of the Chinese in terms of the Truckee ice harvesting industry of the late 1800s.

Below is the response that the students received.

Thank you for expressing your interest in Truckee-Donner Historical Society and the contributions that the Chinese made to this area.

Your specific question referenced ice harvesting in the area by Chinese immigrants after the Civil War.

We suggest you track this reference source down by author Eugene Itogowa, The Natural Ice Industry in California (1974). While the Historical Society does hold several books and articles about the ice industry in general in our book collection here in Truckee, your best bet would be to see if you can obtain this book reference from your local library as an ILL lend. This Master’s Thesis may very well discuss the topic you are searching for.

The other possibility is a 1984 book America’s Icemen: An Illustrative History of the U.S. Natural Ice Industry 1665–1925 by Joseph C. Jones, Jr. This Icemen book may also be available from your local lending library as an ILL book.

Good luck.


Heidi Sproat
Truckee-Donner Historical Society (TDHS)
Webmaster, Image Collection

Then they organized their exhibit

Their proposed exhibit will be organized as follows:

  • The Chinese in America Prior to 1848
  • The Chinese Miner (1848–1883)
  • The Chinese Laundry Business Worker (1851–1883)
  • The Chinese Railroad Worker (1865–1883)
  • The Chinese Lumbermen (1865–1883)
  • The Chinese Ice Harvesting Laborer (1868–1883)
  • The Chinese Tioga Pass Road Builder (1883)
  • The Chinese in the Sierra Nevada After the Passage of the Chinese Exclusion Act (1882–1943)

Then they produced a video

This 5:23 video provides an overview of their proposed exhibit.

Then they produced a mock-up

This mock was produced digitally, with the mock-up revealing what one of the museum walls might look like if the students’ proposed exhibit were to be actually constructed.

Then they ran out of time

Before heading home for the summer, the students addressed an important close-out question — what would you do if you had more time to work on this project.

In response, the students said that they would:

  1. See Tunnels #6 and #8 for themselves.
  2. Visit the Museum of the Sierra
  3. Visit the Truckee Historical Museum.
  4. Visit the Gold Rush Museum
  5. Visit the California History Museum
  6. Meet with Gordon H. Chang, Stanford history professor and author of Ghosts of Gold Mountain
  7. Meet with Russ Low, physician, book author, and great grandson of Hung Lai Wah (mentioned throughout the book Ghosts of Gold Mountain and on page one in particular)
  8. Meet with Phil Sexton, executive director of the North Lake Tahoe Historical Society,
  9. Meet with ??? executive director of the 1882 Foundation (seeking to facilitate a new National Historic Landmark at Donner Pass)
  10. Meet with Jerry Blackwell, keeper of the Truckee area railroad history
  11. Meet with Lisa See, American writer and novelist
  12. Read Eugene Itogowa’s book, The Natural Ice Industry in California.
  13. Read Gordon Chang’s book, The Ghosts of Gold Mountain
  14. Read Russ Low’s book, The Three Coins
  15. Write a no-more-than-five-page research paper addressing each of their proposed exhibit’s seven topics; then turn each paper into a 2–4 minute video designed for viewing on one of their exhibit walls.
  16. Produce several other mock-ups.
  17. Pitch their proposed exhibit to a real-world audience, with that audience hopefully consisting of one or more representatives of the Museum of the Sierra. Maybe also one or more representatives of the California History Museum (located in Sacramento.)

Sidenote #1

While working on this project, the students received the below from Hannah Fong, the SMHS Independent Study Teacher.

Wow. The work you are doing on this project is so cool. It all reminds me of a wall mural at the Westfield Santa Anita Mall. Have you seen it? It was part of the 2021 Anti-Asian Hate campaign and looks like this.

Sidenote #2

The students also received the below from the Truckee-Donner Historical Society in response to a question asking “what % of the Truckee population of the late 1800s was Chinese?”

Please see the attached compilation of Chinese in the GREATER Truckee area based on census records. This was compiled by our former TDHS President, Chaun Mortier. Please keep in mind the areas the census covered. Smaller camps between Donner Summit and Stateline were included in the figures, not just Truckee.

Before reaching out, the students had learned, from various sources, that:

In 1869, when the Transcontinental Railroad was completed, about 1,400 now out-of-work Chinese laborers traveled to Truckee to seek new jobs.

Within a period of a few months, one third of Truckee’s population was Chinese. The Chinatown there was the second only to San Francisco in its size.

By 1885, the white people of the Truckee community had cultivated intense disdain and animosity toward the Chinese immigrants. The anti-Chinese sentiment led to the driving of m most of the Chinese completely out of the area, a process that was termed the Truckee Method.

On Feb. 10, 1886, Truckee’s first newspaper, the Truckee Republican , published this: “We are in favor of the exclusion of the Chinese from the Pacific Coast, and believe that the present movement is the beginning of the end. We think that every man and woman should use their influence to help on the good work.”

In June of 1886, afire scoured Truckee’s Chinatown, driving out the last remaining Chinese in the Truckee region

Seven decades later, according to the 2017 United States Census Bureau, the Chinese population in Truckee is less than 1 percent.

Sidenote #3

This is from the Truckee-Donner Historical Society (TDHS).

Once you get a chance to go through the census compilation we provided you that Chaun Mortier assembled, and note that the census entries are from ALL over the small camps around the greater Meadow Lake Township area, we think this might help you to understand the population spread better.

Secondly, if you have citations to a primary source about a significant contribution of the Chinese to the Ice Industry, or can provide us with some specific information to this effect, please share.

The Truckee-Donner Historical Society is the fortunate recipient of Tom Macaulay’s ice collection. (Mr. Macaulay, “Reno Iceman”, was a renowned researcher of area ice production.) Significant contributions of Chinese in the lumbering/charcoal production/firewood business is well documented, and we specifically note this in our Chinese display at our Museum of Truckee History. However, we have not seen such information about the Chinese involvement in ice production, either as laborers or support staff (cooks, household, laundry), or in other capacities. That said, however, we just haven’t seen documentation but of course are open to the idea of further research.

As we review Mr. Macaulay’s extensive collection, we will keep our eyes out for any such reference. If you or your students find support for this, please do let us know. There may have been a few Chinese involved in the ice production business, but the majority were involved in the lumbering/charcoal/firewood business.


Heidi Sproat
Truckee-Donner Historical Society (TDHS)

Sidenote #4

Below is a photograph entitled California Railroad. The photo shows “a Chinese laborer coming from the East Portal, Tunnel №8 in California during the construction of the railroad.” Photograph by Carleton Watkins, c.1865.

And now a student-recreation of this photograph, with this painting created in 2022 by Russel Tsai and Esther Lian.

Hung Wah Outside Summit Tunnel #8 (8x8, oil painting)

Sidenote #6

Work on the project will continue this summer with my six-week, Monday-Friday summer school US History class serving as “summer interns” for Sophia, Hannah, et. all. I also plan to ask the students in my 2021–2022 APUSH class to take in the role of interns.

These interns will be invited to move the proposed museum exhibit further down the line. Above all else, this will call on them to research and write about several all-important “side-topics.”

Top Tier Research Topics

  • Guangdong in the mid to late 1800s
  • The Journey of the Chinese from Guangdong to the Sierras
  • The Chinese in America Prior to 1848
  • The Chinese Gold Rush Miner (1848–1855)
  • The Sierra Nevada Chinese Hand Laundry Worker
  • The Chinese Transcontinental Railroad Worker
  • The Sierra Nevada Chinese Lumberman
  • The Sierra Nevada Chinese Ice Harvester
  • The Sierra Nevada Chinese Road Builder
  • The Sierra Nevada Chinese Cigar Maker
  • The Sierra Nevada Chinese Charcoal Maker
  • Traditional Chinese Medicine and the Treatment of Common Sierra Nevada Illnesses and Injuries
  • The Sierra Nevada Chinese after the Passage of the Chinese Exclusion Act
  • The Sierra Nevada Chinese Brush maker
  • The Sierra Nevada Chinese Broom Maker
  • The Sierra Nevada Chinese Candle Maker
  • The Sierra Nevada Chinese Soap Maker
  • The Sierra Nevada Chinese Cook
  • The Cigar Box Guitar and the Chinese Laborer
  • The Truckee Method
  • The Sierra Nevada Mountain Range

Top Tier Research Questions

  • What did the Chinese do after the California surface gold ran out?
  • What did the Chinese do after the completion of the transcontinental railroad?
  • How did the Chinese Sierra Nevada entertain themselves?
  • What did the Chinese Sierra Nevada eat?
  • How did the Chinese Sierra Nevada treat their injuries and illnesses?
  • To what extent did the Chinese Sierra Nevada work in the ice harvesting industry?
  • To what extent did the Chinese Sierra Nevada learn to make and play the cigar box guitar?
  • To what extent did the Chinese Sierra Nevada write poetry?
  • How many Chinese lived/worked in the Sierra Nevada between 1848–1900
  • What should be done today to commemorate the work of the Chinese Sierra Nevada?

Top Tier Tasks

  • Write a research paper (traditional or modern, long or short, in-house, Concord Review, or for the internet)
  • Meet with and learn from an expert
  • Read a book
  • Visit/tour/see for yourself
  • Produce a work of art (painting, song, poem, etc)
  • Produce a mock-up
  • Produce a video (TED-Ed, Reading Through History, Tom Richey, whiteboard animated, stop-gap animated, etc.)
  • Engage in civic action (take a stand, become a force for change)
  • Produce a timeline

Books to Read

  • Eugene M. Itogawa’s Book, Natural Ice Industry in California
  • Joseph C. Jones’ book, America’s Iceman
  • Gordon Chang’s book, Ghosts of Gold Mountain
  • Lawrence Yep’s book, The Journal of Wong Ming-Chung
  • Mae M. Ngai’’s book, The Chinese Question: The Gold Rushes and Global Politics
  • Gene Luen Yang’s book, American Born Chinese
  • Erika Lee’s book At America’s Gate, Chinese Immigration During the Exclusion Era, 1882, 1943
  • Sue Fawn Chung’s book In Pursuit of Gold: Chinese American Miners and Merchants in the American West
  • C Pam Zhang’s book, How Much of These Hills Is Gold
  • Robert Kelle’s book, Battling the Inland Sea

Artwork to Produce

  • A painting? (Hung Wah contemplating his future in the days before the 1869 Golden Spike Ceremony)
  • Another painting (Unknown Chinese Gold Miner contemplating his future in 1855 as surface gold has disappeared and individual prospecting has come to an end.)
  • A work of historical fiction (chapter of a book entitled Hung Wah?)
  • A song
  • A poem

Click here after January 1, 2023, for an update.



Peter Paccone

San Marino High School social studies teacher. Also the Community Outreach Manager for Class Companion and a member of the CB's AI in AP Advisory Committee.