China Joe

Baker, prospector and benefactor was 'one of us'

Posted: Friday, August 15, 2003

In Evergreen Cemetery, there stands a headstone for Hi Chung, or China Joe, which calls him "friend and benefactor of the prospector during the early days of the gold rush to the northland," and sums up his character with the accolade, "He lived by the golden rule."

China Joe lived from 1834 to 1917. He was a prospector, a hotel keeper, a baker and a store keeper.

His serene image was chosen by India Spartz, photographs librarian, to sit among the "Gold Rush Centennial Photographs, 1893-1916," a catalog of selected Gold Rush views in the collections of the Alaska State Library.

In the pages of this brief catalog, he is cheek-by-jowl with such notables as Chief Kowee, Jack McQuesten, Soapy Smith, Nellie Cashman, Joe Juneau and Richard T. Harris.

Who was this man? How did he manage to live to a ripe, old age in a town that at one time routed out all its Chinese?

Juneau storyteller Brett Dillingham has written a play about China Joe. Dillingham describes him as "the baker for Juneau before Gustav Messerschmidt came into town in 1898. Then Joe became baker for the Tlingit and his friends. When he died in 1917, he had the largest funeral Juneau had ever seen."

Dillingham says that a friend suggested Joe to him as a subject.

He sees him as "kind of a quintessential gentleman. His headstone tells it all. When the Treadwell miners came from Douglas to get Joe, it was a mob and apparently they had been drinking and were bristling with weapons. When the old prospectors heard about this, they hid behind the stumps at his bakery. When these miners came, these prospectors appeared from behind these stumps with weapons revealed and said, 'You are not taking him; he is one of us.' They loved him so much that they were willing to put their lives on the line for him. He generated a lot of respect and admiration."

One of Joe's endearing habits was to leave a lantern burning in front of his cabin during winter storms, so residents could calculate where they were as they tried to find home, Dillingham added.

"He is one of the great Americans," Dillingham said. "I put him with Benjamin Franklin and Louis Armstrong."

Joe was born in China. Legal documents refer to him variously as "Lee Hing," "As Hie" and "Joe the Baker." In 1893, he registered with the U.S. Commissioner under the Chinese Registration Act as Ting Tu Wee, also spelled Chung Tuwee and Chung Thui.

Trusting to hard work and grit, Joe landed in Victoria, British Columbia, in 1864 when he was 30. He went to work in a mining camp in Boise, Idaho, in the same year. Ten years later, he was in Wrangell during the year of the great stampede to the Cassiar region of British Columbia.

He ran a general store and bakery in the Cassiar until 1879, when he returned to Wrangell and purchased the old sternwheeler steamer Hope, which he remodeled into Wrangell's first hotel. The dining room was below deck, and the state rooms became sleeping quarters. Next, he moved to Sitka and operated a bakery.

During the mid-1870s when Joe was in Cassiar, the last steamer of the season bringing in winter supplies failed to get through. The miners were desperate for food, and Joe had the only stock in camp. Speculators tried to buy his supply so they could re-sell at a profit, but Joe refused.

He made a list of the miners in the area and rationed supplies to get them through the winter. He did not extract exorbitant prices but advanced credit to prospectors down on their luck.

He joined the rush to Juneau in 1881, according to a 1912 article in the Daily Alaska Dispatch.

"Hard Rock Gold," by Dave and Brenda Stone, tells the story of the ousting of the Chinese from Juneau. John Treadwell, who owned one-third of the Alaska Mill and Mining Co., had introduced Chinese laborers to his Douglas Island mine in an attempt to lower his labor costs. They would work for much less than whites. Many of the Chinese he hired had originally participated in the California rush of 1849, then followed the Cassiar rush to British Columbia and eventually wound up jobless in Juneau.

The new hiring practices created tension between the white community and Treadwell. The tension rose to the level of violence in January 1886, when a cabin occupied by Chinese was dynamited. No one was injured, and tensions cooled until Aug. 5, when Juneau citizens held a meeting.

They formed a committee that demanded that all Chinese be discharged. John Treadwell rejected the demand. On Aug. 6, the committee met again and voted to remove the Chinese. Over 100 angry men, carrying torches, went to Douglas Island, packed 80 Chinese into two small boats and directed them to head for Wrangell. Territorial Gov. A.P. Swineford was unable to object because he had no force to back him up, the Stones say. China Joe was the lone Chinese person allowed to stay in town.

China Joe was so well-known that his name was frequently in the newspaper. His Christmas party was mentioned in a Feb. 6, 1897, article. The Daily Alaska Dispatch mentioned him on Jan. 23, 1909. The Dispatch again mentioned him in February 1912, citing his kindness and weather predictions.

On Feb. 28, 1905, the Dispatch described an incident in which a visiting magician, Prof. Hewett, pulled Joe's leg. Window shopping in Joe's store, Hewett saw a basket of eggs. He broke one and found a dollar. He broke a second and found a $20 gold piece. After Hewett departed, Joe credulously began breaking eggs one after the other - finding nothing but egg. Later, he realized he had been the butt of a joke and commented about the Professor, "Him one Debil."

Joe used his money wisely. He invested $60 in 1881 in a choice corner lot, 50 by 100 feet, south of City Hall. He planned to construct an apartment house on the lot. Years later, after Juneau had proved it was no flash-in-the-pan boomtown, he was offered $7,000 by Neil Ward. As of July 1916, he was holding out for $8,000.

He was known for his kindness to children. Tlingit elder Cecilia Kunz can still remember going into his store as a child.

China Joe died in his cabin, near Third and Main Streets, in May 1917. His death was attributed to heart failure.

He was a charter member of the 1887 Alaska Pioneers Association, declared "a white man" by his contemporaries so that he could join.

At his funeral on May 21, B. M. Behrends, Thomas Ashby, E. Ellingen, Thomas Stevens, Mark Russell and Samuel Kohn, all members of the 1887 Pioneers, acted as pallbearers. Historian/public speaker/museum curator Father Andrew Kashevaroff read an account of his life. His countryman, Sing Lee, a hotel keeper in Petersburg, journeyed to Juneau for the funeral.

Writing of his death, the May 18 issue of the Alaska Daily Empire called him "one of the original settlers in Juneau and perhaps the best known Chinaman in Alaska."

Charles W. Carter, former mayor of Juneau, presented a plaque to China Joe's grave as a memorial in October 1960. A former mayor of Juneau, Carter had moved here from Skagway in 1898 and had known China Joe.

In his early years in town, Carter became a member of Juneau's volunteer fire department.

"And after the fire, we would all stop at China's for hot coffee and donuts - free, of course. He was like this to everyone," Carter, 90, recalled.

Speaking of the "flour famine" in the Cassiar, Carter said, "The miners never forgot what Joe had done for them."

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