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Weaverville Chinese family
Five Views: An Ethnic Historic Site Survey for California



Early Contacts

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A History of Chinese Americans in California:

Hercules Powder Plant
Hercules, Contra Costa County

Hercules, a company town noted for the manufacture of dynamite, is located along San Pablo Bay. The town is made up of three distinct parts: the industrial plant (powder plant and connecting railroad facilities), the administrative buildings (police station and city hall), and a residential section (workers' cottages). These sections are laid out in ravines and gullies to give them protection in case of an explosion from the powder plant. The industrial plant is situated on land adjacent to San Pablo Bay, in a hollow about one mile square. It is made up of numerous technical facilities, rows of vernacular wooden buildings, a dock, and railroad tracks.

The administrative buildings of the town are located on a bluff overlooking the plant. These are simple brick and wooden structures with little ornamentation. Interspersed among them are the spacious homes of the plant managers.

In a ravine about a mile from the plant are the workers' homes. The streets are lined with identical two-story wooden structures all painted the same color. At present, the homes are deserted and have fallen into disrepair. The plant has been idle since a worker's strike in 1977. There are only a few people caretaking the town. Access to Hercules is over a narrow, winding road.

California Powder Works, whose first plant was established near Santa Cruz in 1861, acquired land for a plant on San Pablo Bay in 1879. The new plant was constructed in two years, and in 1881 started producing dynamite. The majority of its employees were Chinese Americans. They worked in the very dangerous nitroglycerine lines. For a back-breaking job of 60 hours in a six-day work week, most Chinese American workers received only $1.25 per day. They were paid far less than White workers, even though they held more dangerous jobs.

Chinese workers were isolated from the Caucasian workers who lived in family cottages. Housing facilities for Chinese American workers consisted of two wooden dormitories located 200 yards from the plant's main entrance. As many as 375 Chinese Americans resided in the long, narrow, box-like buildings that contained three tiers of bunks stretching the length of the walls in the sleeping quarters. In another section of the structure were the kitchen and dining areas.

From 1881 to 1919, 59 lives were taken by explosions. The majority of the devastating blasts happened in the nitroglycerine house and in the buildings where dynamite was produced.

Hercules Powder Plant
Hercules Powder Plant, Hercules, Contra Costa County

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