At one time half the immigrant population of Happy Camp, CA consisted of Chinese prospectors. The 1880 census listed 597 citizens. 97 were Karuks, 250 were white, and 250 were Chinese.
The Chinese lived in the area south of what is now Second Avenue, behind the Camp Mercantile building. At that time Second Avenue was called Bridge Street because of the bridge crossing Indian Creek.
Happy Camp’s Chinatown burned down twice. By 1920, when the fictional River Girl protagonist, Claire, arrived in the Happy Camp area, almost all the Chinese residents had moved away, with quite a few living upriver at what we now call China Flat.
History records that two Chinamen remained on a ranch near China Flat Road on the south side of the river. My novel, River Girl, introduces these two men as neighbors to Claire and her family.
You might wonder where I learned this history. When I arrived in Happy Camp in the year 2000, I went to the local library, a small blue building on Buckhorn Road next to the cemetery. I’ve always had an interest in local history in whatever place I’ve lived.
I asked for local history books at the library, and was told by librarian Dorothy LaHue that the best books are Siskiyou County Pioneer publications which are kept behind the librarian’s desk. They must be read within the library – or do what I did – I photocopied some of the pages so I could read them at home.
Many thanks to the fine historians who wrote the articles for these books, and to those who lived through Happy Camp’s colorful early history.
The character of Doctor Ha Chin is entirely fictional. In the book, he’s a Chinese physician who still lives in the town of Happy Camp, on the north side of the river near the old Mercantile building.
In this scene, he arrives at Claire’s cabin to check on her step-father, Asa, after he was injured in a sawmill accident.
A few days after Asa woke up Doctor Ha Chin came to see him. I let the doctor in but when Asa saw a Chinaman in our cabin, a cloud passed over his face.
“I come to see after your health,” Ha Chin said in a friendly, cheerful way.
“Go away,” Asa said.
“I’m the only doctor in Happy Camp,” he said. “Are you sure you want me to leave?”
Asa said nothing and Ha Chin shrugged. “I know you may not like me because it is said that I’m heathen, but I can help if you like. In China I learned to heal.”
Asa’s eyes widened. “Then stay,” he said.
The Chinaman went to the wood stove and placed herbs from his satchel into a pot to boil. “I’m happy to see you’re awake,” he told Asa. “When I first saw you bleeding I wondered if you might live even an hour, but with prayer and herbs you survived.”
He stirred the herbs with a wooden spoon and we waited silently for them to be ready. Ha Chin didn’t hurry. He happily talked or stayed quiet, whatever felt right at the moment.
“Do you live across the river in Happy Camp?” I asked him.
“Indeed, yes, I stay there,” he said. “Most of Chinatown went up in flames last year but I have a home that didn’t burn so I stay. My friends ask me to move upriver.”
“More Chinese. They look for gold. Someday we will all go back home to China. But for now we stay in California. We love these hills and the Klamath River Valley, as you do.”
“Are you married?” I loved asking questions.
“I used to be. My wife died. In China. So I came here.”
Asa listened to all this, his face turned to the wall. I looked at him, wondering what he thought about these ‘heathen Chinee’, for now he was served by one so selfless he never bothered to ask for payment of any kind.
— Exerpt from Chapter 5 of River Girl, “ACCIDENT AT GREEN’S SAWMILL”
The book can be found at Amazon in Kindle or paperback formats:
River Girl, by Linda Jo Martin.
Linda Jo is currently revising a series of four novels, the Antediluvian Adventures.
Learn more: Happy Camp History