Chinese laborers helped build a series of dams between the late 19th century and the middle of the 20th century at Loon Lake, a reservoir tucked in the high mountains of the Eldorado National Forest.
The original Loon Lake Dam, built between 1882 and 1883, stood at an impressive 32 feet high, and 650 feet long at the time of its inception. The California Water and Mining Company hired Chinese laborers, alongside experienced quarrymen, to hand carve granite blocks from a nearby quarry. The granite blocks were large and heavy, weighing from two to five tons each, and reaching a size of five cubic feet. Hand-cutting these blocks proved to be no easy feat. Big derricks were utilized to move these cumbersome blocks from the source, to the construction of the dam. In the building of the dam, these blocks were stacked as two granite walls with 34 feet between them; a space which was packed with earth. The Georgetown Gazette in 1882 hailed the granite dam as a “most important enterprise inaugurated in El Dorado county and destined to hasten the development of our mineral, agriculture and other resources, and add millions to the county’s wealth.”
The California Water and Mining Company was not the only company to hire Chinese laborers for this kind of assignment. In fact, many mining, ditch, dam, and flume projects, used Chinese labor as a means of cheap labor. Chinese were often paid less than non-Chinese workers. For instance, the North Bloomfield Gravel Mining Company, one of the biggest hydraulic mining companies at the time, hired as many as 700 to 800 Chinese workers in contrast to the 300 white men who were hired as well.
The original dam that the Chinese built was disassembled. In 1962, a new, larger one was constructed at a higher elevation over the previous position. This was to accommodate the needs of the new Sacramento Municipal Utility District’s Upper American River Hydroelectric Power Development. With a larger storage reservoir, this hydroelectric power plant provides electricity to Sacramento County. Today, although the old structure is no longer visible, the original hand cut granite blocks still line the new dam to serve as guard rails alongside the road of the 1963 Francis Fill Dam. Francis Fill Dam is the first dam to be seen when driving to Loon Lake. The striations and carvings from the granite source, which serve as evidence that the Chinese worked in that area, are still seen today, next to the old dam’s location.
Submitted by: Sylvia Guan, USFS
Chinese labor site, Dam, Lake, Masonry, Reservoir