Chinese laborers built ditch systems and rock walls. The Ralston Ditch and accompanying support walls on the Eldorado National Forest are no exception. The ditch runs 4.5 miles long, and up to 12-feet deep with retaining walls up to 5 feet tall. The construction of the ditch system required physical strength for digging with shovel and pick, but technical skills were also integral. Ditch diggers utilized hazardous explosives to blast into harder rock deposits. The projects required engineering skills to get the ditches to a specific slope to continue the flow of water at the right pace. Rock retaining walls, used to prevent the erosion and collapse of some of the deeper walls, were made without the use of cement. The large granite stones that the workers used to create the walls usually had to be hand-sourced from the surrounding area, rather than imported from a quarry. Thus, Chinese laborers had to scour the area for viable rocks and fit them together in such a way that they could stand freely without additional adhesive. Though slightly obscured by the plant growth, large portions of the rock retaining walls still stand today. The ditch is still visible, though no longer in use.
Chinese laborers could get $35 a month doing this work in the 1860’s-1870’s, and were sometimes preferred over white laborers. Many Chinese laborers were willing to feed and house themselves while working on the ditch projects. Far from hurting local job markets with their labor services, major construction projects like the Ralston Ditch that was undertaken by Chinese pioneers- fueled job creation. The local newspaper in North Bloomfield noted in 1869, that Chinese laborers were central to completing a local dam project and ditch projects like that one would create lasting jobs for white folk in the mines that received the water.
Chinese laborers set up temporary camps alongside the construction of the ditches, incidentally leaving artifacts behind. One remarkably intact vase was found in 2001 near the Ralston Ditch when Forest Service resource management specialists were surveying the area after a fire. This “vase” was actually used as a vessel for holding medicinal teas used both for drinking and rubbing on injuries. With language barriers, higher fees, and foreign practices, Chinese immigrants during the 19th Century frequently maintained their use of traditional herbal Chinese medicine. That entailed drinking a tea concocted of multiple herbal remedies tailored to the ailment. By the 1880’s services of Chinese herb doctors reached beyond the Chinese community.
City: Pollock Pines
Submitted by: Olivia Flechsig, USFS
Chinese labor site, Water ditch