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China Houses: Chinese Prefabricated Structures in the California Gold Rush

May contain: nature, outdoors, building, countryside, shack, rural, and hut
Double Springs Courthouse. (Courtesy Society for the Preservation of West Calaveras History).

When gold was discovered in California in 1848 it was an undeveloped region without the infrastructure to feed, clothe, supply or house the thousands of people who were arriving daily. Many of the gold seekers and most of the supplies came through the new city of San Francisco, which at that time was a city of tents. Entrepreneurs saw that the need for housing could be met with prefabricated houses from China. During the first few years of the gold rush between 75 and 100 of these Chinese houses were brought to California. Measuring 12 feet by 24 feet or 13 feet by 26 feet and made of camphor wood, they were composed of panels that interlocked without the use of nails. Individual houses could be combined to produce buildings of varying lengths. Most of these houses appear to have been erected in San Francisco. “Their [the Chinese] dwellings, some of which are brought in frames direct from China, and erected by themselves, are small and incommodious, though extraordinary numbers somehow contrive to creep into them, and live very comfortably” (1). Taylor (2) (p85) noted in the fall of 1849 that “at least seventy-five houses had been imported from Canton, and put up by Chinese carpenters.” A few weeks later Taylor (3) (p153) again commented: “On my way to call on Colonel Fremont, whom I found located with his family in Happy Valley [at that time a suburb of San Francisco], I saw a company of Chinese carpenters putting up the frame of a Canton-made house.” It turned out that Fremont also “…was residing at the time…in a Chinese house…” (4) (p155). The ship ‘Frolic,’ which was wrecked on the Mendocino coast on July 25, 1850, carried one of these Chinese houses (5) (p178-186). The Sacramento Placer Times, on August 11, 1849, carried an advertisement for an auction of four China houses (6) (p184).

There is only one China house still known to exist, known as the Double Springs Courthouse. This structure is actually just a third of the original building, which served as the seat of government of Calaveras County in 1850-1851. After the county seat was relocated the building was used as a post office for 10 years and then as a chicken coop for another 85 years. In recent decades it was protected from the elements by a free-standing roof. When in a state of near collapse the owner donated it to the county, which disassembled it and stored it at the county museum in San Andreas. It was noted that the various parts of building were numbered in Chinese to aid in its assembly. Recently, museum volunteers have restored about half of the building and have it as part of a display inside the museum (7).
[Calaveras County Museum, 30 N. Main St., San Andreas, CA 95249; phone: 209-754-1058]


By Sal Manna

  1. The Annals of San Francisco, Soule, Frank; John H. Gihon; James Nesbit, Berkeley, CA, (1999)
  2. Taylor 1988
  3. El Dorado or Adventures in the Path of Empire, Taylor, Bayard, Lincoln, NE, (1988)
  4. El Dorado or Adventures in the Path of Empire, Taylor, Bayard, Lincoln, NE, (1988)
  5. Gifts from the Celestial Kingdom, Layton, Thomas N, (2002)
  6. Gifts from the Celestial Kingdom, Layton, Thomas N, (2002)
  7. Personal communication, Motloch, Wally, (2008)