Structure destroyed by fire in historic Chinese town of Locke



A fire tore through a second-story apartment Sunday afternoon in the historic town of Locke, prompting a large-scale emergency response to keep the mostly wooden town from going up in flames.

Fire is a constant threat in the century-old community of close-packed wooden buildings that stretch along three or four blocks in the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta. The entire community, settled by Chinese laborers in the first half of the 20th century, is a National Historic Landmark.

“We all thought the whole town was going down, the way it was burning. It was all over the place,” said Judie Wall, owner of Al’s Place bar and restaurant on Main Street.

All structures in Locke are equipped with sprinklers. It’s unknown why the fire-suppression system didn’t work in this case.

Wall said the fire started around 4:15 p.m. Sunday in a second-story apartment on Main Street where a new family was living. Multiple fire departments – including from the surrounding communities of Walnut Grove, Clarksburg and Elk Grove – responded.

“We had to evacuate Al’s,” which is a few doors down from the building that burned, Wall said.

Locke is about 20 miles south of the state capital along the Sacramento River. The Chinese immigrants who founded it in 1915 had been displaced by a fire in Walnut Grove.

They persuaded rancher George Locke to lease them land to build their town. California law at the time prohibited Chinese immigrants from owning land.

For several decades, the town prospered as an enclave of Chinese culture, known for its gambling halls, brothels and theater. Hundreds of workers lived in and around the community during harvest seasons for pears and asparagus. They also helped build the extensive levee system that protects thousands of acres of farmland in the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta.

After World War II, the town gradually fell into decline, becoming a picturesque, run-down relic with a fraction of its former population. Artists, shop owners and restauranteurs moved in during the past few decades.

Wall said the residents of the burned apartment owned a knickknack and art store on the first floor that wasn’t open regularly and didn’t have a name yet.

“The fire department did an amazing job,” Wall said. “It did not spread to other buildings. No one was in the building when it started” and no one was injured, she said.

None of the fire departments that responded were available for comment Sunday night.

Jessica Hice: 916-321-1550, @JesserPea

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