Reinforcing the walls
Concerned citizens form group to catalogue, protect historic “Chinese walls”
Like most longtime residents of Butte County, Debbie Meline grew up aware of the ancient rock walls running intermittently across the local landscape, but didn’t think too much about them. She subscribed to the popular belief they’d been built by Chinese laborers in the 1800s, and figured they’d been here before her, and would remain after.
But last spring, while driving to her Paradise home from Chico, she started noticing how badly some of the walls had deteriorated over the years, largely due to people plundering for personal use the lava rocks that have remained stacked, sans mortar, for more than a century. Also worrisome was that some of the walls stand on property already marked for development, or will be soon as Chico continues to expand eastward.
When she got home, she made a Facebook post about it, and was surprised by how many others shared her concern. Meline’s friend Dennis Van Dyke (the pair, now in their 60s, met as students at Rosedale Elementary) suggested she begin a volunteer group to begin working to save the walls and, when necessary, restore them.
“My first thought was, ‘I’m terrified of rattlesnakes,’” Meline quipped. But as she mulled it over and more friends expressed interest in such a project, she decided to get the ball rolling, as long as Van Dyke also was involved.
Thus the duo began Restore the Wall, a Facebook group that has attracted more than 200 members since it began in May, to spread awareness about the walls’ respective conditions and recruit interested parties. They soon realized that it wasn’t as simple as getting a few people together and stacking stones. In fact, nothing about the walls, including their origin, is simple.
Local folklore has it that Chinese immigrants who came to California during the Gold Rush and stayed to build the railroads also built the walls. A particularly grisly tale, related in a 1984 Siskiyou Pioneer article called “Stone fences in Shasta Valley,” says that Butte County ranchers would feed the Chinese “a royal banquet on completion of the fence but the food was poisoned and the rancher buried them in the fence they’d built.”
That article’s author, Don Van Camp, posits that there were racist laws against using Chinese labor for much of the time between 1860 and 1890, when the fences were built. He instead believes, as local historians Michele Shover and the late John Nopel told the CN&R in 2001 (see “Chico’s urban legends,” by Devanie Angel, Nov. 8, 2001), that the walls were originally built by Portuguese settlers. The design may have been copied by other groups afterward. Similar walls—some documented to have been built by Chinese—appear throughout Northern California, though they are especially prevalent locally.
“We are still trying to find out more about the history of the walls,” Meline said, noting the group has been in contact with several local historians and groups, including the Butte County Historical Society, Chico Heritage Association and Chico State’s Northeast Information Center.
The group also realizes haphazardly rebuilding the walls could do more harm to their history than good and so that part of the project will come further down the road. Meline and Van Dyke said their first step is gathering as much information about existing walls as possible and raising public awareness. Group members already have started photographing walls for the Facebook page, but the organizers are working on a standardized field report to ensure all the necessary information is obtained. They’d like to eventually see some city and county ordinances put into place to protect the walls, though this could also prove difficult because they span public and private land. The city of Chico owns only one wall, at the corner of Bruce and Humboldt roads.
“Some people might not want protection established because it could limit their ability to develop land,” Van Dyke said. “Unfortunately, some people think that it’s just easier to tear the walls down, just like some people do with trees.”
The group is currently organizing volunteers to map the walls via Google Earth and begin making field observations, now that the summer heat has passed. They also have established the Restore the Wall Charitable Fund through the North Valley Community Foundation to accept donations.
“There’s a lot of work to be done, but we want to go forward, because if we don’t no one will,” Meline said. “For years we’ve heard people say somebody needs to do something about the walls disappearing, and apparently that somebody is us.”