Do you know that downtown Salt Lake once had its own China Town?
Albeit small, Plum Alley, which connects 200 South with Orpheum Avenue between Main Street and State Street once was home to Salt Lake City’s Chinese community – restaurants, stores, laundry, etc. We don’t often think about this era of downtown’s history because we can’t see it. Sadly, Plum Alley is mostly made up of parking garages now, but thanks to KSL who recently published photos of this piece of history from the late 19th century, we’re reminded of a little bit our cities history.
Chinese immigrants first came to Utah through the construction of a Central Pacific rail line from Sacramento to Promontory. More than 12,000 Chinese workers were hired at one point during that construction. The workers were paid anywhere from $27 to $30 a month and had to pay for boarding — less than the $35 per month Irish workers were making at the time and boarding was provided for them.
Even though they weren’t getting paid as well as the Irish workers they were able to keep themselves healthier than their cohorts with many of their meal habits. Things such as drinking warm tea (from boiled water), instead of unclean water helped prevent dysentery and other illnesses.
The workers gained praise for how reliable and resourceful they were. And in the end, the Chinese workers were instrumental in building the transcontinental lines that were connected at Promontory Summit.
After the railroad industry diminished, many of the Chinese workers who remained in Utah moved south from Promontory and surrounding areas to Salt Lake and some even to Park City, which once thrived as a mining town.
According to the 1890 census, 271 Chinese people lived in Salt Lake. When the migration from Box Elder County came, Plum Alley became the Chinese district in Salt Lake. The area grew constantly until the 1930s into more than 1,000 people.
There isn’t anything left of what used to be the old Plum Alley — though the alley still exists. Nearby Regent Street, in downtown Salt Lake honors Plum Alley in its sidewalk full of other historic notes from history. Take a look one day when you’re down there, you’ll see the plaque commemorating a piece of the past.