After the transcontinental railroad was completed, Chinese laborers, attracted by the jobs available in levee building and land reclamation (more on this in a future blog), settled in Walnut Grove, near Sacramento.
Following a fire that destroyed the Chinese section of Walnut Grove, a number of Chinese wanted to establish a town of their own. Under the Alien Land Law of 1913, Chinese were not allowed to own land, so they contacted George Locke and worked out a deal under which they leased the necessary land to build their community. Named after George, the town of Locke was founded in 1915.
The town was laid out by Chinese architects and industrious building ensued. By 1920, Locke stood as it is now. The heart of the town is Main Street, where half of the town's buildings are located. It is one-way with parking on the right-hand side only.
It grew into a vibrant city with over 1,000 residents.
During the Roaring Twenties, Locke had three gambling houses, several opium dens, a speakeasy or two, and five houses of ill repute, but no police force. There was also a Chinese-owned movie theater showing silent black and white films, a Chinese herbalist dispensing medicine and medical advice, six restaurants, nine grocery stores, a flour mill, a hotel and numerous boarding houses.
A former gambling house has been converted into a museum called the Dai Loy Museum (mid-way down the row of stores).
Over time, as the Chinese community in Locke became more acculturated and educated, they left the town to seek other opportunities.
The streets of Locke are less than a quarter of a mile long. During its heyday, Locke was filled with visitors; residents sat on their balconies overlooking Main Street and chatted with their neighbors, who all shared a common language.
The two main streets in Locke are connected by stairs and narrow alleys which give the town a unique charm. The town was built behind a levee, so that the store fronts on the River Road are higher than the stores lining Main Street. Stairways connect the wooden sidewalk on the River Road to the sidewalk on Main Street below.
Some of the ramshackle buildings are now boarded up, but there are still plenty of places to visit.
Although the town today has only about a hundred residents, with ten Chinese Americans, Locke is experiencing a revitalization due to the work and dedication of the Locke Community Advisory Committee and its many supporters.
The California Alien Land law prevented non-citizens from owning land in California. The Japanese and Chinese immigrants were prevented from becoming American citizens until after 1952, when the original US naturalization laws were declared unconstitutional. The residents of Locke could own their houses, but not the land on which they were built.
In 1977, the entire town of Locke, and 450 acres of surrounding land, was purchased by a Hong Kong developer. The buildings in Locke are owned by private individuals, while the developer owns the land on which Locke stands. The residents of Locke protested against plans to develop the area with modern housing.
It is thought that the reason there are so many people that visit this small community is because it has an authenticity, without any hypocritical overtones, in contrast to many places that entice the visitors to come.