Now & Then: Asian Americans in Fremont County – Laundries, Chandler Coal Mine Strike, and State Prison, 1880-1933

By Loretta Stevens Bailey

Now:  This will be my third time I have researched and written a blog on ethnic groups.  So far, each one has been enlightening and educational for me about Fremont County’s captivating history and diversity.


Laundry Houses

Then:  The Colorado Magazine published an article in October 1952 which gives a history of the Chinese laundry establishments in our country.

The greatest share of the laundry done in the city of Denver was performed in the Chinese “washee houses” along Hop Alley. As early as 1850 the first Chinese laundry establishments had been opened in San Francisco. Where laundry had been done by white labor at the cost of twenty dollars per dozen articles, the Chinese moved in reducing the cost to two dollars.  The greatest expense of a Chinese laundry was the rent and water bill. The washhouse was usually a shack-like place. Here John Chinaman would wash in the back of his shop, dry the linens on the roof and iron in public view.[1]

The Cañon City Record

March 1, 1881


Washing, Ironing and Fluting,[2]

Work is well done and


No acids used to destroy clothes.  Our success is attributed to clean washing and skillful ironing. . . Washee house in rear of Nelson’s Jewelry Store, and Dr. Cravens’s Office, next west of the Baptist Church, Main Street, Canon City, Colorado.


Now: Law Kee’s was housed at 606 Main Street was razed around 1900.  The site would later become the home of the Jones Motion Picture Company, now the Skyline Theatre.

Law Kee, ca. 1890, Object ID: 1957.012.001; Copyright Royal Gorge Regional Museum & History Center
Law Kee, ca. 1890, Object ID: 1957.012.001; Copyright Royal Gorge Regional Museum & History Center

“Judging from the setting and quality of the photograph of Law Kee, and his attire, this is a picture of a successful businessman.  There is little doubt he would have sent photographs to relatives to express his good fortune.”[1]

Law Kee’s Laundry in top left corner (people gathered for cornerstone laying of Masonic Temple), July 9, 1881, Object ID: 1956.013.015; Copyright Royal Gorge Regional Museum & History Center
Law Kee’s Laundry in top left corner (people gathered for cornerstone laying of Masonic Temple), July 9, 1881, Object ID: 1956.013.015; Copyright Royal Gorge Regional Museum & History Center

A few other laundries were also found in the Sanborn maps along Main Street. In 1890, there are two listed: 508 Main Street and 618 Main Street. 508 Main Street now houses Phil’s Barber Shop and 618 Mains Street house Jared M. Smith Dentistry. Eleven years later in the 1901 Sanborn Map, there is only one listed at 609 Main Street which is now Trevarah Dance Studio.

According to the 1890 Colorado Business Directory, three laundry houses were in Cañon City.  Owners were George Lee, John Sing, and Sing Lee.

As time went by, intolerance and discrimination of the Chinese laborers grew. High cost of rent and water drove Law Kee back to Silver Cliff, Colorado where he had previously resided.

“The year after this 1881 photograph [of Law Kee] was taken, President Chester A. Arthur signed into law the Chinese Exclusion Act, which stopped the immigration of skilled and unskilled Chinese laborers into the United States.  The law was not repealed until 1943.”[1]

The following articles show the attitudes of people at the time and the intolerance the Chinese faced on a daily basis.

The Cañon City Record

March 5, 1881

 “A Chinese woman named Choy Hing, arrived in this city on Wednesday, en route to Silver Cliff.  She attracted much attention on account of her peculiar dress of silk.”

Cañon City Clipper

September 26, 1888

“The small boys of the city are making it interesting for the new Chinaman who recently opened a laundry next door to Palmer’s Drug Store.  They stone him whenever he goes out on the street and otherwise torment him.”

Canon City Clipper

September 26, 1888

“Upon this delightful autumn morning we again arise to remark the Chinese ought to go.  Canon does not need them and the city would be better off without them.  Their “washees” are simply stench holes.  The money paid to them would be paid to poor white and colored people.  The Mongolians horde up their money and ship it to China.  Americans spend their money here.  Fire the almond-eyed sons-of-guns.”

Cañon City Record

December 19, 1891

“A Chinaman died at Sling Hop’s Laundry, on Main St., last Saturday night, and was buried with regular Chiness[e] ceremony on Sunday.  Consumption caused his death, and in fact that is about the only thing that will kill a Chinaman.”

Now: According to a book produced by the Greenwood Pioneer Cemetery Committee, at the cemetery in the Paupers Section is a gravestone written entirely in Chinese.  There have been many attempts by the Greenwood Cemetery Committee to interpret the symbols with little success so far due to information missing on the broken piece.  Vandalism has brought havoc to the cemetery at different times and this stone was one of many that has been damaged.

Headstone with Chinese characters in Greenwood Cemetery, Object ID: 2000.003.328; Copyright Royal Gorge Regional Museum & History Center.
Headstone with Chinese characters in Greenwood Cemetery, Object ID: 2000.003.328; Copyright Royal Gorge Regional Museum & History Center.

There were several families of Chinese origin who moved from Fairplay, and were mostly in the laundry business, in the early 1900’s.  One of these people was Lee Mon Ue, and the committee suspects he may be the owner of this stone.

My daughter and I visited Florence Pioneer Museum and Research Center on 100 East Front Street. Marty Lamm was very helpful with our research of Sanborn Maps and other pertinent information.  She brought us maps 1890, 1895, 1906, 1912 and 1926.   We researched the maps for dates and addresses of Chinese laundries.

Our rewarding research provided the following findings.  In 1890, there were no laundry houses.  The 1895 map “Chinè Laundry” on 627 West Front Street and a Chinese Laundry on 504 Pikes Peak Avenue.  (Present day the Florence Post Office).  The 1906 map has no Chinese laundries listed.

Our biggest find on a 1912 map was a Chinese laundry listed at 733 East Front Street, which is now is a part of the Pioneer Museum.  Marty gave us the dimensions of the laundry: 12 feet wide and 73 feet with a flat roof for drying clothes.

Chandler Town and Coal Mine

Then:  The gold rush in the 1860’s in Colorado had brought many Chinese to the mountain towns. After the gold fever rush was over the Chinese moved to lower elevations where the winters were not as unforgiving. Some of them may have decided to seek work in the coal mines.

Although the town and coal mine were near each other, Chandler was not unpleasant place to live.  Newspapers report in the early 1900’s that Chandler would be abloom with roses and lilac bushes in the spring time.  Beatification was encouraged by cash prizes from the coal mining company for the town’s most attractive yards.

The location of Chandler itself was built on top of a mesa with Chandler Creek running through the town.  It was eight miles east from Cañon City on Ash Street. The mesa was surrounded on the southwest by the lush Green Horn Mountains and the Wet Mountains.

However, life in this coal camp wasn’t always idyllic, with deadly violence in 1902 and 1903.  Coal miners were on strike due to the unsafe working conditions in the mines and many lives were lost.  Cave-ins, gas explosions, and water seepage were the cause of many deaths by suffocation or drowning. The pay was poor for such hazardous work.

The coal miners were union members and the Miners International Workers of the World had become a strong union in the local area.  Disputes between the unions and company owners often were violent and ended in death.

During one such labor dispute, the coal company at Chandler brought in Japanese, Chinese, and African-American workers to replace the striking miners. The miners converged on the mine demanding they leave.  Trouble was adverted when Sheriff Simon prevailed on the mine superintendent to send the workers that had been brought in away.  Finally, they were accompanied by the striking miners, walked to Florence and placed in boxcars and sent back on the train.

The following headlines are from the Florence Daily Tribune in 1902 give an inkling of how volatile and unpredictable matters became at Chandler Coal mine.


February 11, 1902


About Thirty-two Japs Arrived from Rock Springs, Wyoming


Mass Meeting will be Held Tomorrow Morning and Some Action Taken.

February 12, 1902


Miners Determined to Take Quick and Decisive Action

February 13, 1902


Attack Boarding House and Demolish the Windows


Superintendent Scents Trouble and Takes Steps to Prevent It.

May 13, 1902


Negroes Imported from South to Work at Chandler Mine


May 14, 1902


Unions of Fremont County to Discuss Labor Question.



May 15, 1902


Chandler Men Continue to Work without Interruption


No meeting of the miners will probably be held for the present in regards to the colored men working at Chandler Creek.  At least this is the decision of Coal Creek men.

The report which was sent to this office from Rockvale yesterday seems to be a little premature.

The Coal Creek men are working today and it is understood that they will work for the rest of the week.

The miners at the other mines may not take any decisive action for the present because the conditions at Chandler are different from what they were when the bunch of Japanese were imported there the early part of the year, inasmuch as the miners who were employed there have nearly all left the place and secured employment elsewhere.  Had the old Chandler miners remained in camp the matter would have been taken up and disposed of at once.


Now:  My impression of researching for this blog is that in this time period, most of the discrimination was directed at the Asian Americans.  The owners of the Coal Companies were the culprits in instigating these labor disputes because as long as they could pay the white labors cheap wages, the coal companies were satisfied.  It was when the white workers joined unions to protect themselves that trouble would arise between the different factions.

These news articles can be read in their entirety and subject matter at Royal Gorge Regional Museum & History Center and Florence Pioneer Museum and Research Center.

You can visit the museum to view the photo of Law Kee on display in the exhibit, “Around the World in 80 Artifacts” alongside other beautiful artifacts from China, Japan, and other countries.

To end, here is one last article of  a former resident of Cañon City.

Florence Citizen

October 27, 1933


Gantuyo Mistunga, the only Japanese inmate of Colorado State Prison, died at the inmate hospital Wednesday evening from cancer of the stomach.

His last word was a prayer to the Japanese sun god, the deity that he had worshipped all his life and whom he had not forgotten during his 22 years behind the wall at the prison.

Guards tell of Mistunga’s devotion to his sun god. Every day Mistunga would kneel in silent prayer, his face uplifted toward the blazing sun.  For 30 minutes he would remain in this position, his open eyes following the course of the orbit across the skies.

At the conclusion of the worship, guards say that the little Japanese would be totally blind for more than an hour and oftentimes he would suffer for several hours at a time.  Yet, he never forsook his steadfast belief in the sun god, and the ridicule of his fellow inmates only strengthened his worship.

Some time ago Mistunga was declared insane and he was transferred to the prison hospital.  Ever here he continued his daily prayer to the god which he believed would someday restore his liberty so he might spend his last days in his native Japan.

Mistunga was only 26 when the gates of the prison clanged shut on him on February 21, 1911, and he began serving a life sentence for a murder committed in Denver.  When he died, he was 48.

Mistunga, so far as is known, has no immediate relatives in this country.  So, Friday afternoon he was laid to rest in a grave on Woodpecker Hill – – the prison cemetery.  Only short services were held.

[1] Ibid.

[1] Larry Thomas Ward, Cañon City, Colorado: Every Picture Tells a Story, (Los Angeles, Nicholas Lawrence Books, 2005), 64.

[1] Patricia Ourada, “The Chinese in Colorado,” The Colorado Magazine, XXIX (October, 1952), 281.

[2] a grove or furrow in cloth


Works Cited

Greenwood Pioneer Cemetery Committee. A Walk Into the Past: A Tour of Greenwood Cemetery. Cañon City, Colorado: 2006.

Morris, Steve and Fremont Middle School Students. Boomtown: A Brief History of Florence and Surrounding Area, 1890-1920. Florence, Colorado: 1981.

Ourada, Patricia. “The Chinese in Colorado.” The Colorado Magazine 30, no. 4 (Oct. 1952), 273-284.

Ward, Larry Thomas. Cañon City, Colorado: Every Picture Tells a Story. Los Angeles: Nicholas Lawrence Books, 2005.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *