With its oak-studded hills and wildlife-rich salt marshes on the edge of San Pablo Bay,1,500-acre Camp State Park certainly ranks as worthy of protection. But it’s the region’s cultural history that truly makes the region take on richer meaning. Facing racial persecution and bigotry during and after the California Gold Rush, Chinese immigrants moved and settled here, creating a vibrant fishing village with some 500 inhabitants. It’s an important story of immigrants finding a new home and way of life in a new land. Here’s a look at this and other chapters of China Camp’s cultural history, right up to its unique role today as a state park managed largely by volunteers.
Prehistory to 1775: Coast Miwok homeland
China Camp State Park occupies an area that was inhabited for thousands of years by the Coast Miwok people. The Miwok had dozens of small villages scattered throughout Marin and southern Sonoma Counties, including several in the vicinity of China Camp. They had a subsistence lifestyle, hunting game such as deer and rabbits, harvesting acorns, fishing, and gathering clams, oysters, and other shellfish.
The Coast Miwok population was estimated to have been several thousand at the time of the Spanish arrival in 1775. Within a hundred years, Miwok were nearly wiped out. Today, there are still some Miwok scattered across the Bay Area, with the largest group at Graton Rancheria in Sonoma County.
1775 to 1869: Spanish missions and an unlucky Irishman
The Spanish first sailed their ship, the San Carlos, into San Francisco Bay in 1775. They established the Mission San Rafael Archangel (shown below) at nearby San Rafael in 1817 and brought in Miwok converts, as well as members of Pomo and Ohlone tribes. Shortly after Mexican independence from Spain in 1821, the old Spanish missions were secularized, and the land was supposed to be returned to the Miwok. Instead, land was seized to enrich those with influence and power, and the Miwok got nothing.
Trade restrictions were eased under the new Mexican government. The population of California grew rapidly with the arrival of many Americans and Europeans who came to trade with the pueblos and ranchos. Timothy Murphy, an Irishman who arrived in 1828, became the administrator at the former San Rafael Mission and later the alcalde, or mayor, of San Rafael. In 1844, he was granted a 21,679-acre parcel by the Mexican governor Manuel Micheltorena. The land grant, called Rancho San Pedro, Santa Margarita y las Gallinas, covered much of the area that is now China Camp State Park.
Murphy, referred to as Don Timoteo Murphy in Spanish, established a sprawling cattle ranch on San Pedro Peninsula. Timothy Murphy did not fare well with the American takeover of California in 1846, and by 1849 he had lost most of his land to swindlers. He died in 1853 of a burst appendix, while his once extensive empire was divided up and sold to cover his debts.
1869 to 1855: McNear empire takes over San Pedro Peninsula
In 1869, a large portion of Timothy Murphy’s rancho was purchased by John A. McNear (pictured below) and his brother George. The McNear brothers were businessmen and landowners in Sonoma County, where they had made their fortune. They established a large dairy ranch that covered more than 2,500 acres, including five miles of waterfront along San Pablo Bay.
The McNears’ original plans included a shipping terminal and a railroad line that connected to San Rafael, but they lost their financial backing after the 1906 earthquake and fire in San Francisco. The McNears did succeed in establishing a number of business enterprises on the former ranch, including a quarry and a brickyard.
Chinese immigrants, who had been in Marin County as early as 1855, found work as laborers at the McNear Ranch. They supplemented their income by fishing for shrimp along the shores of San Pablo Bay, setting up temporary camps around the McNear property.
1855 to 1882: Heyday for Chinese immigrants and dry shrimp
There were once more than two dozen of these shrimping camps located around San Francisco and San Pablo Bays, although China Camp State Park preserves the only one that still remains. The location of China Camp along San Pedro Peninsula and the shores of San Pablo Bay was ideally suited for shrimping. It provided perfect conditions for a shrimping camp, such as close proximity to the fishing beds, adequate space for processing facilities on land, and a nearby grassy hillsides for drying shrimp (see picture at lower left).
Shrimp was sold to local restaurants, but the vast majority was dried and prepared for export to China. More than three million pounds of shrimp were harvested from the Bay each year throughout the late 1800s and into the early 20th century.
China Camp Village reached the height of its prosperity in the 1880s, with almost 500 residents. There were several small streets lined with wooden buildings, including general stores, a marine supply store, a barber shop, shrimp drying and grinding sheds, and numerous residences.
1882 to 1905: Anti-Chinese sentiment and laws flood China Camp
China Camp Village grew considerably in the 1870s and 1880s, at a time when vicious anti-Chinese sentiment was sweeping California. The economic recession of 1877 made scapegoats out of Chinese laborers, who were viewed as foreigners taking jobs away from Americans. Labor union leaders took advantage of this sentiment and rallied unemployed workers under the cry of “the Chinese must go!” In the midst of this atmosphere, many Chinese, like the woman at left, were drawn to the remote location of China Camp, where they could carry out self-sustaining lives away from the persecution and discrimination of the cities.
With the passage of the Chinese Exclusion Act in 1882, immigration from China was severely limited, the first time in American history that a specific nationality was prohibited from immigrating to the United States.
Over the next few decades, additional discriminatory laws were passed against the Chinese, making life difficult for the fishermen of China Camp Village. In 1905 the export of shrimp was outlawed, striking a severe blow to the China Camp economy. In 1911, the use of the traditional bag nets favored by the Chinese was prohibited. As a result of these laws, the population of China Camp Village declined until almost all residents were gone.
1905 to 1955: Quan Family legacy
Among the early residents of China Camp Village was Quan Hung Quock, who moved here from San Francisco’s Chinatown. He built a general store here in 1895 and raised a family. His grandson, Frank Quan, was the last original shrimp fisherman to live at China Camp Village, living there until his death at age 90 in 2016.
The shrimp fishery of San Pablo Bay has been almost completely depleted in recent years, as water diversion and pollution have compromised the health of the once vibrant ecosystem.
1955: Chinese life makes way for Hollywood super stars
China Camp Village was the scene of filming of the movie Blood Alley in 1955. John Wayne and Lauren Bacall starred in this classic Cold War-era adventure, in which China Camp Village played the role of a small village in China. The story revolves around a missionary’s daughter named Cathy Grainger, played by Bacall, who is attempting to help an entire village escape from the Communists by fleeing to Hong Kong.
The Bacall character enlists the help of reluctant Merchant Marine Captain Tom Wilder (John Wayne), who pilots a decaying old ferryboat down a 300-mile stretch of the coast of southern China known as “Blood Alley.”
Viewed through a modern lens, Blood Alley is a reflection of Cold War hysteria, as well as Hollywood’s historically inaccurate portrayal of the Chinese. Most of the Chinese roles in the movie are played by Caucasian actors, and the dialogue is shockingly jingoistic from a contemporary point of view.
The scenes of China Camp are fascinating though, with a large fabricated castle on the hillside above the village. Rat Rock has a prominent function in the plot of the movie, serving as a point where the villagers lay a trap for the Communist gunboats that pursue the fleeing ferryboat.
1960 to 1965: Developers descend, but parkland prevails
Over the years, China Camp had become a popular locale for relaxing and enjoying nature and the bayfront, especially at China Camp Village (as shown below). By the 1960s, most of the San Pedro Peninsula was owned by developer Chinn Ho and his New York California Industrial Corporation. Gulf Oil Company had its eye on the property, after having lost its bid to develop the Marin Headlands in 1972. Gulf Oil had a massive development in mind for the area, with large commercial areas, light industry, high-rise condos, and an estimated population of 30,000.
Homeowners in the nearby Peacock Gap residential area started to hear rumors about the proposed development and took action. Louise Kanter Lipsey, Tina Ferris, and Sandy Hanson formed Save San Pedro Peninsula in 1972, a group whose objectives were, among others, “to preserve as open space the ecologically unique and environmentally significant land of the San Pedro Peninsula.” They enlisted the help of local environmental and conservation groups, particularly the Marin Conservation League (MCL). With the help of Robert Young from the MCL, an Environmental Impact Report was drawn up, which was followed by a Proposal to Establish China Camp Shoreline Park.
The efforts of Save San Pedro Peninsula paid off. In 1976, the California State Park Foundation (CSPF) bought most of the holdings of the New York California Industrial Corporation for $2,310,000. The purchase included 1,640 acresof what had long ago been the old McNear ranch, along with much of the San Pedro peninsula. In addition, the 36-acre site of China Camp Village was donated by developer Chinn Ho, who wanted the area to be preserved as a memorial to Chinese-American history.
Later that year, the state of California, on behalf of the Department of Parks & Recreation, purchased the property from CSPF. China Camp State Park was established the following year. The park’s general plan, which was written in 1979, states that: “Special consideration will be given to continuing residential use within China Camp Village, to the extent that Frank Quan will be permitted to continue his life-long tenancy in the area.”
2008 to present: Birth of state park and Friends of China Camp
When the economy crashed in 2008, California was faced with a severe budget crisis, which resulted in deep cuts for California State Parks.Former govenor Arnold Schwarzenegger tried to shut down 220 of the 278 California state parks, including China Camp. His proposal was ultimately scaled back, settling instead for reduced maintenance, administrative staff, and operating hours at most parks.
A ballot initiative was put before the voters in 2010 to ensure that the California state parks have a steady and reliable source of funding, through an $18 increase in vehicle license fees. Proposition 21, which would have generated enough money to not only keep open the state parks, but also to address the serious backlog of deferred maintenance projects, was unfortunately defeated. As a result of the continuing budget shortfalls, Governor Jerry Brown proposed a budget in 2011 that would require the permanent closure of 70 state parks, including China Camp. This closure too was averted, with the help of legislation that allowed Friends of China Camp to have an Operating Agreement with California State Parks to operate the park and keep it open.
China Camp State Park is no longer threatened with closure, and has even expanded services. Back Ranch Meadows Campground along with the picnic sites at Buckeye Point and Weber Point are open seven days a week, and can be reserved through ReserveCalifornia. Volunteer activities abound, as do interpretive programs and other special events.
Below are additional resources covering China Camp’s history. For additional details on our historical archives and images, please call or write us at:
CHINA CAMP STATE PARK: VIDEO BY MARIN HISTORY MUSEUM
CREATING THE PARK: KEY DOCUMENTS, MAPS, AND ESSAYS
PARK PIONEER LOUISE LIPSEY: VIDEO INVTERVIEW