Wednesday, January 1, 2014

Chinatown rocked by explosion

China Alley looking north.
This location is featured in a virtual walking tour of Butte's Chinatown on HistoryPin.

By Richard I. Gibson

Mon Tow, a self-proclaimed Chinese doctor, arrived at the Northern Pacific depot in Butte in the early hours of November 8, 1914. He reportedly came from Omaha, and Omaha officials had telegraphed Butte sharing their suspicion that Mon was smuggling opium to Butte. The man was arrested on arrival by Deputy Sheriff Wonnscott, who took him to the County Jail, but a search revealed no opium and Mon was released. Twenty minutes later, a blast from China Alley rocked Chinatown, and was heard and felt all over Butte.

Butte Miner, front page, Nov. 9, 1914
Police had noted a 10-ounce container of transparent fluid – medicine, Dr. Mon said. Following the explosion, Sheriff John Berkin theorized that the “medicine” was nitroglycerine, which exploded when Mon dropped it.

This explosion took place in the basement at 104 China Alley, the west end of 111 S. Main Street, a building that is gone today (vacant lot north of Pekin Noodle Parlor). Besides killing Mon Tow, the blast seriously injured a 52-year-old Butte resident, Sing Sue, who was apparently assisting Mon. The building caught fire, but it was extinguished easily. Police Chief Jere Murphy believed that “a Tong war was brewing,” and that Mon had come to assassinate a prominent but unnamed local Chinese involved in opposing the opium traffic. Murphy felt that the explosion headed off that impending war.

1914 Sanborn map. Red dot at 104 China Alley.
The photo at top shows China Alley during the police investigation after the blast. The building at far right is the rear of the Pekin Noodle Parlor, a building that was just 5 years old when this event took place. The cross, enhanced on the photo, shows the basement entrance of 104 China Alley where the blast occurred. 104 China Alley held various stores over time, generally dealers in Chinese goods. In 1928, it was the meeting place for the Ring Kong Tong, the Chinese Freemasons. The building (111 S. Main-104 China Alley) survived into the 1960s or 1970s.

Resources: Butte Miner, Nov. 9, 10, 1914; Sanborn maps; city directories. All available at Butte-Silver Bow Public Archives. 

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