Newcastle started as a mining town in the early 1850s.
Originally located further south along the ravine, Newcastle was moved north to its present location in 1864 when the railroad came through. There are several origin stories for the town’s name. The most popular theory is that it was first named “Castle” or “Castle City” after an early resident. When the town was moved, it was then renamed “New Castle” or “Newcastle.” As popular as this theory is, the earliest references to the town in 1852 use “Newcastle.”
When the Central Pacific Railroad started construction toward Newcastle, the Sacramento Daily News speculated the new portion of track would see the largest amount of business, on account of the wood, granite, merchandise, and machinery shipping through West Placer. This foreshadowed the coming shift from mining to agriculture in Newcastle.
Agriculture, the Real Gold Rush
The completion of the Central Pacific Railroad through the area in 1864 made fruit shipping a commercially viable enterprise.
The temperate climate of the lower Sierra foothills was beneficial for growing a variety of fruits. Granite soils, sunny days, and cool nights provided perfect growing conditions. Pre-existing mining ditches were easily repurposed into irrigation systems and orchards ripened earlier than in other areas, earning higher market prices.
The fruit industry exploded. The first shipments were confined to California, but production expanded. Charles M. Silva was a pioneer berry grower, and he made the first rail shipment of strawberries to Nevada. Chinese laborers, who had worked on the Central Pacific Railroad, found work with Silva to clear brush and assist with farm work. As more orchards were planted, Chinese immigrants found work on these new farms or rented their own land.
W. J. Wilson established the first shipping house in the early 1870s, W. J. Wilson & Son. These shipping houses lined the east side of the plaza that ran along the railroad. Newcastle’s main street ended at the track, and much of the area was dedicated to fruit packing and shipping, with fruit dryers, a box factory, a freight house, and saloon. The west side had stores, the Good Templar’s hall, a hotel, and stable.
As the town emerged as a leader in fruit production, it attracted new businesses and residents. By the 1880s Newcastle had three grocery stores, three blacksmiths and wagon repair shops, a bootmaker, saloon, tack shop, Doctor, and local government agencies. Newcastle also boasted an elegant hotel that served the local travelers, but also Eastern buyers looking to procure contracts with fruit companies. The small, but growing community had a school and five secret orders, which included the Good Templars and the Freemasons.
Newcastle received an influx of Japanese immigrants, Issei, after the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882. These individuals, like the Chinese immigrants before them, found work as farmhands and tenant farmers, while others purchased orchards. Both the Chinese and Japanese communities were essential to the growing fruit industry in Newcastle.
By 1889, W. J. Wilson & Son, aided by the advent of refrigerated shipping cars, was the largest fruit shipper in California. Advertising helped Newcastle expand its reputation and prestige in the Mid-Western and Eastern markets.
The fruits showed well in agricultural fairs, and pamphlets extolled their size, freshness, and flavor.
Shipments from Newcastle increased every year. In 1889, the year of the first interstate shipment, a total of 176 railcars left Newcastle. Despite a devastating fire in 1900, that same year Newcastle shipped 1,054 carloads with over 27 million pounds of fruit. This accounted for a 1/6th of California’s deciduous fruit production. After the fire, the Newcastle Fruit Growers Association was formed.
With twenty-seven members in the first year, the Association helped consolidate shipping houses and lower shipping rates. As a result, fruit production and shipping increased. For years to come, Newcastle was famous for shipping over 1,000 railcars of fruit per year.
In 1913, the California Alien Act negatively affected both the Chinese and Japanese communities in Newcastle. The Act barred all Asian immigrants from owning their own orchards or obtaining long term leases. This was circumvented, until later amendments, by purchasing land in their American born children’s name.
Despite racial prejudice, the Chinese and Japanese were flourishing in Newcastle. The Issei (Japanese immigrants) and their American born children, Nisei, established a community adjacent to Chinatown. There was a boarding house, a pool hall, barbershop, two grocery stores, and a Japanese Association Hall. Starting in 1916, the Association Hall hosted the Newcastle Nihongo Gakuen, the Japanese Language School, a boys and girls club, and religious services.
During this time, the Portuguese community in Newcastle was soliciting donations for the erection of a dance hall. Portuguese immigrants had settled in and around Newcastle during the Gold Rush, and worked as laborers, ranchers, and business owners. The New Year celebrations of 1917 saw the collection of $500 toward the hall, which was completed the following year.
A diverse and multi-cultural town, the First World War began to reveal racial and economic tensions which would affect Newcastle in the coming decades.
Starting in the 1920s, Newcastle began to decline from a series of economic, national, and natural disasters. The Great Depression caused economic strain and foreclosures. Before many farms could recover, competition increased, and the Central Valley began to eclipse Placer in production.
Background Photo: Newcastle Portuguese Hall
The Second World War contributed to the demise of Newcastle’s fruit industry, and greatly increased racial tensions. Orchards relied heavily on laborers or owners of Japanese ancestry, who were forced into internment camps.
The Doi family were the first to return to Newcastle in January of 1945, after three years of imprisonment. Sumio Doi was an American citizen and Army Corporal. Within their first month home, Doi and his elderly parents suffered an arson attempt, and had dynamite placed under their packing shed. That same month, the Anti-Japanese League formed in Placer County, with representation in Newcastle.
Despite support from local law enforcement and orchard owners, some Japanese and Japanese Americans never returned.
Background Photo: Tule Lake Relocation Center
The end of Newcastle’s prominence in the fruit industry occurred in the 1960s. Pears, the area’s primary export, were hit by two separate epidemics.
Mature pear orchards take 15 years to produce large quantities of fruit. With the industry already in decline, orchards were not replanted, and the last fruit shipper closed in 1967.
As the fruit industry declined, and the area evolved, the sites representing its history have changed dramatically. The packing sheds were shuttered and abandoned, and Chinatown was destroyed to construct the I-80.
However, despite these changes, Newcastle retains much of its history. The Portuguese Hall has hosted cultural events every year since its construction in 1918. The fruit sheds, once empty, have been converted to new retails spaces. And Newcastle’s agriculture still lives on today, with over 20 farms nestled throughout the foothills.
Newcastle mirrors the history of Placer County as a whole. A culturally diverse area, where shifts in industry, economic booms and declines, and constant change have shaped its history.
To learn more about communities in Placer County, visit Placer County Museums website.