Opium, the Drug of Destruction


The year 1869 was a landmark year for Utah. With the completion of the transcontinental railroad, traffic to the West was now open and people made passage to Utah. This included many of the Chinese, who had been workers on the railroad and were paid minimal wages. Many of the Chinese moved where “economic opportunities were.” The railroad along with merchants offered many job opportunities in Utah. By 1890, the Chinese population grew to an estimated 806 people; often they were concentrated in small areas. (Dirlik, 269-275) This resulted in the creation of Chinatowns in Utah. According to Dirlik, Chinatowns offered “a place of security comfort and cultural familiarity.” (Dirlik, 271) Many men felt that they were in a strange country with unfamiliar customs.

With the growth of Chinatowns in Utah, so grew the Chinese influence, customs and traditions in the area. In fact, many white men and women adopted the habit of smoking opium after a long day of work as a way of relaxing their mind. Opium is a substance that is extracted from the sap of a poppy seed; it is a tar-like substance that is smoked and gives feelings of euphoria. On January 7, 1857, The Deseret News reported on the “Effects of Opium.” The article described it as a “wasting of youth, health, strength and those who begin its use at 20 can expect to die at 30 years of age.” One user described his experience with opium: “The pleasurable sensations and imaginative ideas arising at first soon pass away — they become fainter and fainter, and at last entirely give place to horrid dreams and appalling pictures of death.” This encyclopedia entry will focus on the rise and fall of opium dens in Utah and the role that they played in Utah’s history.

As Chinatowns continued to grow, so did the influence of opium. The drug was often stored and smoked in underground dens, thus making it harder for authorities to find them. Opium was becoming so popular that it eventually worked its way into white society. On February 7, 1883, The Deseret News reported on “Opium Traffic.” The reporter was amazed at how the use of opium was increasing among “civilized nations.” The claim was made that, “where alcoholism had been abandoned, opium in various forms has been adopted as a substitute in a large number of instances.” As the use of opium grew so did the amount of dens. Commercial Street was located in Salt Lake City, which often housed many opium dens in a concentrated area. “Chinese Dicks” and “Quong Wah Sing” were two of the dens, which happened to be next door to each other. One could often find twenty to thirty people housed there on a given evening.

On October 8, 1883, The Deseret News reported on opium dens in a story headlined, “A Visit to A Couple of Chinese Haunts.” The reporter described the den as he was walking in: “Light down a dark narrow stairway, the atmosphere of which was musty and unwholesome, an underground apartment was reached. The sides cased with rough boards, and around the room were large shelves covered with matting on which the opium smokers recline.” It became so accessible that opium cost 25 cents a pipe; anyone who was willing to pay regardless of age, race, or gender was welcome. Often these dens become dangerous places for young girls.

On May 5, 1883, The Deseret News reported on how the dens ruined young girls. Girls anywhere from 10 to 20 years old were often coaxed into a den by someone they knew. They were then taken upstairs to a dark murky room. In the company of other “ruined” girls they were told of the greatness of the drug. The young girls were usually expected to try it out of courtesy. Everyone looked on while the first few pipes were smoked. Once addicted, they stay “wasting away their young lives in a darkened room as helpless victims of the den keepers and their customers.” (“Openings for Christian Missionary Labors”) Most people thought of these dens as evil, wrong, and immoral, but according to Kirk, “The Tribune complained in 1878 that police were planning to raid dens in the city but could not because there was no law against them.” By 1890 a law had been passed prohibiting the sale of opium, fines would range for $10 to $99, finally giving law enforcement power. (Kirk, 233)

With the law finally on their side, officers could start cracking down on the dens. They were determined to find and shut down all access to opium. Many of the dens were found in Plum Alley, which ran north from 200 South to 100 South between Main Street and State Street. There was so much opium and so many arrests that police had trouble keeping track of inmates. One instance of this occurred on January 22, 1900. The Salt Lake Herald reported on one of the inmates named John Wah. Mr. Wah was a trustee to the jailer, and was turned out into the yard as a trustee. By the second day he felt the itch for opium so he “hot footed” it to Plum Alley where he got his fix. He returned to the jail on his own free will by suppertime. After his return he received a beating from the jailer. Mr. Wah promised to be good and follow the rules. The next day Mr. Wah was missing again, but this time he would not return and the jailer would not find him.

Often, if the person could not afford the fine he or she would have to do the same amount of days in jail as their fine. Raids on opium dens would continue until 1910 when they slowly started to fade away along with Utah’s Chinatowns. Looking back through Utah’s history we can see how opium dens played a large role in what was happening in white society, Chinese environments and with the youth. Opium came to Utah with the Chinese and was abused for more than forty years by all types of people disregarding gender, race or age. As laws were passed and efforts were made by law enforcement opium dens had their demise.

Jed Piercy is a student at The University of Utah. He is majoring in mass communication.


“Opium Dens, a Visit to a Couple of Chinese Haunts,” The Deseret News, October 8, 1883.

“Raided Opium Den,” The Deseret Evening News, October 2, 1901.

“Raided an Opium Den,” The Salt Lake Tribune, January 26, 1897.

“Effects of Opium,” The Deseret News, January 7, 1857.

“The Opium Traffic,” The Deseret News, Febuary 7, 1883.

“Wah Couldn’t Go On Without His Opium,” The Salt Lake Herald, January 22, 1900.

“Tried to Smuggle Opium,” The Deseret Evening News, October 9, 1900.

Openings for Christian Missionary Labors,” The Deseret News, May 23, 1883.

Secondary Sources:

Arif Dirlik. Chinese on the American Frontier: Lanham, Md.: Rowman & Littlefield, 2001.

Andrew Kirk. “Dens of Hell in the Cities of Zion.” Journalism History (Winter 2010).