Buried secrets

On a sweltering summer's day in July 2007, a small team of archaeologists carefully sifted dirt through screens on a steep hillside near the center of Jacksonville.

Working carefully under the shade of several Chinese sumacs, Patrick O'Grady, staff archaeologist for the University of Oregon, searched for more physical evidence of Oregon's oldest Chinatown and of lives lived more than 150 years ago.

Jacksonville facts

Jacksonville was the first National Historic Landmark District in Oregon, in 1966. More than 100 buildings in Jacksonville are on the National Register of Historic Places.

The Rev. Thomas Fletcher Royal of Jacksonville was the first superintendent of the Common Schools of Jackson County, formed in 1854. Jacksonville was the first school district.

Jacksonville, the oldest city in Southern Oregon, was officially incorporated in 1860.

Incorporation dates for other Southern Oregon towns: Ashland, 1874; Medford, 1885; Grants Pass, 1887; Gold Hill, 1895; Talent and Phoenix, both 1910; and Rogue River, 1912.

O'Grady and his team were following up on an unexpected discovery made during the 2004 rebuilding of a one-mile stretch of Highway 234 through Jacksonville. Construction on the $3.5 million project was halted while O'Grady and Julie Schablitsky, an archaeologist with the Oregon Department of Transportation, led student archaeologists in four days of rescue excavations after road crews accidently uncovered artifacts from what was eventually determined to be Oregon's oldest Chinatown.

The earlier excavation site ran 30 feet west of the intersection of California and Oregon streets, and continued west of the Thai House Restaurant.

The archaeological artifacts dated back to the 1850s and 1860s, and included a dense concentration of animal bones, broken glass and broken Chinese bowls and tea cups, handmade bottles, fragments of opium paraphernalia and Chinese coins.

The unearthed treasures gave Jacksonville another notch in its history belt — they predated artifacts found in the state's other Chinese settlements.

Three years later, O'Grady and three researchers from the university's Museum of Natural and Cultural History were back in Oregon, excavating dirt one small shovelful at a time.

Although O'Grady's second search was more speculative, the team began finding items just minutes after they arrived. Before they stuck a single shovel in the newly exposed dirt, they found segments of Chinese and Japanese porcelain, flat nails and cast iron.

Jacksonville's Rich Gulch was the home of the first gold rush in Oregon. The year was 1852, the rush was on, and within months thousands of miners were seeking their fortune. By that winter, Jacksonville, then known as Table Rock City, had grown from a makeshift mining camp to a bustling town of over 2,000 complete with saloons, gambling halls and other businesses.

Reach reporter Sanne Specht at 541-776-4497 or e-mail sspecht@mailtribune.com.

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