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MailTribune.com
  • The Chinese legacy

    Immigrants from the Far East had a huge impact on the railroad in Southern Oregon
  • Of the 4,000 workers who labored long hours to build the railroad through the Siskiyou Mountains, more than half left little trace of their having passed this way.
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    • Historic Railroad Museum
      The Ashland Historic Railroad Museum is at 258 A St., Suite 7, near the corner of A and Second streets.
      The museum, which includes an exhibit of Chinese railroad workers and the local Chinese co...
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      Historic Railroad Museum
      The Ashland Historic Railroad Museum is at 258 A St., Suite 7, near the corner of A and Second streets.

      The museum, which includes an exhibit of Chinese railroad workers and the local Chinese community, is open from noon to 4 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday. There is no admission fee, although donations are accepted.

      For additional information, call the museum at 541-261-6605.
  • Of the 4,000 workers who labored long hours to build the railroad through the Siskiyou Mountains, more than half left little trace of their having passed this way.
    An exception was Wah Chung, one of the 2,400 Chinese workers who helped tie the California and Oregon Railroad line between the two states in 1887.
    "Wah Chung was very well-loved in Ashland — he was held in high regard in the community," says Victoria Law, director of the Ashland Historic Railroad Museum, which includes a section on the Chinese railroad workers.
    "One Daily Tidings newspaper article said that Wah Chung was a good American who would donate to every organization that came by his door," she adds.
    Wah Chung was the Chinese labor agent for Southern Pacific and the owner of a Chinese store on the corner of Second and A streets in Ashland's railroad district. He and his wife, known only as "Mrs. Wah Chung," had two children, Jenny and Sammy.
    The museum's Chinese exhibit includes historic photographs of the Wah Chung family, newspaper clippings and railroad artifacts such as Chinese rice bowls, opium tins, a soy sauce jar and gambling tokens excavated near Tunnel 13 in the Siskiyous.
    "The two-story Chinese grocery store stood about where this building stands now," Law says. "There was a Chinese laundry on the corner. And there was a Chinese home next to it. We know that Wah Chung lived in that house."
    An article in the January 1925 edition of the Southern Pacific trade bulletin told of the legacy of Wah Chung, then 82. He had been the Chinese labor agent for the company for 42 years, according to the article, which included comments by Superintendent E.L. King of the company's Portland Division.
    King described the "Chinese gangs" as loyal workers who could be depended upon to do any task.
    "Wah Chung keeps these gangs up to maximum requirements, looks after the welfare of the men, takes care of their commissary and has been a very valuable asset to his company," King said. "He enjoys a wide acquaintance and is always a welcome visitor in the office or on the line."
    Wah Chung hired Chinese railroad construction crews and served as their representative to the company. He even kept a pond near his home to raise fish and eels for the workers.
    A former computer programmer who later earned a degree in history, Law, whose grandfather and great uncles worked for railroad companies, became fascinated with the Ashland railroad district and its Chinese legacy while working with the Southern Oregon Historical Society.
    "The Chinese railroad workers were paid $30 a month in gold," she says. "They were paid pretty much what the Caucasian workers were paid, except the Caucasian workers had their meals thrown in for free.
    "The Chinese pooled their resources to purchase the food for their cook," she adds. "They were really not interested in having the food provided to the white workers."
    As a result, they had better fare than other workers, who often ate beef stew and beans and drank coffee, she says.
    "The Chinese workers ate healthier meals," she says. "They ate rice, fresh chicken, fresh pork and vegetables. They also designated one member of their work crew to be the cook."
    Bones found at Chinese work sites also tell the story of the food they ate, she says.
    "We have stories in the newspaper of hogs being transported from Talent up to the Siskiyous for fresh meat for the Chinese," she said.
    In their camp, the Chinese also had boiled tea to drink around the clock, she says.
    "They drank tea all the time," Law says. "So they had less problems with dysentery and disease because they did not drink the water from the area that might have been contaminated."
    Law believes stories of Chinese railroad workers being underpaid are largely myths.
    "Those stories were told by the early labor industry who wanted to keep the Chinese workers from working on the railroad," she says. "They were paid and in gold. A lot of them saved that money and sent it back home."
    Others used it to open businesses in Chinese communities in Portland and San Francisco, she says.
    "The Chinese railroad workers tended to have a different lifestyle than the Caucasian workers on the railroad," she says.
    After their work day was over, the Chinese would take hot-water baths, something not often practiced at nonChinese camps, she says.
    "That would have been completely alien to the rough-and-ready Irish workers and others," she says, noting she is of Irish ancestry.
    The sojourners from the Far East also brought with them something to relax with after a day's hard work.
    "These are opium box tin lids," Law says of metal can lids the size of a small wooden matchbox in the museum. "They definitely used opium. But we think they used opium the way someone might have a beer after work.
    "It wasn't something they used while they were working," she adds. "It was used to relax or for medicinal purposes."
    After the railroad was completed, about 250 Chinese workers initially stayed in Ashland, she estimates, noting that number dropped to about 50 in 1900.
    "They were the railroad maintenance workers," she says. "But it was a hard life because they didn't have their families. It was a bachelor's society that was far from home."
    Moreover, most were not exactly greeted with open arms by local residents, she says.
    "Racism was endemic in Southern Oregon," she says. "A lot of them didn't speak English. If you didn't speak English, it was obviously hard for people to communicate with you."
    Yet the reception the Chinese received in Ashland was different than their reception in Jacksonville, she says.
    "I think that was because the Chinese in Ashland were not competing for the resources — the gold — the way they would have been as miners," she explains. "In Ashland, they helped bring the railroad and maintain it."
    Yet an 1879 article in the Tidings described two Chinese men who opened a laundry in Ashland, but "found no business and the boys tormented them by throwing rocks at their house, so they grew discouraged about making a fortune here and left for Jacksonville with a poor opinion of our town."
    Congress passed the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, barring additional laborers from immigrating from China.
    "It kept the Chinese from bringing their families over, but it was focused on laborers," she says. "If you were a merchant or a scholar, you could bring your family. Wah Chung was a merchant, so he was able to go back to China, marry and bring his wife back to Ashland.
    "The railroad workers who worked for him were not able to do that," she says. "If they had, we probably would have had a Chinese community that stayed."
    Like other wealthy, English-speaking Chinese, Wah Chung and his family were accepted in Ashland, she says.
    "His wife was a high-society lady in China who had bound feet," she says. "They seemed to be a pretty happy family who, for the time, somewhat integrated into the rest of the community. They would hold birthday parties for Jenny or Sammy. People from the community would come to the parties."
    Shortly before his death, Wah Chung moved to Portland, but was buried in Ashland's Mountain View Cemetery, she says.
    "We think his remains were dug up and sent back to China in the 1920s but I am still trying to verify that," she says. "His wife did return to China, where she died."
    There are at least eight early Chinese burials in Ashland cemeteries, she says. But most of the workers returned to China, where their descendants are proud of their legacy, she adds.
    "The Chinese were the major workforce for the railroad," she says, adding that it would not have been completed in the same time frame without their contributions. "But there is no monument to them. ... The work they did has been all but forgotten."
    Reach reporter Paul Fattig at 541-776-4496 or email him at pfattig@mailtribune.com.
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