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Chinese immigrants built Oregon's railroads and mined for gold

Chinese immigrants helped to develop infrastructure and build wealth during Oregon’s early settlement history, but the extent of their work and the critical role they played has not been well described.

The Oregon Chinese Diaspora Project, a statewide collaboration of local, regional and federal agencies, wants to change that.

The Chinese Diaspora Project kicks off locally in Ashland on Wednesday, July 3, in Hannon Library’s Meese Room at Southern Oregon University with a free talk by Sarah Heffner of PAR Environmental Services, “Exploring the Health Care of Chinese Railroad Workers Through an Historic and Archaeological Lens.”

Friends of the Cascade-Siskiyou National Monument will lead guided natural history hikes to Buck Rock Tunnel Sunday, July 7, as an additional local Chinese Diaspora Project activity. Naturalists will talk about flora and fauna along the way, and archaeologists will point out Chinese settlement features and findings at stops and at the Buck Rock Tunnel. The hikes have a limited number of slots and were already full Tuesday.

The Oregon Chinese Diaspora Project is designed to understand the larger landscape of Chinese immigration to Oregon beginning in the 1850s and their migration throughout the state, where they worked mines and built the Oregon and California Railroad across the Siskiyou Mountains. A joint effort of the U.S. Forest Service, Bureau of Land Management, Southern Oregon Laboratory of Archaeology and others, the project is mapping Chinese settlements around the state and documenting Chinese material culture found at the sites.

We know where Wah Chung, Ashland’s best known Chinese resident lived and worked in 1911. His laundry, store and home are clearly marked on historical city maps, right across the street from where Ace Hardware is today at the intersection of A Street and Second in the Railroad District. Chinese herbalists like Chan & Kong and J.H. Leong of Medford treated stomach ulcers, asthma, rheumatism, catarrah, piles and prostate troubles as late as the 1950s. Archaeological excavations near the Britt Festival have revealed Jacksonville’s Chinatown.

But historians have long recognized that there was much more to understand about how Chinese immigrants lived and worked in Oregon, and that was the genesis of the Oregon Chinese Diaspora Project.

“The common belief is that the majority of Chinese were in Portland and in Salem,” explained Cheslea Rose, SOULA’s lead archaeologist on the project. “We found that even though the numbers weren’t huge, the Chinese continued to live and work in rural and forest areas into the 20th century.

“We’ve found traces of Chinese camps that were active as the railroad was constructed, and also near the Buck Rock Tunnel that was abandoned mid-construction,” Rose said of the excavations they’ve explored southeast of Ashland. “The whole mountain is an archaeological site. There were campsites and businesses to support the Chinese workers, and even a saloon; we’re trying to find traces of all the components that went into building the railroad.”

Later in July, the Oregon Chinese Diaspora Project moves to John Day and the Malheur National Forest, where in the 1860s, Chinese-owned co-operatives operated mines along the John Day River. Malheur archaeologists and Southern Oregon Laboratory of Archaeology have been surveying the region for several years, and this summer SOULA will bring a field school to the site.

“Federal mining reports show that in 1870 82% of the placer gold claims in Grant County were owned by Chinese mining companies, and the 1870 U.S. Census puts the Grant County population at 2,251, of which 940 (42%) were Chinese. Of the 1,241 miners documented in the census, 69% were Chinese,” explained Don Hann, Forest Service archaeologist in the Malheur National Forest and head of the diaspora project. “Our initial assumption was that later mining had destroyed the traces of earlier Chinese mining communities, but that turned out not to be the case.“

Hann and Rose are using LIDAR — Light Detection and Ranging, a remote sensing technology — to penetrate the first layers of the forest. The technology is accurate to about 10 inches deep, and Hann says it’s the stuff of science fiction.

“We’re finding these Chinese mining camps, actually Chinese mining companies, like cooperatives, all over the place,” said Rose. “Because of the 1880 Chinese Exclusion Act and discriminatory legislation at the local, state and federal levels, these folks were really under the radar, making a living out of sight to avoid racial discrimination and in some cases violence.”

As an introduction to Heffner’s presentation, Rose will talk about the Oregon Chinese Diaspora Project from 6:30 to 8 p.m. Wednesday, July 3, in the Hannon Library. The lecture is free and open to the public.

For more information, see www.eventbrite.com/e/buck-rock-tunnel-archaeological-history-tour-tickets-62030420658

Reach Ashland freelance writer Maureen Flanagan Battistella at mbattistellaor@gmail.com.

SOULA archaeologist Chelsea Rose holds a Chinese porcelain shard, part of an imported Chinese rice bowl found at the Buck Rock Tunnel, southeast of Ashland.
SOU students, Kate Womak and Keoni Diacomos stand at the mouth of the Buck Rock Tunnel.