The Chinese in Baker County, Oregon

Celestials: The Chinese In Baker County

    As in much of the American West, the Chinese played an important role in the development of Baker County – working gold mines, construction mining ditches, building railroad, and providing services to the community.  Small populations of Chinese were prominent in the communities of Baker City, Clarksville, Sparta, Malheur City, and Sumpter.  Temporary encampments of Chinese were typical in gold mining areas such as Auburn, Salmon Creek, Minersville, Shanghai Gulch, Rye Valley, and Granite here they labored for wages in hydraulic mines or reworked old placers.  In general, large Chinese populations from Kwangtung Province came to eastern Oregon to work the gold fields near Baker, Canyon City and John Day.

   Chinese came to Baker County with the first gold rush and are well known for their work in connection with mining developments.  Investor owned ditch companies hired out Chinese labor companies to construct two major mining ditches, the Sparta Ditch and the El Dorado Ditch.  Construction of the El Dorado Ditch began in 1863 in the hills west of Unity, in order to bring water to the Shasta Mining District in the Willow Creek Basin.  By 1878, Chinese contract crews had built more than one hundred miles of main line and feeder ditches to carry water toward the mining area around Amelia and Malheur City.  The El Dorado Ditch is undoubtedly the longest historic mining ditch ever built in Oregon.  The Sparta Ditch, built in 1871, was also completed by Chinese labor companies, to bring water to the mines worked in the vicinity of Sparta.  Individual Chinese continued to obtain employment by working on ditch cleanout crews in the spring and by taking up mining in the area.

     Large scale hydraulic operations employed Chinese labors in the 1880’s-1900’s to work the placers on McCully Fork west of Sumpter, at Rye Valley, and at Salmon Creek.  The ground washed and gleaned for gold by these Chinese miners is visible today as great gouges and pits in the hillsides.  Elsewhere Chinese miners, operating as individuals or as paid laborers, worked the hundreds of placer and lode gold mines in Baker County around the turn of the century.  Just west of Baker County, near Granite, are the remains of laborious hand-stacked rock walls, placed by Chinese miners as the placer work progressed.

   While they worked the mines, the Chinese, like other miners, lived on the claims and left behind the artifacts of their culture.  Often their dwellings were simple cabins, tents or semi-subterranean dwellings shallowly excavated out of the hillside and covered with lumber to shelter several men.  Their purchases and foodstuffs were provided by imports available at Chinese and mining town stores.  Common foods purchased included wheat flour, rice preserved fish and dried vegetables, spices, cooking oil, pork, fowl, and tea.  Other purchases included tobacco, alcoholic beverages, clothing, “gum-boots”, and mining supplies.  Opium, shipped in brass boxes, was smoked in pipes.  Gambling was also a principal leisure activity.  Occasionally the miners grew small gardens to provide fresh vegetables.  Although little is known about their everyday life, the Chinese became well-known for independence and hard work, maintaining many cultural beliefs and ties in a foreign land.  According to most historic records, Chinese laborers lived frugally in order to return with their earnings to families in the homeland.

     Communities of Chinese also provided services to their countrymen and townspeople in Baker County.  In Baker City, a small Chinatown was located on the edge of the river near Resort and Auburn, where a Joss House (religious center) was constructed in 1883.  The Chinatown was principally a community of men; only very few Chinese women or wives were brought to the inland Pacific Northwest.  The 1870 eastern Oregon census recorded only 43 Chinese women.  The Chinese provided laundry and domestic services, small eating houses and grew fresh vegetables for the sale in the city.  Sanborn Maps of Baker City for the early 1900’s show the location of several downtown Chinese shops and Chinatown.  Intensive Chinese gardens were apparently once common along Spring Garden on the east side of the Powder River.  At the eastern end of Campbell St. was a Chinese cemetery where bodies were temporarily interred until the remains could be returned to their ancestral homeland.  Despite anti-Chinese legislation in Oregon, the Chinese population increased from about 3000 in 1870 to at least 9500 in 1890.  However, with the decline of the mining and railroad industries after the turn of the century, many Chinese returned to China or became residents of larger urban areas, such as Portland. (Mary Oman)

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