By LISA BRITTON
Of the Baker City Herald
I stumbled into Baker County's Chinese history when I took my first steps through the Chinese Cemetery about 10 years ago.
An eerie feeling swept over me as I realized that the depression I stood in was once a grave for one of the Chinese men who came to Northeastern Oregon to seek a fortune in gold.
Forty-six people of Chinese ancestry were buried in this cemetery between 1894 and 1948. Most of the bodies were later exhumed and returned to China for a proper burial, though one headstone marks the grave of Lee Chue, 1882-1938.
According to the Baker County Historical Society, the remains of one woman and two other men buried in the 1940s are probably still in the cemetery.
This cemetery, though, is more like the end of the story for Baker County's early Chinese population, men who came to Northeastern Oregon to work as miners, cooks, laundrymen and laborers.
Today, though Baker's Chinatown only exists in photos and maps, the work of these people is preserved in the carefully stacked walls of rock and the miles of ditches dug by Chinese laborers.
The lure of gold
Gold was discovered at Auburn in 1861 and at Granite in 1862, and prospectors started flowing into Northeastern Oregon to stake their claims.
There's no official record of when the Chinese miners arrived, but the 1870 U.S. census shows 29 Chinese immigrants in Baker City, 12 of whom worked in mining occupations, according to research by Priscilla Wegars, who published "The Ah Hee Diggings" in 1995 after an archaeological investigation near Granite.
"They moved in just as soon as they heard gold was discovered," said Howard Brooks, who retired from a 35-year career with the Oregon Department of Geology and Mineral Industries in 1991. "During the late 1850s and early '60s, there was gold found in a lot of places in the west and started lots of towns."
Wegars notes that the Chinese were allowed into Auburn in 1865, and Brooks said that Chinese miners were working at the Virtue Mine, near present-day Baker City, in 1864.
"They worked cheap, and they worked well," Brooks said. "The Chinese generally got half of what the white guys did."
A few Chinese men even owned mining claims, despite a law that forbid foreign ownership, Brooks said.
While some worked their own claims, others worked for local operations or were hired to dig ditches needed to supply water to placer mines around the county.
According to a Baker County Historical Society brochure, by 1879 there were 166 Chinese residents in Baker City and the population peaked in 1900 at 264.
Baker City's Chinatown was established east of the current downtown, bordered by Auburn Avenue on the south, Valley Avenue on the north, Resort Street on the west and the Powder River on the east.
By 1883, the Chinese constructed a religious temple, or joss house, and several businesses had opened to support this segment of the population.
Granite's Chinese Walls
Brooks said that by the late 1860s, most white miners at Granite had abandoned their claims or leased the land to the Chinese.
"The Chinese worked the creeks up there after the white guys took the best," Brooks said. "When the values tended to dwindle, they moved on. Then the Chinese just cleaned every kernel of gold they could find, and they worked really hard at it."
These were placer operations, which involved running water and gravel through sluice boxes to sift out the heavy gold flakes and maybe a few valuable nuggets.
"I don't think there's a stream or gulch that hasn't been worked for placer gold," Brooks said. "Gold it's a fever people got. And the idea of getting something for nothing."
The Chinese mined the creeks by moving rocks and boulders by hand and then working the ground beneath for gold.
Some 60 acres of their handiwork can be seen today along the Elkhorn Scenic Byway, a mere mile north of Granite.
These rock piles are known as the "Chinese Walls" or the "Ah Hee Diggings." Though they can be seen from the highway, curious passersby can turn right off the road, park and explore the area on foot.
These walls, some measuring 15 feet wide and 12 feet high, wind through the evergreens and allow visitors to take a few steps into the past.
Some rocks are six inches in diameter; others surely qualify as boulders that seem too big to budge.
"They had poles and ropes set up and could move big rocks," Brooks said.
According to "Gold and Silver in Oregon," the placer operations on Granite Creek and the North Fork of the John Day River totaled $2,000,000 by 1914.
In addition to the Granite site, Wegars outlines a number of other places where Chinese occupation has been noted. One of the closest is located at Union Creek, about 20 miles southwest of Baker City near Phillips Reservoir, where a section of ditch is lined with hand-stacked rock tailings.
To get there, turn right off Highway 7 onto Union Creek Road. (If you come to the Union Creek Campground at Phillips Reservoir, you've gone too far.) The tailings are located 1.2 miles up the road.
Though rock piles are visible from the road, the mossy rock-lined ditch is just out of view about 20 feet away and can be accessed through a gap in the wooden rail fence lining the road.
Miles and miles of ditches
The hard work of Chinese laborers still winds through the county with the ditches they were paid to dig, including the Sparta Ditch and the El Dorado Ditch.
The El Dorado started west of Unity and, with a length of 125 miles, is possibly the "longest historic mining ditch ever built in Oregon," according to Wegars. She also states that in 1870, up to 1,000 Chinese men may have been working on the ditch to hasten its completion.
Evidence of Chinese mining activities has also been recorded at Sumpter; along the Snake River; Washington Gulch; Pocahontas; Grande Ronde Lake; Mud Lake; Boulder Creek; Salmon Creek; Deer Creek; McEwen and Huntington.
The placer mining started to dwindle in the late 1800s, and Wegars reports that by 1910 Baker City recorded only 37 people of Chinese ancestry in the total population of 6,742.
"Figures for 1920 show a continuing increase in the Caucasian population accompanied by a decline in the numbers, and therefore percentages, of Baker City's Chinese residents," Wegars notes.
She credits the decline to the U.S. Chinese Exclusion Laws, which forbid the entry of laborer's wives.
"As these bachelors became elderly and died, the Baker City Chinese community died with them and was nearly forgotten," she said.
But this piece of Baker County's history can be revived and touched with a tour through the Chinese Cemetery or a hike among the carefully piled walls of rocks.
It's really not so eerie, I discovered, to pause for a moment in the rock-lined ditch at Union Creek, listen to the gurgle of the nearby stream and try to imagine what this area looked like 100 years ago.
Chances are the Chinese miners faired just as well as their Caucasion counterparts, Brooks said.
"Most people didn't make a fortune most went home disillusioned and broke," Brooks said. "Very few got there early enough to get the easy pickings."