Montana and Wyoming’s Chinese Mining Heritage | TheFencePost.com

Montana and Wyoming’s Chinese Mining Heritage

Candy Moulton
Encampment, Wyo.

Candy MoultonSeveral Chinese structures, including this store, are located in Virginia City, Mont. They were brought to this location from sites across Montana.

As they did in Idaho, Chinese miners also found work in the mining camps of Montana. Butte and the World Museum of Mining which has original equipment at the Orphan Girl Mine and extensive exhibits that give you a chance to see, and in some cases, handle equipment. Dozens of original and replica buildings are a part of “Hell Roaring gulch” including a Chinese laundry.

Even more original buildings from the mining era, and representing Chinese workers, are part of Nevada City, in southwest Montana. These structures, including three stores – set up to with displays of such items as tea, household goods, food, baskets, and coolie hats – one laundry, and other small buildings, were relocated to the area. But there were Chinese living in both Nevada City and nearby Virginia City after the 1864 gold strikes. My route from Butte to Virginia City is on I-90 south to Three Forks, then on U.S. 287 to Ennis and Virginia City.

I truly love to visit both Nevada City and Virginia City because of the truly authentic buildings and artifacts. You can learn about the mining and cultural history of the area, and also to actually experience it for yourself. You can pan for gold in Nevada City, walk the streets and on weekends, and some other times during the summer, meet “historical” characters who help bring the historic district to life. In Virginia City you can attend a melodrama or theatrical performance or hear some music – either country or perhaps blues – at the Bale of Hay Saloon, shop at Rank’s Mercantile and the other businesses that offer 19th century style of goods.

Just as Chinese workers who helped construct the Central Pacific Railway eventually found jobs working in mining operations in the Boise Basin in Idaho, so did those who found work on the Union Pacific Railroad find opportunity in end-of-tracks towns along that line. Evanston, Wyoming, last stop for the UP in Wyoming territory had a large Chinese population.

A joss house has been rebuilt in Evanston as part of the Uinta County Museum. Within the building is a large collection of Chinese artifacts including both an original and a replica Chinese dragon used during Chinese New Year’s Parades (there is one every year in Evanston). A replica of the local Chinatown is in the building along with artifacts uncovered during archaeological excavations.

A Chinese Mining Riot

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Chinese workers had helped build the Union Pacific Railroad, and like those who had worked on the Central Pacific Railroad and later made their way to mining ventures in Boise Basin, the Chinese who had been employed by the UP ultimately found work in the coal mines after 1875. That year white miners went on strike, and the Union Pacific hired 150 Chinese replacements. The Chinese workers established their own area of town, and “commenced their labor … running out the coal in as good a condition as in days gone by,” according to the Laramie Daily Sentinel on November 25, 1875.

The white miners eventually settled their strike and returned to the mines. There were few problems during the next several years, but when another strike was threatened in 1885, sentiment against the Chinese coal miners reached fever pitch. At the time there were two Chinese miners to every one of other ethnicity and a labor riot broke out on September 2, 1885. A white mob stormed through Rock Springs’s Chinatown killing somewhere between 28 and 52 Chinese miners, forcing others out of their homes and setting the buildings on fire.

As the rioting continued the Chinese and their families were forced out onto the desert prompting Governor Francis E. Warren to wire President Grover Cleveland for aid writing, “Mob now preventing some five-hundred Chinamen from reaching food or shelter. Sheriff of county powerless to suppress riot and asks for two companies of United States troops. I believe immediate assistance imperative to preserve life and property.”

Federal troops responded and restored order. The governor later told the Cheyenne Democratic Leader, “I have no fondness for Chinese … but I do have an interest in protecting, as far as my power lies, the lives, liberty and property of every human being in this territory … and so long as I am governor, I shall act in the spirit of that idea.”