Asian Pacific American Heritage Event: Artifacts Unearthed

Japanese railroad laborers’ artifacts unearthed during community archaeological exploration 

A shard of ceramic ware, a rubber shoe, a vial of Japanese hair dye.  Unremarkable objects found in any other context might be considered garbage. But those of us who gathered September 2019 handled them gingerly, believing them to be former possessions of Japanese laborers who maintained the Great Northern Railroad from 1915-1929.

The artifacts were found during a cultural heritage event co-led by Wing Luke Museum of the Asian Pacific American Experience and the Mt. Baker-Snoqualmie National Forest on Saturday, September 14, 2019. Attended by 30 members of the public, the event centered around the experiences and contributions of Japanese immigrants on the railroad and recognized the importance of preserving cultural histories on public lands.

To kick off the event, former US Forest Service Archaeologist, Jan Hollenbeck, led the group on a guided walk of the Iron Goat Trail. Designed to follow a section of the Great Northern’s original railroad grade, the trail includes parts of the town of Wellington (renamed Tye) where Japanese railroad laborers lived and worked. 

In the late 19th century, laborers began emigrating from Japan, contracted to work on the railroad through the Oriental Trading Company. Though historians have managed to gather some information about Japanese laborers’ lives through extensive research (e.g., their daily wage was $1.05 per 10-hour work day), there are altogether very few written records of Japanese laborers‘ presence in Tye. When the Wellington avalanche struck in 1910 claiming 96 lives, none were named as Japanese laborers; six bodies, however, were unidentified. 

After being immersed in the little-known history of the area, Rahul Gupta, Director of Education and Tours at Wing Luke Museum, encouraged participants to reflect on their own connection to the immigrant experience, particularly the politics of whose stories are memorialized and whose stories remain untold.

Group Photo

Participants of the Wing Luke Museum-Mt. Baker Snoqualmie National Forest cultural heritage event gather at the Iron Goat Trailhead in Wellington, WA on September 14, 2019.  

Archaeologist Jan Hollenbeck leading the group through a concrete snow shed.

Archaeologist Jan Hollenbeck leading the group through a concrete snow shed. The tunnel-like structure was built to protect trains from avalanches after nearly 100 people lost their lives in the 1910 Wellington avalanche disaster.

In the afternoon, USFS Archaeologists Paul Alford and Kevin Bailey led an archaeological exploration that we hoped would reveal new insights about the Japanese laborers’ lives. The sites surveyed were essentially trash pits, located downslope of what archaeologists believe might have once been two Japanese worker houses.  Before it became common for communities to haul refuse away to designated collection sites, such as landfills, most garbage would have simply been thrown off-site (in this case, downhill) for disposal.  Participants investigated marked transects, using trowels to scrape away the layer of partially decomposed leaves and organic material and unearth any artifacts. Any objects of interest were bagged and labeled for future study.

Surveying the secondary refuse deposits, or trash pits, located below the site

The group surveying the secondary refuse deposits, or trash pits, located below the site of suspected Japanese laborer houses.

Meaningful findings were shared out to conclude the day.  These ultimately included several pieces of Asian ware (ceramic ware featuring recognizable Asian patterns), pieces of a metal stove structure, remnants of clam shells and animal bones (indicators of the workers’ diets), a rubber shoe, and a small cobalt-colored glass vial.  Two glass bottles were found featuring maker’s marks from the 1916-1929 period, confirming that these objects could be traced to the same time period that Japanese laborers were present.

As individuals presented the artifacts they most strongly connected to, the group crowded around eagerly to see the objects up close and share ideas about the objects’ possible uses or significance. 

The cobalt-colored glass vial was an especially exciting find because it was actually marked with Japanese characters.  One of the participants was able to identify the vial as a container for liquid hair dye, having translated the characters as “for white-haired person to dye their hair red”. 

The finding raised the question of whether the dye was used by a male worker. If so, why? Could it have been used by a woman, contradicting previous assumptions that these were an all-male living quarters?

USFS Partnership Specialist, Aleta Eng, holding up a shard of Asian ware

USFS Partnership Specialist, Aleta Eng, holding up a shard of Asian ware with a distinct bamboo pattern found during the archaeological exploration.

USFS Archaeologist, Paul Alford, demonstrating techniques for distinguishing between wood and bone.

USFS Archaeologist, Paul Alford, demonstrating techniques for distinguishing between wood and bone.

During the closing reflection, one participant shared his thoughts:

“We learned about the Japanese laborers’ lives from a historical perspective, but discovering these mundane objects that were part of their everyday lives humanized their experiences and allowed us to connect. They were real people, and they were here.”

The Mt. Baker-Snoqualmie National Forest hopes to continue collaboration with Wing Luke Museum through the development of interpretive signage at the Iron Goat Trail to memorialize the history of Japanese laborers who contributed to the Great Northern Railroad.

 





https://www.fs.usda.gov/detail/mbs/home/?cid=FSEPRD734996