Japanese Americans Explore Heritage on Mt. Baker-Snoqualmie National Forest

Release Date: Sep 17, 2012

Japanese Americans walking up a bridge into tunnelEverett, Wash., Sept. 17, 2012--They left their homeland to work on the railroads. Most thought it would be just long enough to send some extra money home, but these Japanese pioneers stayed, settling in Seattle, Wash., becoming citizens, fighting in WWII.  Many were sent to internment camps.

Late this summer, Japanese Americans from the Seattle Nisei Veterans Committee, Densho  and Wing Luke Museum  toured archeological sites on the Mt. Baker-Snoqualmie National Forest  to bring that history to life.  They saw firsthand howJapanese pioneers helped build the American West.

At the Monte Cristo townsite, 17 participants learned how Japanese American labor crews built and serviced the railroad line in the late 1800s. In early September, 22 people visited the Iron Goat Trail, which follows the abandoned Great Northern Railway route.  Nearly 800 workers, many of them Japanese immigrants, were employed on the Cascade division of the route.  

Participants listened intently as U.S. Forest Service archeologist Jan Hollenbeck told the story of Mrs. Fumiko Hamada, whose husband and father worked 10-hours days for a dollar and lived in box car bunkhouses.  Most immigrant labor worked in Section (track) gangs; they built and maintained the tracks and shoveled snow during the winter to keep the trains moving. Hollenbeck described the Wellington train disaster of 1910, where many Japanese laborers were killed, and walked the group through part of the old concrete snow shed, built to protect the trains from avalanches after the 1910 disaster.  At Wellington, she showed them the original Cascade Tunnel and the foundations of the rotary house, where Japanese laborers cleaned and maintained the locomotives.  

Toshiko Okamoto’s grandfather and father were laborers on that railroad, following the work as far as Montana. Her grandfather had gone to work for the railroad to send money back to his family in Japan. When her father turned 14, his father asked him to come to America and help.  She remembers them telling her about the Wellington train disaster when she was growing up on 2nd Avenue and Yesler Way in Seattle, known at that time as skid row.

Toshiko’s husband Tosh accompanied her to the Iron Goat Trail, wearing a Nisei Veterans high-profile baseball hat.  Tosh was living in an internment camp when he was recruited at 18 and assigned to the 442nd Infantry Regimental Combat Team during WWII; known as the “Go for Broke” regiment, the 442nd was made up solely of Japanese Americans and the most decorated unit in the U.S. Army.  He was a young man returning from the war when he joined the fraternal organization to enjoy the camaraderie. At that time, Japanese Americans were not allowed in other national veterans’ organizations, so they formed Nisei, or “second generation” Veterans Committee. “Japanese discrimination was pretty intense then, in the late 1940s,” Tosh said. But he said things have changed. “It feels good to be a Japanese American now.  Today there is no question about applying for a job. If my children have the ability, they have a job,” he said.

Like his wife, he also grew up in Seattle, on Dearborn Street.  He met Toshiko when a buddy set them up on a picnic date at Mt. Rainier, soon after he returned from the Army. They have been married more than 60 years and have four children, nine grandchildren and three great grandchildren.  Tosh will soon turn 87.

Toshiko said the heritage tour was excellent, and was very happy she was able to attend. “It was eye opening,” Tosh said. “I didn’t know how the Cascade Tunnel was built, or who died in the Wellington train disaster avalanche.” 

Cassie Chinn, deputy executive director of the Wing Luke Museum helped plan the outings with the U.S. Forest Service. Chinn said she was surprised to learn the extent of Japanese contributions. “This is history we never knew about. Amazing places in our own backyard,” she said.

The museum will include the interpretive hikes in an exhibit about Asian American heritage sites in the Pacific Northwest, opening next year in December.  Artifacts, archeological findings, old and current photos along with personal stories will be featured.  The Wing Luke Museum of the Asian Pacific American Experience, in the middle of Seattle’s Chinatown-International district, is a Smithsonian affiliate. 

For more information about the Asian American Heritage Site exhibit or Wing Luke Museum, contact Cassie Chinn at 206-409-1332.