Big Timber's Chinatown
Archaeological Dig Reveals Remnants of a Montana Town’s Cultural, Historical Past
Reprinted with the permission of Brett French, The Billings Gazette

Buried inches beneath the soil in a downtown Big Timber dirt parking lot are clues to the town’s once culturally diverse and bawdy past — pieces of opium pipes, a coin used at a bordello “for amusement only” and an expensive celadon rice bowl imported from China.

Between the 1880s and 1930s, the town had Chinese restaurants, laundries and a house of prostitution on a block between Anderson and McLeod streets, a short distance from the Northern Pacific Railroad tracks. Between 1889 and 1907, the town was home to an estimated 30 to 40 Chinese residents, about 10 percent of the population. In the 2006 census, Big Timber recorded only eight Asian-born residents in the town of 1,658.

“This is history for Big Timber that needs to be documented,” said Justin Moschelle, 27, a University of Montana graduate student who is overseeing the archaeological dig as part of his master’s thesis.

Town Connection

Moschelle lived in Big Timber for four years, graduating from high school there in 1999. It was during that time that he heard tales of the Chinese-run businesses and the supposed network of underground tunnels that connected them. But there was little information about the former inhabitants, which piqued his curiosity.

So last year, he and fellow UM graduate students Chris Merritt and Brent Rowley used ground penetrating radar in the parking lot to mark out possible dig sites and excavated a 1-foot by 2-foot test pit that turned up 437 artifacts. Then this spring, Merritt recruited 10 students for the field work that started on May 25 and ended on June 13, 2008.

As of June 10 the dig had produced 25,000 artifacts. Among the more fascinating finds for Moschelle was an intact bluing ball, a marble-sized piece of blue cobalt used in a Chinese laundry to brighten clothes. The balls were also believed to ward off evil spirits and bring good luck when gambling.

“They’re really delicate,” Moschelle said gently pouring the ball out of a plastic bag to show it. “I’m surprised we’ve got it intact.”

The other surprising find was uncovered June 9 — the remnants of charred floorboards that may have formed the stoop of the Chinese-run OK Restaurant. The burnt boards could be evidence of a 1908 fire that destroyed the whole block causing $400,000 in damage. The fire was ignited by a spark from the Northern Pacific Railroad, which paid for the damages. Atop the burned restaurant, Sam Lee’s Chinese laundry was later built, according to historical documents.

“We never even expected to find that,” an excited Moschelle said of the boards.

Other exciting finds included a 1902 Indian head penny, an intact glass salt or pepper shaker with a lead screw-on lid, an intact medicine bottle with Chinese characters on it, a pressed clay or bone charm with Chinese characters on it, remnants of paper that may have been wrapped around an opium tin, a cartouche with Chinese characters that read “source of beauty” and a button with a red cross on it.

Railroad's Influence

Like many Montana settlements, the railroad played a large role in Big Timber’s founding. In 1883, the Northern Pacific relocated an Irish settlement called Dornix (Gaelic for large, smooth stones) that was located near the confluence of the Boulder and Yellowstone rivers. Moving the settlement to more level ground the railroad renamed the community Big Timber, in honor of explorer William Clark’s 1806 naming of nearby Big Timber Creek, for the large cottonwood trees growing there.

The railroad also brought in Chinese laborers, many of whom were farmers that had fled civil strife in their own country in the mid 1800s and were seeking wealth in America. Moschelle said many laborers who left the railroad set up laundries and restaurants to “mine the miners” in cities such as Butte and Helena, which had larger Chinese populations.

Merritt, who is focusing his studies on Chinese heritage across Montana, said the state’s Chinese population peaked at about 2,500 men during the 1890s railroad-building boom. Despite the integral role they played in laying track for the state’s railroads, Merritt said the culture is largely overlooked in history books.

“They were instrumental in building the railroad which helped spur Montana’s economy,” Merritt said. “The Chinese came to Montana for the same reason as all of our ancestors — seeking an opportunity for a better life. But we made it about as difficult for them as we could,” citing taxes leveled specifically against Chinese laundries and the raiding of opium dens, even though opium was not an illegal drug to possess at the time.

“The Chinese didn’t merge easily with American society,” he said. “They were an easy scapegoat.”

Chinatowns were often located next to saloons and brothels, essentially the low-rent districts in towns. Big Timber’s “female boarding house” is mentioned in a 1900 census as being run by a French madam named Leona Lea. Four to five single-white females lived at the residence. By the 1920s, the brothel was closed.

Merritt said he’s often asked if he sees resemblances between America’s stance toward the Chinese in the late 1800s and the nation’s current attitudes toward Mexicans who illegally immigrate into the U.S. to work and send money back to their families. His response: “Yeah, they’re almost the same experience.”

By the 1930s, the last Chinese residents left Big Timber.

“We figure they left because they were getting old, missing family or running out of business since the economy wasn’t booming enough for them,” Moschelle said.

Immigration laws initially prevented Chinese women from coming to the U.S. and later laws prevented laborers from immigrating, allowing only professionals such as doctors and acrobats, Merritt said.

Hard Labor of Love

Sarah Erwin, 18, of Billings is one of the students who paid to help out at the Big Timber dig site while earning college credit. Without the students, the work wouldn’t have been funded. Other students came from across the country, including Michigan and Missouri. A Montana State University Billings student, Erwin heard about the dig from her history professor and quickly signed up.

“It’s always been my dream to work at a dig,” Erwin said. “I love it so much. You never know what you’re going to find and learn about the people who lived there.”

The 14 workers at the site have been camping in tents at Gray Bear fishing access site along the Yellowstone River throughout the event, constantly being inundated by rain and weathering cooler-than-usual temperatures. But none of it dampened Erwin’s spirits.

“Camping out in the rain and snow doesn’t bother me,” she said.

Although her professor warned her that the work would be “forced slave labor” that she paid for, she said the 8 to 10 hour days haven’t been too physically demanding. She enjoyed the camaraderie of the crew so much that she’s planning on transferring to UM this fall.

Part of the dig is taking place directly behind the Shear Chaos boutique, hair and nail salon. Salon co-owner Sara Hunt said when she was growing up in Big Timber, she heard stories about the former Chinese settlement in town.

“I think it’s interesting,” she said. “You know, you never know what the history is until someone digs it up. It will be interesting to find out what they found out… We’re in little China over here.”

Moschelle enjoys revealing the history of the community where he went to high school.

“It’s a neat thing to get the public involved and show them that in their backyard, they have 100 years of history,” he said. “It will be nice to give back to the community, not necessarily a lost history, but a better view of the past.”

Sidebar: Underground Mystery

In the basement of Big Timber’s Homesteaders Furniture store are some puzzling architectural remnants

Below ground level of the sandstone block building, constructed in 1896, are a boarded up doorway and framed windows, one with the glass and sash still intact.

“Big Timber has a myth of Chinese tunnels here and how the Chinese used to smuggle people and opium off of the Northern Pacific Railroad,” said Justin Moschelle, a University of Montana graduate student doing archaeological research on Chinese in the town. “Some people have told us they ran around in the tunnels as kids.”

Further proof of the possibility that the area had tunnels came during a recent cave-in in a lot across the street from Homesteaders, possibly an old tunnel that finally collapsed. And an old manhole cover in front of what used to be the Blakeslee Hotel next door also leads into what appears to be an underground passageway.

“The history and mysteriousness that Big Timber has is neat,” Moschelle said.

He postulated that the windows may have been next to underground cribs for prostitutes surrounding a basement bar.

“It would be typical to find this type of setup for underground prostitution,” he said. “But it’s just rumor and speculation.”