Fixer-upper in the Dalles yields valuable Chinese artifacts

Jul 4, 2011

THE DALLES, Ore. – A fixer-upper is paying unexpected dividends for a couple in The Dalles, Oregon.

The back parking lot of the old building they bought as an investment is yielding artifacts that give rare insight into the lives of pioneer Chinese immigrants in the Northwest.

Partners Eric Gleason and Jacqueline Cheung were fixing up a rundown, brick commercial building in the historic center of The Dalles when Gleason made a discovery: While excavating the footings for a deck, they discovered that the backyard was previously used to bury trash, lots of it.

"Uh huh, a trash pit right behind the building. A trash pit that pretty much really lays out the history from 1879 until 1950 when it was capped with a concrete slab," Gleason said.

Most people wouldn't be that thrilled to know they bought a property with a trash heap in the back, but he is.

"Well, as an archaeologist I was pretty thrilled," Gleason said.

By coincidence, both Gleason and his partner are professional archaeologists. Deck construction has been on hold for months while the couple and other volunteers painstakingly scrape back layers of time in a series of pits.

Jacqueline Cheung says they've filled boxes upon boxes with artifacts, mostly related to the daily lives of Chinese merchants who once rented here. There's broken dishware, Chinese coins, gambling chips, opium holders, and seeds.

"We found a lot of food remains such as pig bone and cow bone and lot of fish bone. So we kind of know the types of foods they had in their diets," Cheung said.

Cheung and Gleason say there's very little documentation of the life ways of early Chinese immigrants to the Northwest. Many inland Northwest cities used to have small Chinatowns to serve the thousands of immigrant laborers working in mining, or building railroads, or canning salmon. Here as elsewhere there are few if any traces left.

"We really do hope to tell told the story of a people that haven't had their story told here very well or in much detail,” Gleason said.

And they hope when they're done, they can someday actually build that deck out back.