The history of early Chinese settlement in Oregon is a tale of perseverance in the face of alienation and hardship. Nowhere in Oregon is this story better told than in the unlikely location of John Day, a ranching town three hours’ drive east of Bend.

In the last half of the 19th century, lured by the need for labor in the mining and railroad industries, thousands of young Chinese men came to the United States to escape the poverty of their homeland caused by overpopulation, war and famine. They were willing to work long hours at wages that were low by American standards, in order to save money to later return to China to support their families.

Having learned to sluice the gravel tailings left by white prospectors, Chinese miners followed a major 1862 gold strike on Canyon Creek to the John Day area. A majority settled in Canyon City, briefly the largest city in Oregon with about 10,000 gold-hungry residents. Although the boom was short-lived, thousands of Chinese stayed on; an 1879 census reported 1,000 white miners and nearly 2,500 Chinese miners in eastern Oregon, according to the Oregon Historical Society.

The Chinese were honest and industrious, according to eyewitness reports of the era, but were almost mercilessly derided for their cultural differences. And with sentiment growing across the West that immigrant Chinese labor was costing white Americans job opportunities, persecution and hostility were perhaps inevitable. In February 1885, Canyon City’s Chinatown was burned down, probably by arsonists. Local authorities refused to let the Chinese rebuild, so many of them moved 2 miles down the creek to John Day, which had its own Chinatown.

John Day, therefore, had the largest Chinese community in eastern Oregon (between 500 and 600 residents) when Ing “Doc” Hay and Lung On arrived in town from San Francisco in 1887. The young Cantonese men, both in their mid-20s, bought a one-story trading post and the following year opened Kam Wah Chung and Company (“The Golden Flower of Prosperity”) as a general store and medical clinic.

For many years, Kam Wah Chung was a social center for the Chinese community, even as the Asian population went into rapid decline. The area economy shifted from mining to livestock ranching and agriculture, and fewer than 100 Chinese remained in John Day by 1910.

But Hay (1862-1952) and On (1863-1940) grew to become well-respected by whites as well as Chinese. Their legacy — the Kam Wah Chung State Historic Site — has been listed on the National Register of Historic Places since 1973. Today it is operated as a museum by Oregon State Parks.

‘Golden Flower’

Free tours of Kam Wah Chung begin a couple of blocks south of the building, across Canton Street, at an interpretive center that is open daily 9 a.m. to 5 p.m., May through October. Exhibits and a 19-minute video describe the political climate on the Chinese mainland in the mid-19th century, explaining the economic situation that led Hay and On, and so many other young Chinese men, to leave their families to search for a better life overseas.

The pair had met in California after traveling from their native Canton (now Guangzhou). Hay had briefly studied and practiced traditional medicine; On worked as a bilingual translator in San Francisco before seeking new frontiers. Upon arriving in John Day, the friends purchased a building that had been constructed around 1870 of locally quarried volcanic tuff.

Today at Kam Wah Chung, at the top of each hour, a guide leads groups of no more than a dozen people into the rustic, seven-room building, carefully locking and relocking doors. The guide warns visitors not to touch anything, and not to take flash photos, while weaving a fascinating story of a house that was a post office, library and spiritual center as well as a general store, doctor’s office, boarding house and, clandestinely, an opium den.

Hay established an herbal medicine practice. Considered a master of pulse diagnosis (he could reportedly determine most ailments simply by taking a patient’s pulse), he treated both Chinese and Euro-American patients at his “clinic” until 1948. His medicines — snake skin, bear paw and tortoise shell as well as wild herbs, roots and bark — remain in hundreds of containers behind the iron-barred apothecary. The simple bedroom in which the introverted Hay slept for six decades stands as it was left when, as an old man, he was hospitalized in Portland, where he died.

On the other side of a pot-bellied stove is the dry-goods store and import business run by On. These shelves still hold original tins and boxes filled with Chinese teas, foods and tobacco, along with a similar number of antique American foodstuffs. In their midst is a traditional Taoist shrine, adorned with incense sticks and dried fruit. Many of John Day’s early Chinese residents made offerings here to ancestors and gods.

An adjacent room has a full kitchen and several bunk beds where boarders would sleep two to four abreast, often talking into the night with On, who was as gregarious as Hay was quiet. In the 1890s, the partners added a second, wood-plank upper floor to provide additional boarding-house lodging.

Kam Wah Chung was rehabilitated in the mid-1970s when it was purchased by Oregon State Parks. Today, it appears as it might have in the 1930s and ’40s. Throughout are various late-19th and early-20th-century antiques. On the walls are photos of the lifelong friends, including shots of On’s pride and joy — the first auto dealership in eastern Oregon.

Although it was the habit of most Chinese immigrants to have their bones returned to their native country after their deaths, both Hay and On chose to be buried in their adopted home. Both men are buried in the Rest Lawn Cemetery, overlooking John Day from a hillside on the north side of town.

Who was John Day?

The Kam Wah Chung State Heritage Site is just one reason to visit John Day. Named for an obscure pioneer trapper who never set foot within 100 miles, this Grant County seat of about 1,700 people is the hub of a diverse region at the foot of 9,038-foot Strawberry Mountain. Other area museums showcase nearly 150 years of ranching and mining heritage, and such neighboring communities as Canyon City and Prairie City exhibit a strong sense of historic pride.

The John Day River rises in the Blue Mountains and meanders more than 200 miles, first west, then north, to meet the Columbia River only 17 miles upstream of the Columbia’s confluence with the Deschutes River. It has given its name to a national monument (the three units of John Day Fossil Beds), a major hydroelectric project (the John Day Dam on the Columbia) and two towns (John Day and Dayville).

Yet Day himself, while resilient, was hardly the stuff of legend. A fast-living Virginia woodsman, he was about 40 when he traveled to the Oregon country in 1810, according to publications of the Grant County Chamber of Commerce. Two years later, he and a companion were attacked by Indians near the mouth of the Mau Hau River, 30 miles east of The Dalles. Robbed, stripped of clothing and left to die, they eventually made it to Astoria, where their story began to spread. Within a few years, the Mau Hau had been renamed the John Day River.

The town of John Day has a pleasant downtown that stretches about four blocks along U.S. Highway 26, the main connecting route between Redmond and Ontario. Other than Kam Wah Chung and the county fairgrounds, three blocks north, its principal attraction is the Grant County Ranch and Rodeo Museum.

Located in the heart of downtown, this museum honors the legacy of cowboys and ranch hands, past and present. The collection includes finely crafted saddles, ropes, bits and spurs, along with historical photographs of rodeos and ranches, chronicling more than 150 years of history in the John Day country.

Canyon City

Two miles south of John Day, via U.S. Highway 395 toward Burns, is Canyon City. Two beautiful murals on opposite sides of a central park depict episodes from the early history of this boomtown, now with a population of around 700. Volcanic-rock buildings, more than a century old, line a section of Whiskey Gulch Street, sharing space with a new city hall and fire station constructed with frontier-era facades.

Near the heart of town is the Grant County Historical Museum. Back in 1925, a service-station owner and postmaster named Charles Brown bought an old saddle from a neighbor in need of cash. Brown’s collection grew as other citizens began cleaning out their private antiques. Today, the museum has one of Oregon’s finest exhibits of small-town life.

Household goods and vintage clothing, ranch artifacts and dozens of old guns, mining equipment and musical instruments, old office equipment and a trio of two-headed calves are displayed in this space. A mineral collection is exhibited near the entrance; a separate room documents Umatilla and Paiute tribal prehistory, including photos of an ancient jackrabbit roasting site on a nearby plain. On the grounds are the 1865 cabin of pioneer writer Joaquin Miller and the former jail of the mining ghost town of Greenhorn.

North a short distance is the Oxbow Trade Company. Its array of antiques includes dozens of wagons, coaches and other methods of pioneer transportation.

Prairie City

Thirteen miles east of John Day via U.S. 26 is another special town. Only about 900 people live in Prairie City today, but it was much larger in the gold-rush era of the 1860s, when miners rushed to nearby Dixie Creek.

The most atmospheric hotel in John Day country, the Historic Hotel Prairie, anchors the two blocks of downtown Prairie City. The building operated as an inn from 1905 to 1980. In 2005, it was purchased by new owners who spent three years reconverting it to its original purpose. It reopened in July 2008 as a boutique hotel with nine spacious rooms. Right next door is a friendly dining establishment, the Oxbow Restaurant & Saloon.

Four blocks south of the highway off South Main Street, the DeWitt Museum occupies the former depot and home of the station agent of the Sumpter Valley Railroad, which ran between Prairie City and Baker City from 1910 to 1933. Added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1976, restored by local citizens in 1979, the two-story structure has been a museum since 1984.

Historical artifacts are carefully displayed through its 10 rooms. Visitors enter into the original depot waiting room, then walk through baggage and freight rooms. Rooms on the second floor, where the agent and his family lived, are furnished with antiques and memorabilia from the local area. Of special note is a collection of narrow-gauge railroad artifacts that include photographs, lanterns and lights, and depictions of spectacular train wrecks.

— Reporter: .