In this occasional feature, we explore the origins of Central Oregon place names. To suggest a place name for explanation, contact Julie Johnson at firstname.lastname@example.org or 541-383-0308.
What: China Hat Road
Where: Southeast Bend and beyond
China Hat Road is locally known for its nearby ATV trails, makeshift shooting ranges and illegal dumping of trash. Oh, and also for its spectacular desert scenery, somewhat marred by the aforementioned trash.
A hot spot of U.S. Forest Service law enforcement, according to previous Bulletin reports, the area surrounding China Hat Road immediately outside Bend is a play zone for horse riders, ATV riders, hobby shooters and desert rats just looking for a pretty place to hike.
But drive on, Central Oregonians, drive on. China Hat Road stretches south all the way to Fort Rock, its paved portion giving way to a gravel track that meanders through aging juniper and pine groves, rocky ridges and soft-shouldered buttes.
One such butte is China Hat, the conical hill that gives the road its name. According to Lewis McArthur in his “Oregon Geographic Names,” China Hat — at 6,573 feet in elevation, it stands out in the landscape — was so named because of its similarity in appearance, when viewed from Fort Rock, to the cone-shaped hats commonly worn by Chinese immigrant laborers in the West.
China Hat is one of dozens of Western geographical features named for Chinese immigrants. McArthur says there are China bars, China creeks and China flats in many parts of Oregon, Washington and Idaho. (Oregon is home to, among others, China Cap, China Creek and China Ditch.)
The Chinese began migrating to the Western U.S. in the mid-1800s as tales of gold discoveries along the Pacific Coast proved irresistible, according to the “Oregon Blue Book” almanac and fact book. “As the gold rush drifted northward into Oregon, the Chinese followed the discoveries. They were relegated to the worked-over (mines), barred from some districts altogether, and compelled to pay a head tax because of race. They worked, paid, and endured. By the 1870s, for example, Chinese males constituted nearly half the population of Grant County.”
Chinese immigrants also worked in railroad construction, providing much of the backbreaking work to build the Oregon & California Railroad through the Umpqua Mountains and the Oregon Railway & Navigation Company rail line in the Columbia River Gorge.
One more thing: The area between China Hat and Fort Rock is said to be home to Oregon’s biggest juniper tree, a solitary specimen among a legion of pines that former Bulletin outdoors reporter Jim Witty failed to find in his first attempt to see the big tree. A trip the following week, with the help of a GPS unit, found the gnarled old tree at N 43 33.128, W 120 53.934.
— Julie Johnson, The Bulletin