Island Mountain - Passport in Time

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Of Lab Rats, Mud People, and Hillbillies - Island Mountain: Digging a 19th-Century Chinese Mining Camp

Humboldt-Toiyabe National Forest, Nevada, 1999
by Alex Solomon, PIT Volunteer, age 12
As soon as I arrived in the large FS van full of other enthusiastic would-be archaeologists, I felt somewhat disappointed. Not much was visible at this remote, lonely, wind-swept spot, located in northeastern Nevada near the Idaho border. We had traveled for several miles over an unpaved, washboard road punctuated with so many ruts and potholes that our stomachs now seemed to be permanently lodged in our throats. Most of us were Chinese Americans who had traveled many hundreds of miles with the intention of spending our vacation time uncovering something about our heritage. “This is it. Everyone out!” the driver shouted as he brought the van to an abrupt stop.

So this was it: Island Mountain, the place where we would spend the next week excavating what we had been told was an important archaeological site: a 19th-century Chinese mining camp. We all gathered around the project leaders: Fred, the FS archaeologist, and Melissa, the University of Nevada, Reno, grad student who would direct the dig with Bruce, her assistant. With little formality, we were given a crash course on archaeological techniques.

Before beginning our work, we all walked around the entire site. Although the camp had been continuously occupied from 1873 to 1918, on first inspection it appeared that not much remained. But those of us with keener eyesight immediately began to spot pieces of Chinese ceramics lying on the surface next to several of the pits. This was exciting! We could not wait to find out what archaeological treasures lay beneath the surface of the pits.

Many pits were already staked out and numbered with guide strings demarcating the edges. Each pit was believed to be the approximate site of a building that once had stood in that location. We were shown copies of old photographs taken by a German photographer named Frau Hilda Matthey, who had visited the camp with her husband and children in August 1903. These photos clearly showed the location and appearance of the buildings. The structures had been built of stone, wood, and mud, and most were recessed into the hillside. This undoubtedly provided some insulation from the wind and the hot summer sun and severe winter snow prevalent in this area. Most of the buildings had roofs made of wooden beams covered with sod or mud, while a few also had sheets of metal. We were told that during their visit, Herr and Frau Matthey’s guide had been Henley, a Chinese miner. One of the Matthey photographs showed Henley standing behind some mining equipment. Another old photograph, belonging to the Laing family, showed an old Chinese man next to a ramada, in front of a building that was believed to be a store. We were told that this was the merchant Hung Lee, also known as China Lem, who had supplied the camp and surrounding communities with most necessities. He had posed holding a long-stemmed Chinese pipe that gave him a dignified bearing. He was a thin man with a long stringy beard that made him look like one of the Chinese immortals. Although he wore a traditional Chinese jacket, he also wore American pants, and shoes that could have been either Chinese or American made.

All of a sudden, our work had new meaning. Here, in these photographs, was a view of the buildings as they once stood, and even a picture of two residents of the camp. It was like looking through a window back into time. These images provided a personal connection with the site. We felt inspired, even obligated, to do our part to unearth and preserve whatever remained.

I began my archaeology career as one of the “lab rats.” This was the name given to those who worked in our field laboratory. Confined within a netted enclosure, I felt far removed from what I thought was the place of real action: the pits. I could only imagine the thrilling discoveries taking place in the pits or at the dump. For several days, people brought me materials that seemed like scraps of junk. Under the guidance of Pat and Esther, two experienced archaeologists, I learned to neatly label plastic and paper bags and carefully catalog and store what had been unearthed from the different locations. But instead of archaeological treasures, I saw only pieces of glass, metal, and pottery, the smaller pieces having been recovered by sifting all the dirt removed from each pit through a screen. Then, it struck me: only in the lab could you see things recovered from all of the locations being excavated. But how could anyone ever make sense of all of these fragments?

After a few days in the lab, I was promoted or demoted to the garbage dump, where I joined the excavation team affectionately called the “Mud People.” This was an accurate name, because the dump was situated adjacent to what was now a small stream. However, this work was very satisfying, because we kept uncovering old bottles, some of which were nearly complete. Some people even began to call this site the “Bottle Pit.” Maybe the miners of this camp were into recycling and were ahead of their time!

A few days later, my dream came true. At last, I was assigned to a pit. Not just any pit, but the one I was convinced would give up its secrets, if only I gave it the attention it deserved. Because the main pits were on a hillside, those assigned to work here were called “hillbillies.” At last, I, too, was a hillbilly. However, my initial enthusiasm soon was dampened when I learned that working in a pit was slow, tedious work. We were not allowed to work too quickly, since this might destroy important features or artifacts. We had an experienced leader, who provided a lot of much needed on-the-job training. I learned to wield a pick and shovel and how to use a small trowel. The excitement began when we started to unearth things that actually could be identified: a piece of an opium lamp, the edge of a ceramic container for storing pickled vegetables, and part of a glazed Chinese liquor jar. The entire crew was thrilled and very proud.

We stopped work each afternoon and returned to our camp, an old FS guard station that still had the original buildings from the 1930s. The first order of business was to get clean, since nearly everyone was hot, sweaty, and covered with dust and dirt from the dig. Alas, no hot water was available at our camp. Well, that is not exactly accurate. We did have the luxury of solar showers. I was educated about this ritual by a more experienced archaeologist who had spent many years working in remote locations. This rite of passage began by grabbing a plastic bag of water that had been left out in the sun and hanging it on a hook in a makeshift shower enclosure. A narrow tube with a small plastic showerhead, resembling the spout of a watering can, protruded from the bottom edge of the water bag. The tube also had a built-in valve for turning the water on and off. When turned on, the warm water came trickling through the tube. If one was patient and methodical, it was possible to soap up and rinse off before running out of water. I was told that the temperature depended upon the amount of sunshine, and that in warmer climates one could get burned from water that was too hot. Although I believed this to be true, our problem was that the water was never hot! Additionally, this gravity-fed gizmo did not provide the pressure needed for an enjoyable shower. After a while, most people adjusted to solar showers. After all, it was better than no shower at all.

Each evening, after the day’s digging and solar showers were behind us, we gathered in the dining hall next to the kitchen. Fred, our FS leader, and another forester, who came to be known as “Generator” Dan, managed to keep the old diesel generator working so that we were able to enjoy the luxury of a few hours of electric lighting while we were treated to excellent meals, stimulating talks, and a lot of good fun. Charlotte, our cook, worked miracles in the newly renovated kitchen. In addition to the excellent western meals prepared by Charlotte, we were pleasantly surprised to learn that Fred also had arranged for a special treat: accompanying our group was a real expert on traditional Chinese food preparation. “Max” was not only an excellent Chinese cook who brought all of the “fixin’s” for a number of splendid meals, but she also proved to be a most knowledgeable teacher concerning traditional ingredients. Max had the unique ability to stimulate our palates and our minds by reconstructing for us the types of meals and ingredients the Chinese miners probably prepared while at Island Mountain. She also educated us about the cultural significance of traditional Chinese storage containers, foodstuffs, herbs, and beverages. We could now recognize dried Chinese foodstuffs and containers if we uncovered them in a pit!

On several evenings, after dinner, we also were treated to informal talks given by other experts who were part of our group. We learned about the history of the Island Mountain area as well as various aspects of the lives of Chinese miners who lived in the area from both our FS leader, Fred, and from Sue, a history professor from the University of Nevada, Las Vegas. We also heard informative talks given by Priscilla, a material-culture specialist from the University of Idaho. She had brought with her a wonderful collection of Chinese artifacts recovered from other sites to illustrate her talk, so that we could pick up and physically examine the types of things we might uncover. This knowledge proved very valuable when we returned to the site.

The excavation continued to produce a continual flow of artifacts, including more bottles, pieces of Chinese ceramics, and a portion of the blade of an old shovel. Before we knew it, the week was drawing to a close. Fortunately, most of our activities had been recorded and captured for posterity by our able photographers, who had been following us around all week. John and Frank seemed to be everywhere at once, carefully videotaping and photographing all that was happening throughout the week. Lin, another photographer, from Elko, Nevada, also was kept busy trying to capture all of the action. Some members of the dig even agreed to be interviewed on videotape by one or more of the photographers. There was so much happening every day. How could anyone possibly put together a coherent story of this dig?

At last it was time to pack up to leave. We had not finished; only the surface had been scratched. However, we still felt somewhat satisfied that we had accomplished something worthwhile. We had helped to preserve some of the remains of this old Chinese mining camp and had gained some insight into the lives of these early-19th-century Chinese pioneers.

As we piled into our large FS van, this time to leave the old guard station that had been our home for a week, most of us were hoping to have the opportunity to return to Island Mountain. After all, there was much left to do at the site. The doors to the van closed, and we headed toward Elko, the town that lay 70 miles to the south.

During that drive, which included a short side trip to another old mining site, many thoughts filled my head. I could not help but feel lucky that I had experienced firsthand what it was like to be part of an archaeological dig. I had learned so much about the history, the lives, even the food, of the Chinese miners who once had lived and worked at Island Mountain. I felt a connection, a bond with these early pioneers, and felt that in some small way, I had discovered a small bit of my heritage. Even though I had spent only a single week in this remote location, I now could appreciate what it must have been like to live far away from the conveniences of a city.

Once we arrived at Elko, most of us checked into a motel, where we enjoyed such forgotten pleasures as a good soak in a hot bath. Many of us contacted relatives or did laundry. A few just kicked back for a much deserved rest. That evening, the entire group met at a local Basque restaurant for a dinner party. Everyone ate and drank their fill, enjoying being together for the last time. After all, no one knew when we might all be together again. We wished each other well and said good night. The next day, many started on the long drive home, while others prepared to board a plane. Somehow, it had all ended too quickly. As I thought back to this separation, I thought of the Chinese miners of Island Mountain, most of whom had left families and friends back home.

Like many other 19th-century Chinese men who traveled from China to America hoping to strike it rich, the miners of Island Mountain came for riches but discovered something else as well: the peace, the solitude, the beauty of nature, and the promise of a new and better life in a new country. I am grateful for the opportunity to have been a part of the Island Mountain archaeological project. It has helped me to understand my heritage in a way that cannot be put into a mere book. I would like to conclude by saying that I now feel that Island Mountain has become part of me, and I still have some of it under my fingernails to prove it!
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