New HA Thematic Issue: The Archaeology of Chinese Railroad Workers in North America

This post was prepared by Rebecca Allen, SHA Associate Editor, ESA Cultural Resources Director

The first issue of Historical Archaeology, 2015, Vol. 49, No. 1, will soon hit your mailboxes, if it is not already in your hands. Dr. Barbara Voss (Stanford University) is the thematic issue’s guest editor for ‘The Archaeology of Chinese Railroad Workers in North America.’ This issue was born out of the Chinese Railroad Workers in North America Project at Stanford University. It is part of an effort to recognize the workers’ contributions in celebration of the sesquicentennial of the first transcontinental railroad, constructed from 1865 to 1869, that stretched from California to Iowa across some of the country’s most challenging terrain. To put this topic in perspective, I invite you to view a series of videos on the subject.

Display at Sacramento Railroad Museum, workers at Donner Summit (photo by R. Allen)

Dr. Gordon Chang (Professor of History, Stanford University) talks about his research, his perspective as an Asian American, and the creation of the Chinese Railroad Workers in North America Project. Dr. Chang states that the railroad workers are underrepresented in the documentary record. Although they appear in railroad payroll records, and are occasionally noted in newspaper accounts, no extant first-hand accounts from Chinese railroad workers have been found. Working with Drs. Chang and Shelley Fisher Fisken, Barb Voss helped to organize the Archaeology Network that stems from this initiative. Dr. Voss gathered together a roster of archaeologists who have worked on these or similar labor camps, and challenged archaeologists to offer a fuller picture of the Chinese railroad worker experience.

Chinese Railroad Workers Project Introduction Video from Chinese Railroad Workers on Vimeo.

The Chinese Railroad Workers in North America Project goals are further discussed in this introductory video featuring co-directors Gordon Chang and Shelley Fisher Fishkin. While focused on the history and archaeology of 19th century railroad workers, the Project touches on important themes in the present-day globalized economy. As Fishkin notes, “China and the U.S. have been intertwined for over 150 years. Right now, especially when a lot of goods are being created through work on both sides of the Pacific, and migrant labor is a factor in shaping the products that we use both in China and the U.S., understanding how this first massive force of migrant laborers shaped both of our countries…holds lessons which are relevant to us today.

The Society for Historical Archaeology established the Overseas Chinese Research Group at their annual meeting in 1969, and published the first thematic issue devoted to Overseas Chinese archaeology in 2008 (HA, Vol. 42, No. 3, find it on our Publications Explorer). Researchers have learned and continue to learn the importance of working with the migrants’ descendants, regional and national heritage groups, and engaging historical and historian’s perspectives. This integration of approaches expands and explores the study of marginalized populations. The contribution of Chinese railroad workers is starting to be recognized – they were recently inducted into the U.S. Department of Labor Hall of Fame – as seen in the above video. Historical archaeology has the unique opportunity to bring dimension and depth to the railroad workers’ history, to explore topics of daily life and economic networks, and to create studies that trace workers’ experiences as they encountered and adapted to new environments and landscapes. Historical archaeology adds depth and nuance to topics of labor, economic, and social histories of the American West, made possible by the completion of this first transcontinental railroad in 1869.

Historical Archaeology, 2015, Vol. 49, No. 1 represents the contribution of more than two dozen authors and researchers. It highlights several archaeological sites directly related to the transcontinental railroad (Donner Summit, California and Promontory Summit, Utah, as well as the contribution of workers after the first transcontinental railroad was completed, with articles on Virginia & Truckee Railroad camps and Mono Mills in California, Carlin, Nevada, and Montana. Topics of bioarchaeology, health practices, habitation, zooarchaeology, and the materiality of everyday life expand the view of workers’ experience. The volume ends with commentary and a call to embrace the new direction of multidisciplinary approach and multi-ethnic considerations. I encourage you to pick up this thematic issue, and read it soon.

Volume contents

Gordon H. Chang and Shelley Fisher Fishkin, Fragments of the Past: Archaeology, History, and the Chinese Railroad Workers of North America

Barbara L. Voss, The Historical Experience of Labor: Archaeological Contributions to Interdisciplinary Research on Chinese Railroad Workers

Paul G. Chace, Introductory Note to Chace and Evans’ 1969 Presentation, and reprint of 1969 SHA presentation, Celestial Sojourners in the High Sierras: The Ethno-Archaeology of Chinese Railroad Workers (1865−1868)

R. Scott Baxter and Rebecca Allen, The View from Summit Camp

John Molenda, Moral Discourse and Personhood in Overseas Chinese Contexts

Michael R. Polk, Interpreting Chinese Worker Camps on the Transcontinental Railroad at Promontory Summit, Utah

Lynn Furnis and Mary L. Maniery, An Archaeological Strategy for Chinese Workers’ Camps in the West: Method and Case Study

Charlotte K. Sunseri, Alliance Strategies in the Racialized Railroad Economies of the American West

Timothy Urbaniak and Kelly J. Dixon, Inscribed in Stone: Historic Inscriptions and the Cultural Heritage of Railroad Workers

Marjorie Akin, James C. Bard, and Gary J. Weisz, Asian Coins Recovered from Chinese Railroad Labor Camps: Evidence of Cultural Practices and Transnational Exchange

J. Ryan Kennedy, Zooarchaeology, Localization, and Chinese Railroad Workers in North America

Sarah Christine Heffner, Exploring Health Care Practices of Chinese Railroad Workers in North America

Ryan P. Harrod and John J. Crandall, Rails Built of the Ancestors’ Bones: The Bioarchaeology of the Overseas Chinese Experience

Mary Praetzellis and Adrian Praetzellis, Commentary on the Archaeology of Chinese Railroad Workers in North America: Where Do We Go from Here?

Sue Fawn Chung, Forgotten Chinese Railroad Workers Remembered: Closing Commentary by a Historian

Reflections on Archaeology in the District of Columbia

Today’s #SHA2016 blog post is a repost by Charlie LeeDecker, who recently retired from the Louis Berger Group’s Washington, D.C. office, in 2014. As the D.C. Office of Planning, Historic Preservation Office notes, Mr. LeeDecker spent the last 30 plus years conducting archaeological investigations for development projects and as a consulting archaeologist for federal agencies. He has worked on dozens of projects and in every ward of the District. On May, 6, 2015, Mr. Charlie LeeDecker received a District of Columbia Award for Excellence in Historic Preservation (HP) in the category of Archaeology for his body of work in the District. The post is his reminiscences on a career that focused on the buried history of our nation’s capital.

Original Blog Post by Charlie LeeDecker

Washington, D.C., is one of the world’s greatest cities, and it’s been a great privilege to pursue a career in archaeology here, working alongside a large community of talented, passionate, and creative historic preservation professionals. One of my long-time professional goals has been to gain greater visibility for city’s archaeological resources. When I look at an old building, a landscape or even a parking lot, I want to see beyond what is immediately visible, and learn how this particular place came to be what it is today, how it developed through history, and what can we learn from the values, struggles, and daily lives of the people who lived and worked here generations ago. The archaeological record is mostly hidden from view, especially in urban areas, and sometimes when we look below the surface we find amazing stories that entertain, enlighten, and enrich our understanding of how our city came to look like it does today.

The city’s natural waterways — the Anacostia River and Potomac River waterfront areas, even the valley of Rock Creek and the smaller tributaries that feed these waterways – were the first places settled by European colonizers, the sites of our earliest industries, and the favored locations for the camps and villages of Native Americans that lived here for thousands of years before the first European explored the Chesapeake. While these areas contain the richest record of cultural development, they area also the most challenging to investigate archaeologically. In these areas, the natural or historic landscape has been layered below occupied buildings, pavement, formal landscapes, and massive amounts of fill soils that are occasionally contaminated with industrial waste.

I’ve had the privilege of working for many years in the Washington Navy Yard and the Navy Yard Annex (now known as the Southeast Federal Center). First established in 1799, the Navy Yard has played an important role in our national security and the development of military technology, and the historical significance of the Navy Yard is recognized by multiple historic districts, including a National Historic Landmark designation. We know from archival sources that the Navy Yard might include an archaeological record of the site’s early industrial history, especially shipbuilding and ordnance development. But opportunities to conduct archaeological investigations in the Navy Yard are limited by factors such as a high water table and nearly ubiquitous occupied buildings and pavement.

The relocation of Naval Sea Systems (NAVSEA) Command to the Navy Yard required rehabilitation of many historic structures, along with demolition of some buildings and new construction. Impacts to the historic districts and buildings were evaluated prior to construction, but archaeological work was deferred until the construction phase. There are serious risks with this approach – risks that archaeological resources might be destroyed without adequate documentation, and risks that archaeological work might cause delays to the construction schedule. Managing these risks required an unusual level of partnership between the construction and archaeological teams, but ultimately, the risks were rewarded beyond anyone’s expectations.

Archaeological documentation in the interior of Building 104 at the Washington Navy Yard, during rehabilitation for the NAVSEA project

Archaeological documentation in the interior of Building 104 at the Washington Navy Yard, during rehabilitation for the NAVSEA project

Some of the best opportunities for archaeological work occurred during the rehabilitation of historic buildings, after the interiors were gutted and the floor slabs were removed. At Building 104 we were able to document remains of the Brass Gun Factory, including features associated with furnaces and a casting pit. At another site, we found massive furnace foundations associated with the New Ordnance Foundry, a structure built during the Civil War to cast large, smooth bore cannon cast that were formed in a distinctive “soda bottle” shape, known as the Dahlgren cannon. We also documented remains of the West Shiphouse, a structure built around 1825 that was used for repair of 19th-century naval vessels. Reaching seven stories in height and extending over an area of roughly 100×300 feet, this shiphouse was one of the most prominent structures along the lower Anacostia River, visible in many nineteenth-century views of the city.

Much of my work over the last 10 years has been in and around the parklands in the city’s monumental core area, including the National Mall, the Ellipse, West Potomac Park, and the Washington Monument grounds. Historically, these iconic landscapes were originally low-lying tidal flats and open water at the mouth of Tiber Creek, a tributary of the Potomac that disappeared long ago. For thousands of years, Native Americans camped along the banks of the Tiber, and after the City of Washington was established in 1790, the creek was transformed first into a canal, then a foul sewer that carried the city’s waste into the Potomac. Tiber Creek and its banks were filled during the nineteenth century. Some of the filling was a result of efforts to improve the land around the White House but most of the fills – millions of cubic yards – was deposited during efforts to maintain the river’s navigation channels and control flooding that ravaged the city.

Some of the most interesting finds were unearthed along 17th Street. One of these was a wharf built in 1807 at the foot of 17th Street where it extended into Tiber Creek. The 17th Street Wharf was a shipping point for the early city, its importance growing after 1833, when it became a hub connecting the Washington City Canal and the Washington Branch of the C&O Canal. The wharf disappeared in 1902 when 17th Street was extended after land reclamation had been completed on Potomac Flats.

Documentation of the original foundation of the Lockkeeper's House at 17th Street; the foundation wall is 11.5 feet below present grade and was preserved in place during a sewer line replacement project.

Documentation of the original foundation of the Lockkeeper’s House at 17th Street; the foundation wall is 11.5 feet below present grade and was preserved in place during a sewer line replacement project.

The Lock Keeper’s House that stands at the corner of 17th Street and Constitution Avenue gives a hint of how different today’s landscape is from that of the 19th century. The C&O Canal Extension followed the shoreline of the Potomac from Georgetown, ending at the 17th Street Wharf. At that point, a canal lock accommodated the changing elevation between Lock 1 in Georgetown and the tidal waters at 17th Street. When 17th Street was extended in 1902, the Lockkeeper’s House was moved about 50 feet, but its original foundation was left in place where it was exposed during the replacement of a sewer line. After exposure of the Lockkeeper’s House foundation, we should not have been surprised that the actual canal lock would be found a few feet away. Sure enough, as the tunnel for the sewer line proceeded beneath Constitution Avenue, there it was!

Perhaps the most spectacular find along 17th Street was the “Mother of All Sewers,” aka the Tiber Creek Sewer Outlet. As the city developed in the nineteenth century, the Washington City Canal became a major nuisance, essentially an open sewer that collected waste from much of the downtown area. In the 1870s the city began to cover the Washington City Canal, converting it to an underground sewer. Following the area’s natural topography and hydrology, the sewer outfall was located at the intersection of 17th Street and Constitution Avenue, where waste emptied directly into the Potomac. Like the 17th Street Wharf and the C&O Canal Extension, the sewer outfall was engulfed during the land reclamation process that led to the creation of West Potomac Park. Exposed during construction of the Potomac Park Levee, the sewer outlet was an immense structure, measuring some 40 feet across its headwall.

With these and the findings from many other studies, the understanding of archaeology in the District has been increasing. Some of my most satisfying projects have been those that presented the greatest challenges and that required strong partnerships among project proponents, review agencies, and construction teams. Without the commitment of all stakeholders, some of the city’s most interesting archaeological resources might have remained virtually unknown and forgotten. The amazing opportunities to document the historic foundries at the Navy Yard, the wharf beneath the pavement of 17th Street and the canal lock below Constitution Avenue would not have been possible under conventional archaeological survey methods and would not have happened without committed partnerships among all of the project stakeholders. Going forward, I hope that the preservation community will continue to challenge us to think creatively to search for new ways to bring the city’s archaeological heritage to light.

View of the headwall of the Tiber Creek Sewer outlet along 17th Street, NW.  Exposed during construction of the Potomac Park Levee, the Lockkeeper's House is in the background, at the corner of 17th Street and Constitution Avenue. Measuring 23.5 feet across and 13 feet in height, the outlet is large enough to accommodate two lanes of vehicular traffic.

View of the headwall of the Tiber Creek Sewer outlet along 17th Street, NW. Exposed during construction of the Potomac Park Levee, the Lockkeeper’s House is in the background, at the corner of 17th Street and Constitution Avenue. Measuring 23.5 feet across and 13 feet in height, the outlet is large enough to accommodate two lanes of vehicular traffic. 

House Armed Services Committee Passes NHPA Amendment

On Wednesday evening, Rep. Joe Wilson’s (R-SC) proposed amendment to the FY16 National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) passed the House Armed Services Committee. The amendment – based on language proposed by Rep. Issa (R-CA) (H.R. 135) – would allow heads of federal agencies to block or revoke National Register listings for reasons of “national security,” a term not defined in the proposal.

The amendment passed 35-27, largely along party lines, with two exceptions: Rep. Chris Gibson (R-NY) voted against and Rep. Brad Ashford (D-NE) voted in favor. Rep. Turner (R-OH), Co-Chair of the Historic Preservation Caucus, initially expressed concerns about the amendment, but ultimately did not cast a vote. Reps Davis (D-CA), Tsongas (D-MA), and Bordallo (D-Guam) all spoke against.

SHA’s Government Affairs counsel Cultural Heritage Partners, PLLC worked closely this week with partners at NCSHPO, the Trust and the Society for American Archaeology (SAA) in an effort to defeat the amendment. Despite the cooperation with these partners – as well as great support from SHA members, many of whom reached out to their Reps’ offices to voice their opposition – the amendment is now part of the House NDAA and will head to the House floor. We anticipate this could happen by the third week in May.

SHA is continuing to work with our partners to identify a House member willing to offer an amendment to strip this language from the bill. We will also focus on the Senate, as we did last year; last year’s Senate (when it was majority Dems) did not include a similar amendment in its version of the FY15 NDAA. We will work to make this happen again.

Please keep an eye on SHA emails and social media next month, as we expect to ask members once again to reach out to their Representatives. While we do not have a confirmed date for the floor vote, we expect the House to take up the NDAA sometime during its next session, from May 12 to 21. If you have questions or suggestions, please contact Eden Burgess (eden@culturalheritagepartners.com) or Terry Klein (tklein@srifoundation.org).