A large mural occupies one end of the barrel vault window in the Montana state capital. The picture represents the driving of the final spike of the northern pacific railroad. Ulysses S Grant stands in the front, wielding a sledgehammer. Several proud businessmen flank him. Typical Montana types fill out the rest of the painting-prosperous cowboys, miners, an army officer, Indians. The painting, as Ellen Baumler, Montana Historical Society’s Interpretive Historian, points out, doesn’t tell the whole truth. “Absent, however, are those who actually did the work laying the tracks across Montana: the Irish, the Chinese, and other laborers.”
It’s not at all uncommon to see official commemorations ignoring the Chinese presence in Montana. By now, however, it should be pretty common knowledge that Chinese labor was instrumental in the construction of the railroads. Chinese laborers came in droves to help build the railroad, but their presence in the area goes back much further. Like others in California and Utah, the Chinese followed the gold strikes into the Montana territory. Unlike the other miners, they couldn’t stake a claim. Some Chinese crews found work combing over sites already mined and abandoned by American miners. The fact that many managed to make a decent living no doubt contributed to the growing prejudice against the Chinese. Most Chinese however, took periphery jobs. They became launderers, grocers, and druggists. Some, like Dr. Huie Pock, became relatively influential. They were always, however, treated as second-class residents. During Butte’s heyday, between one and two thousand Chinese lived in the city, operating hundreds of businesses. Unions and management alike, however, refused to allow the Chinese to work at the mines. Montana’s Chinese population declined into the 20th Century as a result of stringent immigration laws and anti-Chinese sentiment. Today, Butte’s once thriving Chinatown is mostly vacant, and Helena’s doesn’t exist at all.
In fact China’s most enduring legacy in Montana is a myth: the myth of the Chinese tunnels. Most of the state’s downtown areas have some sort of tunnel system, which came to be called “Chinese tunnels,” in the assumption of some sort of clandestine Chinese plot. Outlandish legends abound, much to the frustration of Ellen Baumler and others. In fact, many businesses (Chinese and non-Chinese) operated out of basements, and many buildings had extensive underground vaults simply because rent was cheaper. Many of the tunnels connecting businesses were steam tunnels. Miners of all ethnicities no doubt dug many tunnels under the streets of mining towns, some of which probably still exist. Historians agree, nothing in these tunnels distinguish them as Chinese. And yet the legends persist.
The Mai Wah Society in Butte celebrates the actual legacy of the Chinese in Montana with very impressive museum displays in Butte’s Mai Wah building. They also celebrate the Chinese New Year with fireworks and a parade each February. The beautiful silk dragon, the centerpiece of the parade, was a gift from the people of Taiwan to the Mai Wah in 1998. Montana’s connections to China will no doubt grow in the coming years. Last winter longtime Montana senator Max Baucus was appointed ambassador to China. Recently he was instrumental in welcoming a Montana trade delegation to the country. If you want more information about the Chinese in Montana, the bookstore at the Mai Wah Museum has an excellent selections of publications.