Big Timber Chinatown


In the last quarter of the ninteenth century through the middle twentieth century, dozens of Chinese immigrants called Big Timber, Montana home. Justin Moschelle, a Master's student at the University of Montana is undertaking a historical and archaeological investigation of this community. During the summer of 2008, Justin Moschelle and Chris Merritt will supervise an archaeological field school to uncover the lost fragments of Big Timber's Chinatown.


Download Field School 2008 Flyer (pdf)

Field School Listing on the Archaeology Institute of America Website


Big Timber Chinatown

During construction of the Northern Pacific Railroad in the 1880s, hundreds of Chinese workers were employed across the state of Montana. In 1883, some of these Chinese immigrants came to Big Timber, Montana as part of the railroad crews. Some Chinese stayed in the town after the railroad had passed, and started up a variety of businesses, including restaurants and laundries. Located roughly eighty miles west of Billings, in south-central Montana, Big Timber had a small but prominent Chinese community until the 1930s.

In the 1880s, the city block bounded by Anderson, First, Mcleod, and Front streets became the unofficial Chinatown of Big Timber. For various reasons, that will be part of the proposed study, it seems that the majority of Chinese residences and businesses clustered on this block. There were four Chinese restaurants spread throughout Big Timber, and were called the Home, Half Moon Cafe, the Golden Eagle, and an unamed restaurant located in the heart of Chinatown. One historical account suggests that the Big Timber Chinese dominated the eating establishments in town, and stated that "eating out meant eating Chinese (Thompson 1985:1)". It is the unnamed Chinese restaurant that is the focus of Moschelle's thesis project, and will be tested archaeologically.

Tom Kue, a prominent Chinese entrepreneur, owned and operated the Golden Eagle restaurant in Big Timber. In addition, Kue invested a lot of his personal wealth in developing portions of Big Timber's downtown. During World War I, Kue was the chairman of the Big Timber Chinese War Savings Bond Society, which was organized to support the war effort and helped to give the Chinese community a positive image in town. You can read about this society in the Mineral County Independent newspaper extractions found under the "Research Resources" page.

During the 1930s, the last Chinese residents left the area, presumably to larger Chinese settelments in California or even back to China. All that is left of the Chinese prescence in Big Timber, are a handful of artifacts and stories of Chinese tunnels and the opium trade. Such tunnels allegedly served as passages for the Chinese to move from business to business to buy and sell illicit goods, including opium. The persistence of these Chinese tunnels rumors, is an interesting part of the story of Big Timber's Chinatown, and will be addressed through this research program. Other reputed Chinese tunnels in other U.S. cities have been debunked, and only archaeological and historical work will end this debate with Big Timber's living community.

Spring 2007

In the spring of 2007, Justin Moschelle and Chris Merritt led a small crew of archaeology students to do preliminary testing of Big Timber's Chinatown. Most of Chinatown has now been erased by urban renewal and the growth of businesses in the area. The only tangible remains of Big Timber's Chinatown now lies underneath feet of soil on a patchwork of private land holdings. Using Sanborn Fire Insurance Maps, census records, Ground Penetrating Radar, and detailed surface mapping, Moschelle and crew determined the potential locations of subsurface Chinese features.

Moschelle and crew determined that a Chinese business, that existed from 1883 to the 1930s, was potentially accessible in the modern landscape through a gravel parking lot. After receiving permission from the private landowner, the archaeologists excavated a single test unit to determine if there were any lingering physical remains of the Big Timber Chinese left in the ground. Within in the first few inches of soil, archaeologists discovered dozens of Chinese artifacts, animal bones, a piece of decorative moulding, and assorted other materials.

It appears that the remains of the Chinese business, lie fairly undisturbed under inches of gravel in Big Timber's downtown. According to Sanborn Insurance maps, the recovered artifacts relate to a Chinese laundry and restaurant that operated from the 1890s to the 1940s. The building first appears on the Sanborn insurance maps during the year of 1896 and was deemed a laundry facility. A change occurs between the years of 1896 and 1907, when the same facility becomes a restaurant.  Between the years of 1907 to 1938, the restaurant turns back into a laundry facility, it is unclear why these changes occur.  

Summer 2008

During the summer of 2008, Chris Merritt and Justin Moschelle will lead an archaeological field school through the University of Montana to uncover the forgotten parts of Big Timber's history. With permission of the private land owners, ten students under direction of Merritt and Moschelle will begin to excavate the remains of the Chinese laundry/restaurant that was tested in spring of 2007. Initial finds from 2007 suggest that the Chinese materials are well-preserved underneath a layer of modern fill. Moschelle's thesis will attempt to answer numerous research questions about the Big Timber Chinese community:

1. Who built the restaurant/laundry building and when?  Hypothesis:  Chinese railroad workers who, after the railroad was finished, stayed in Big Timber and started their own business around 1896-1907.

2. Why did the builder(s), chose this area for construction?  Hypothesis:  This building was built specifically for the Chinese residents, considering Big Timber already had three other Chinese facilities in town. 

3. Is there any truth to the hidden underground Chinese tunnels?  Hypothesis:  Yes.  The Chinese would have constructed tunnels for storage, travel, and possible smuggling of people and drugs. 

4. What did the restaurant look like on the inside?  Hypothesis:  The restaurant looked more ethnically Chinese than a Euro-American establishment, with colors of red, gold and green.

5. What type of food was served at the restaurant?  Hypothesis:  Pork, beef, wild game, fowl, rice, and noodles could have made up a large portion of the menu. 

The Chinese laundry/restaurant is the main target for excavation.  As previously mentioned, one test unit was conducted, and several artifacts were obtained.  Considering the high volume of artifacts collected from just one test unit, the amount of what will be excavated will have to be narrowed.  Open excavation of the whole building was the original plan, but for sake of room and lab processing, units will be placed on each side and several spread out through the interior boundaries of the building.  Surface survey will be done, but integrity is minimal on the surface.

However, other portions of the private property containing the Chinese restaurant/laundry have extant foundations from what the Sanborn Insurance Maps call "female boarding". Sanborn maps generally use that term in reference to houses of prostitution. As time allows the field school will opportunistically excavate a few units within this area to determine if the area related to prostitution.

The three week field school will help to recover a forgotten and neglected part of Big Timber's history. The historical document trail is scarce for Chinese in the town and the state, and archaeology provides the best opportunity to understand the daily lives of these immigrants. During the project field school participants will be primitively camping near the Yellowstone River, and there will plenty of time for recreation or a refreshing dip in the river!