Teapot lid and portion of an opium container found at Chinese cabin excavation site
Excavation of a Chinese logger’s cabin at Spooner Summit has volunteers’ adrenaline running and may provide details on the lives of Chinese loggers in the Tahoe Basin area.
“Because Chinese lumbermen left no record, this is one way we learn about their lives,” said Dr. Sue Fawn Chung, a professor at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas. “It gives us a clue to their history.”
The two-week project that began Monday and continues through June 28 has already produced artifacts indicating that the Chinese present at the cabin also used American products.
“People would think they would only have Chinese stuff here,” said Theresa Solury, a master’s of arts student in anthropology at the University of Nevada, Reno, who is overseeing the excavation as her thesis project.
Rim-fire .32 pistol cartridges were unearthed as well as small pieces of lead for pencils. Different-lengthed square nails were found against remains of logs, which are thought to be part of the cabin’s outline. An oyster shell indicates the inhabitants ate fairly well. A small white gaming piece, shaped like an M&M, was found. Such black or white game pieces were commonly used by the Chinese.
Most impressive, or at least the largest intact artifact, is an American white tea pot lid. In addition, two sides of a square copper opium tin were dug up.
“I’ve done several Chinese archeological digs and you start to know what’s what,” said Don Ivy, one of three crew chiefs at the site.
Chung said the Chinese and French Canadians were the primary loggers in the Tahoe basin from 1860 to1886.
“The French Canadians and Chinese were the only ones willing do to the work,” she said.
Mining was the big pull in the Comstock, but the Chinese helped cut wooden ties for the Central Pacific Railroad, which made them naturals for the logging industry.
“The railroad taught the Chinese how to do lumber,” said Chung, who estimates the site dates to the 1870s.
In the early to mid-1880s, lumber needs in the Comstock diminished, and the Chinese logging industry ended.
More than 15 volunteers dug, brushed, sifted and photographed the site on U.S. Forest Service land Thursday. Dylan Weaver, 11, of McMinnville, Ore., dug in one of many stringed squares, hoping to find where the base of the cabin began. Sometimes cabins can have several levels of flooring, and excavators were still working to establish where the flooring began.
“It’s just fun,” Weaver said. “People kept saying to me how much work it would be and it’s been fun.”
The volunteers find excavation sites from the Passport in Time program, sponsored by the Forest Service. Volunteers learn on the job and receive a passport, which they get signed off for each volunteer site. Workers may volunteer for a week or longer and often camp, RV, or stay locally. Many volunteers are retired and the lure of history has brought them to excavation sites.
Jim and Rose Kellemann of Lake Wells, Fla., have volunteered in nearly 10 digs, including one last year at Island Mountain.
“We learn so much history,” said Rose, explaining why she loves the work.
“And our number two daughter married an archeologist,” added Jim.
Terry Birk, a Forest Service archeologist, said the biggest find has been the house, which was discovered in 1993.
“The real piece of information is the house and how it was built,” he said.
Solury said it may be difficult to outline the boundaries of the house and where outside structures, like the toilet, would have been.
“It’s hard to say because of conditions up here and with the snowfall,” she said. “There’s been a lot of natural forces acting against the structure.”
Solury hopes to develop her thesis into an online project about the Chinese logger site.
Archeological sites, which are a public resource, are protected under federal law. According to Birk, the dig may continue a second year.
*A public tour of the excavation site is scheduled for 10 a.m. Tuesday. Meet at the Spooner Summit Rest Area on Highway 50. Bring plenty of water.
*For more information on the passport in time project, look at http://www.passportintime.com.