New Memorial to Chinese Who Built the Oregon Short Line

Thanks to a community effort, including those with ties to Boise State, a new stone monument now stands beside the tracks on an open stretch of yellow grass dotted with boulders and sagebrush. The words on the stone, written in English and Chinese, remember a fallen man, as well as his countrymen for their contributions and “helping to build the West.”

The discovery of gold first attracted Chinese miners to Idaho in the 1860s. In the decades that followed, thousands of Chinese men worked to build America’s transcontinental railroad, including the Oregon Short Line across Southern Idaho that later became the Union Pacific. Working conditions were notoriously poor. Chinese immigrants were overworked, underpaid and discriminated against. Many railway workers died. Among them was a Chinese man, his name now lost, who died in the 1880s near King Hill, outside Glenns Ferry, Idaho. Someone marked the site with a memorial stone beside the tracks. A combination of weather, vandalism, a relocation and even a train derailment took its toll on the site, breaking the stone into pieces and wearing the man’s name off its face.

Pei-Lin Yu, an associate professor in the Department of Anthropology and a Fulbright senior research fellow, led a ceremony to dedicate the new memorial on June 9, 2020. Attended by community members from Boise, from Boise State and Glenn’s Ferry, the ceremony included lighting incense, placing traditional yellow chrysanthemums and pouring Chinese ng ga py liquor near the stone.

MeiChun Lin, a language teacher at Riverstone International School in Boise, read the memorial inscription on the stone aloud in Cantonese, the language that would have been spoken by the Idaho rail workers in the 1880s. Yu read from Maxine Hong Kingston’s book, “China Men,” about Kingston’s grandfather’s experiences  as an immigrant rail worker.