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Remnants of a 19th-Century Red-Light District and Chinatown Unearthed in Montana

A trove of artifacts reveals the town of Missoula’s remarkable and diverse past

Archaeologist Kate Kolwicz examines fragments of late 19th-century Chinese pottery unearthed in downtown Missoula. (University of Montana)
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Nestled in a lush, leafy landscape in the northern Rockies, the modern town of Missoula, Montana, is an outdoorsy outpost bustling with artists, writers and college students—an idyllic slice of the American West.

At the end of the 19th century, however, much of Missoula looked different. In the wake of the construction of the First Transcontinental Railroad, the picturesque city played host to a raucous red-light district and still-mysterious Chinatown that flourished for several decades. By the middle of the 20th century, both communities had disappeared—but thanks to a trove of artifacts unearthed in a recent University of Montana excavation, these two little-known chapters of the mountainous city’s history are finally in the spotlight.

Discovered beneath the site of what’s now the Cranky Sam Public House brewery, the team’s haul includes an impressive smattering of glassware, ceramics, medicine vials, furniture and more, each offering a glimpse into the daily goings-on of early Missoulians. While some of the artifacts, including perfume bottles and cosmetics jars, likely hailed from the brothels that once dotted downtown Missoula, others seem specific to the neighboring Chinatown, where locals would congregate to share meals, smoke opium and play board games, leaving paraphernalia, coins and even food scraps in their wake.

“The site is of great importance to understanding the lives of underrepresented sociocultural groups from Missoula’s past,” write University of Montana archaeologists Kate Kolwicz and Kelly Dixon in an email to the Missoulian’s David Erickson. “Collectively, this suite of artifacts convey[s] information about a range of topics that put us in touch with Missoula’s past residents, including their food and drink, healthcare practices, and social life.”

Cranky Sam Public House owners Jed and Jennifer Heggen first alerted the University of Montana team to the archaeological cache when they began construction on the building’s site last summer. The brewery’s small city block, the researchers discovered, had once been at the very heart of two long-gone communities, enshrining a time capsule of artifacts underground. A neighboring establishment called Biga Pizza had already been confirmed to sit atop what was once a Chinese temple, but the pub’s location proved to be a goldmine, yielding “boxes and boxes” of items from centuries past, according to Jill Valley of KPAX.

Missoula isn’t the only town in the American West that once housed a red-light district and a Chinatown in close proximity. As University of Montana archaeologist Nikki Manning explains to KPAX, Chinese doctors were often among the only medical professionals willing to treat the ailments of prostitutes, who were frequently turned away from other establishments.

Few records of the two communities—both underrepresented and even maligned by historical texts—survive to the present day. But like other Chinese Americans at the time, the residents of Missoula’s Chinatown probably weathered a constant barrage of discrimination. Legislation like the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, the Geary Act of 1892 and the Immigration Act of 1924 culled the number of jobs available to this group, while increasingly derogatory portrayals of Chinese culture in national media fueled racist stereotypes and persecution that sometimes culminated in outright violence. Nevertheless, Chinese communities came together, seeding job opportunities for themselves and immortalizing their cultural treasures in a swath of artifacts.

After decades of erasure, the team’s findings may offer an opportunity to “democratize our multicultural history,” says Dixon in a statement.

The researchers remain cautious about overinterpreting their findings before completing a formal analysis of the thousands of artifacts they’ve pulled from the site. That work could take years. In the meantime, reports the Missoulian, the Heggens are attempting to honor their brewery’s legacy by putting a few of its treasures, including a series of articles detailing the misadventures of a notorious Chinese opium dealer known by the moniker Cranky Sam, on display. Originally called Black Timber Brewery, the establishment’s name now contains an homage to the notorious immigrant.

Written up in local papers for his “lawlessness,” Cranky Sam may have been yet another victim of sensationalism, says Kolwicz in the statement.

When history is so often penned solely by those in power, adds Dixon, “[I]t is important … to avoid sensationalizing the artifacts or using them to perpetuate common stereotypes based upon race, culture and social status.”

About Katherine J. Wu
Katherine J. Wu

Katherine J. Wu is a Boston-based science journalist and Story Collider senior producer whose work has appeared in National Geographic, Undark magazine, Popular Science and more. She holds a Ph.D. in Microbiology and Immunobiology from Harvard University, and was Smithsonian magazine's 2018 AAAS Mass Media Fellow.

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