The racial justice movement sparked by the death of George Floyd has caused many cities to examine their history of race relations. Lake Oswego is no exception. The city’s reputation as an exclusive white enclave has made it a poster child for white privilege. But was it always this way? This series of articles explores what census records reveal about people of color who lived in Oswego during its first 80 years.
CHINESE WORKERS IN THE OSWEGO IRON INDUSTRY
In 1860 Oswego was a small mill town of 18 households and 97 inhabitants 53 of whom were children. The following year, iron was discovered in the hills above Sucker Lake and life in Oswego began to change. Seeing an opportunity to build the first iron furnace on the Pacific Coast, a group of Portland investors founded the Oregon Iron Company. At the time, the West Coast was experiencing a huge influx of Chinese free laborers, known as coolies, who were fleeing poverty and famine in south China. Labor costs on the remote and sparsely populated West Coast were high and Chinese workers filled the demand for cheap labor that African Americans supplied in eastern states.
In April 1867, news leaked out that the Oregon Iron Company had hired 18 “Chinamen” to work its new mine. The plan met with immediate resistance. Forty-four local citizens signed a protest against Chinese labor that was published in The Oregonian on April 10th.
We, the citizens of Oswego and surrounding country, having heard the rumor that the Oregon Iron Company are about to force upon this community a large horde of Chinese laborers, to carry on their works, therefore,
We, the undersigned, assembled in mass meeting, as men considering ourown interests, present and future, do protest as follows against the introduction of Chinese in our midst, either by companies or individuals:
Resolved, That judging from our experience in other localities, the fact has been demonstrated that the introduction of Chinese, as laborers or
residents, has proved a scathing blight upon every city, town or hamlet where they have been introduced upon this coast.
Resolved, That we do not believe Chinese labor to be as profitable to the employer as white labor, and wholly unprofitable to merchant, mechanic, or laborer,–a bane upon society and a nuisance totally intolerable.
Resolved, That while we [do] not wish to dictate to companies or
individuals, as to the investment of capital; yet we cannot regard the
introduction of Chinese labor in our midst with the least toleration.
Resolved, That while we entertain a high regard for the Oregon Iron
Company, and deem the work they have done here worthy of the men engaged in the enterprise; yet we think they should remember that it is the Anglo Saxon race, and not the Mongolian, that make a market for their iron.
Resolved, That a copy of these resolutions be sent to the President of the Oregon Iron Company, and also be published in the Oregonian and Herald.
The following day, The Oregonian reported, “there was some disposition to repel by violence, the introduction of the Chinamen, but they were landed from the [steamer] Alert and went to the mine without disturbance.” In spite of this apparent victory, the company quickly abandoned its plan to employ Chinese miners and there was no further mention of Chinese workers until 1873 when the iron company, which had been closed for five years, reopened under new management.
The new managers hired Chinese workers for low-paying work that did not provoke a backlash from the white community. They worked as “fillers” charging the furnace with limestone, ore and charcoal, but their most important role was woodcutting. The furnace consumed vast quantities of charcoal and Chinese woodcutters provided all the cordwood to the charcoal makers. For felling, bucking and splitting Douglas fir trees into cordwood, they received 90 cents to $1.00 per cord (equal to about $25 a cord today). The trees averaged 250 feet in height and were up to 4 feet in diameter. In 1881 they cut 27,000 cords of wood, which averaged 100 cords to the acre.
Woodcutters constituted half the work force in the iron industry. Between 1873 and 1890, their numbers grew from 150 to about 300 men. The work was seasonal and the woodcutters were hired through Chinese labor contractors. Like the crews who built the railroads, they lived in temporary camps and moved from one woodlot to another.
The Chinese work ethic was respected by some whites and resented by others. The Chinese who lived in Oswego were never expelled by angry mobs as they were from Oregon City and Mount Tabor, but anti-Chinese sentiment meant they were never entirely safe. An incident reported in the Oswego Iron Worker illustrates the kind of hostility to which they were exposed.
At Stewart’s switch, one mile this side of Sherwood, there are several camps of Chinese woodchoppers. Sunday night last, between the hours of 1 and 2 o’clock, one of these camps, where there were five Chinamen sleeping soundly in a tent, was attacked by two men with rifles. The assailants fired through the tent from 30 to 40 shots from a short distance away. The Mongolians dared not stir until the firing ceased, when they peeped out and saw two forms disappearing. They also perceived a burning fuse, and with suspicion at once aroused ran to the spot. They found two bags each containing about four pounds of giant powder [dynamite], which had been enclosed by pieces of overalls. They then got out of the vicinity, but returned on the following day. They are building a high fence around their camp and are armed to the teeth. It is a miracle that they escaped death Sunday night. The tent was riddled by bullets. The parties are supposed to be known. (Oswego Iron Worker, Dec. 26, 1891)
In spite of attacks like this, the Chinese were not easily intimidated. Labor contractors didn’t hesitate to sue if they felt their contracts had been violated. In January 1884, the Secretary of the Oregon Iron & Steel Company, telegraphed President S. G. Reed, “Must have two thousand dollars telegraphed Friday to pay Chinamen wood choppers for New Years or hell will be to pay.” According to Chinese custom all debts must be paid before the Chinese New Year. The iron company’s woodcutters weren’t about to abandon tradition just because they were living in the New World.
The Lake Oswego that exists today owes much to the labor of Chinese workers. In 1872 sixty Chinese workers dug the canal that links Oswego Lake to the Tualatin River. Although the plan to complete a navigation route through the lake was never realized, the size and power-generating potential of the lake was permanently enhanced by the canal. The Oswego iron industry was Oregon’s largest manufacturing enterprise in the nineteenth century, but without Chinese labor, it would not have been financially viable.
This year is the 170th anniversary of Lake Oswego’s founding. With all that has happened in 2020, it is easy to forget that this is a census year. What will the 2020 census reveal about racial diversity in Lake Oswego? Census records show that people of color were among Oswego’s earliest residents. In this year of racial reckoning, they deserve to be remembered.