Monday, February 28, 2011



The Chinese men, who were imported from their homeland for the construction of the Northern Pacific Railroad in the 1870s and '80s, stayed in the Clark's Fork River valley long after completion of the railroad line. All were employed by the railroad in the dirtiest and meanest jobs. Most lived in section houses that were little more than 2x4 shacks, equipped with a water pail and a wood stove.

Fourteen Chinese were living at Noxon when the 1920 census was taken. Their names were Lea Iuone, Frank Bou, Chou Hong, Jong Chong, Chow Ling, Li Fonja, Gee Long, Ling Sil, Wong Fon, Sag Ding, Lake N U, Son Ku, Li Fon, Wong Lonie.

The children of Noxon's NPRR sectionman, Andrew Knutson, Charlie, Rhoda and Johnny, grew up in Noxon, along with Carmen Moore, and had fond memories of the Chinese who'd stayed there.
Carmen said, "They lived in two housing units below the hill where Mary Miller lives," Carmen Moore said. "One was an old boxcar fixed over into a place to sleep in, the Chinese bunkhouse. Also they had a small house built next to that with a small kitchen and bunks in it."*1.
"They had three tiered bunks and were short on space, but what space they had they kept neat and clean utilizing every bit of it," Rhoda Knutson said.*2. "They always called me 'Loda'. If I was out, they would ask me to eat with them. They had rice dishes."
"The Chinamen stayed there [in the bunkhouse] most of the time except when they'd go over town to the store to get groceries. I don't know if they got their mail there or not. I don't remember seeing any of them go in the post office," Charles Knutson said.*3.
They grew wonderful big beautiful gardens, which surrounded their house. Johnny Knutson used to eat more with the Chinese than at home, he said.
"I could work those chop sticks like nobody's business.*4. I used to eat with them once in a while."
They dried fish on top of their roof, and used every bit of their garden.
Charles explained, "They had a process of drying, and they had a way of curing their cabbage and everything, dry it, and used it through the winter. One of them had been a cook before. And he worked for the railroad. And he did all the cooking for them.
"They were very thrifty and didn't spend their money for anything foolish, only buying groceries, clothes and shoes."*5.
"All of them were real nice fellows. They never gave any trouble. They had a man who was head of them at Hope. And they called it Twin Lo and Company. They were the head of the Chinese who came to America and worked. And later, Twin Lo and Company were the ones that the railroad paid the money to. Money was paid to the workers through this Twin Lo Company.
"When they'd get their money, a lot of them would go down to Hope [Idaho] and have him send it to China," Charles recalled. "That's right. And he got all of their food from China. Oh, rice and things like that. And pork. He ordered it. And then he'd send it out to all these crews along the line. There were Chinese crews at pret' near all of the sections.
"The men paid him, each one of them, out of their checks, for doing that. None were married at Noxon but some were married and had families in China and had Andrew Knutson help them send money home to China.*6.
Louie, a Chinese man at Hope, Idaho, controlled the laborers money there, giving them $10 of their wages and supposedly sending the rest of it to China to support their families. But no one knew how much money actually went back to the laborer's families. Louie built himself quite an empire. With headquarters in Hope, Idaho, he ran an opium den where Chinamen went for recreation.*7.

They were employees of the Northern Pacific Railroad, Charlie Knutson said.
"I had a Chinese crew at Noxon when I run the section towards Trout Creek. I had seven and my Dad [Andrew Knutson] had five. Lum Chum and Gee were on Dad's crew. He had some whites too.*8. Every day the crews went over the track with picks and shovels, riding along it on a hand-pumped "speeder", looking for wear and tear to be mended. Constantly they had to shovel in ballast under the ties, tighten or replace faulty spikes holding the railroad ties in place."
Carmen Moore said, "The Chinamen were very skilled at the work they did, because they'd worked at it for years and years and knew how to dress up the track and smooth up the bed. And they were so short that it was easy for them to do the shoveling and the work where a taller person would have to stoop over. It didn't seem to tire them so much."*9.
Clifford Weare said opium was among the supplies they received from China, and all of the Chinese at Noxon smoked opium.
"Mrs. Knutson came running over to the store one day,  'Mr. Weare, come quick,' she says, 'Johnny's dying!' I couldn't think what was the matter. I'd seen him in the morning and he was all right. So I went over and he was laying on the floor and frothing at the mouth.
"The best thing I could do was call a doctor. There was a doctor then at Thompson Falls. Doc Leger. NPRR had a telephone in then, so I told Matheney, the agent, what was happening.
"'I'll get Thompson Falls and see if I can get the doctor.' So he rang him up and told him, 'There's a kid here frothing at the mouth, and I think he's poisoned. Could you come right down?' "'I'll come down on the first train.' "So he caught a freight train and come down.
"He went in and looked at Johnny. "'He'll be all right.'
"'Would you do something for him?'
"He said, 'Yeah, we'll put him in the bed and I'll give him a sedative and he'll be all right after a while.'
"'What's the matter with him?'
"'Oh, he's been over there with them Chinamen smoking opium.'
Weare always laughed when telling the story.
"That was what was the matter with him. He couldn't take it, hahaha. He was out you know. Oh, he'd know he was sick, all right!
"Old Andrew [Johnny's dad], he was pretty mad about it. He went over and told them Chinamen, 'Never give him any opium again! Don't you ever give that boy of mine any opium!'"*10.
The English language occasionally presented problems for the Chinese. Once, in the Posts and Poles Store owned by Clifford Weare, the man knicknamed Chinese Lee wanted to buy Epsom salts. When he couldn't make Weare understand what he wanted by repeating "Salt, salt", he finally said,
"Salt, big shits salt!" he finally said.
This Weare understood, knowing Epsom salts to be a laxative.

The Chinese still remaining at Noxon were very honest. One day in 1920, one of them who had owed a bill for more than six years, since the Post and Poles Store closed, saw Mrs. Clifford Weare getting on the train to go to Thompson Falls. He stopped her and paid her the $6.45 he still owed.

Lee, a Chinese laborer at Cabinet, Idaho, made friends with Millard Easter's young daughters, Bernice and Katie. Lee, who didn't wear his hair in the Chinese traditional queue, liked kids. One day he gave Bernice and her girl friend, Margaret Shields, a box of chocolate candy and Chinese fruit that had come from China.

A picture on the front of the box showed fruit that looked like peaches, but inside they found the fruit more resembled figs and they were fearful of eating it.*11.

But Chinese grew produce gardens both at Hope and at Cabinet, peddling the vegetables from door to door, carrying them in baskets slung from a pole across their shoulders.

Katie and Bernice Easter, who lived just west of the Montana border near Cabinet, Idaho, tried to satisfy their curiosity about the opium dens in Hope, where the Chinese would lie down to smoke their pipes.

One day when the sisters had gone to Hope, Idaho, where Katie taught piano lessons, the young ladies sneaked down the hill behind the opium den to peek inside. Instead of seeing the opium den through the curtain, they saw Louie's new bride from China. She was pouring tea from a beautiful tea set. As far as Katie and Bernice know, since the lovely Chinese lady was not allowed to go out anywhere, that was the only time she was seen. Later on, the opium den burned. It was then learned that the shelves of the den, where the Chinese reclined to smoke, were three deep.*12.

Elmer Easter witnessed the NPRR Section Foreman, who was Japanese, rescuing a Chinese laborer in 1917. Crossing the track between the NPRR maintainer's house and the Shamrock Hotel, he came upon a group of Chinese members going after another Chinese man with a pick or pick handle. The man had broken his leg in an accident on the job. Unable to work, he was of no use to his brethren, so they were going to kill him. The section foreman stopped them.

Soon after that the Japanese foreman, who was about 40 years old, sent to Japan to get a 16 or 17 year-old bride he'd selected from a picture book. When she arrived in Cabinet, she spoke no English. The foreman asked Bernice and her friend, Margaret Shields, to help teach her to read. Ten-year-old Bernice took the Primer from school. A couple of times a week they walked over to spend the evening helping the eager girl to learn. The girl, whose name is not remembered, was a lovely creature with a large number of boxes filled with beautiful clothes. Her wedding dress of beautiful red satin particularly fascinated them.

In Japan the bride had been trained in making flowers. In America she sold long strings of graduated pearls, imported from Japan, for $10 a string. After living two years with the Japanese Foreman, she took off for New York, where she opened a flower shop and put her talents to work.

A Buddhist Temple and a cemetery at Hope served their religious community, but most of the Chinese who died at Heron, Montana were buried in the Dingley's orchard.*13. Those who died at Noxon were buried nearby the river.

While Phil Hull was digging gravel by the railroad tracks in the early 1920s, he found Chinese graves. The gravel was being hauled, in lumber wagons converted to dump wagons by nailing 2x8 and 2x6 planks on the sides. The remains of several Chinese were unearthed from between the railroad tracks and the bridge, where a gravel bar formed a slight rise on the north side of the railroad tracks. The bodies were recovered and moved.*14. Rhoda Knutson described the Chinese funerals that took place at Noxon,
"Mourners put food out for them. Quite often on top so they'd have food. They didn't just sprinkle the food when they buried them. They put it there at different periods. They burnt rice paper that was all full of holes. And if they could burn that up before the devil got through it, their body would go...
"Lum Chum told me they put these papers around the house. They had the holes in it. If the devil could get through those holes he could get to the person, that would be bad. But if he couldn't get through, why he was all right. They were superstitious. And they had ideas that after they died, they had to have food."*15.
Chinese mourners sprinkled coins from the funeral to the burial to keep evil spirits away. They also left dishes of foods to help the soul along its way. Callous local Noxon "sports" often followed this ancient procession, which they considered to be pagan anyway, only to steal the roast chicken and food from the grave.*16.

The Chinese were very good to the people. They didn't bother anyone, but kept by themselves and didn't associate with the townspeople.
"I think they saved their money, and as they got old enough to retire, they went on back to China where they came from as young people," Ruth Knutson said.*17.
When Cabinet Gorge Dam was built (1950-'52), several Oriental's bodies were moved from their resting place in a cottonwood-shaded plot by the riverbank, north of the NPRR Noxon Depot, and interred in the Noxon cemetery on the Pilgrim Creek hill.

At Hope, Idaho, their Chinese cemetery has been kept intact by a special retaining wall built at the west end of the bridge over Pend Oreille Lake.


  1. Carmen Moore, tape-recorded oral history, February 1988.
  2. Rhoda Knutson, tape-recorded oral history, Nov. 18, 1983.
  3. Charles Knutson, tape-recorded oral history, Nov. 18, 1983.
  4. Johnny Knutson, oral history, 1970.
  5. Charles Knutson, tape-recorded oral history, Nov. 18, 1983.
  6. Charles Knutson, tape-recorded oral history, Nov. 18, 1983.
  7. W. R. Chuck Peterson, historian, Hope, Idaho.
  8. Charles Knutson, tape-recorded oral history, Nov. 18, 1983.
  9. Carmen Moore, tape-recorded oral history, February 1988.
  10. Clifford R. Weare, tape-recorded oral history, March 10, 1972.
  11. Bernice Easter Mussuto, oral history, February 20, 1988.
  12. Bernice Easter Mussuto, oral history, February 20, 1988.
  13. Georgia MacSpadden, oral history, July 12, 1982.
  14. Loren "Lanky" Jamison, tape-recorded oral history, 1989.
  15. Rhoda Knutson, tape-recorded oral history, Nov. 18, 1983.
  16. Don Maynard and Frank Berray, tape-recorded oral histories.
  17. Ruth Knutson, tape-recorded oral history, Nov. 18, 1983.

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