Benton County Pioneer Life

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Pioneer life in the Benton Co. WA area

Chinese Junks Plied River/Coolies Were Strong Men

Tri-City Pioneer
Tri-City Herald, Sunday, January 15, 1961, page 7

DURING THE 1880’s Chinese Junks would work their way up the Columbia River by sail and Coolie tow lines to placer mine the downstream tips of the various sand bars formed by the water currents. These Junks carried placer mining equipment such as coolie treadmills to pump water for the mining operations and other mining apparatus. The Junks were compact vessels with bluff lines, very high poop and overhanging stern, small keel and pole masts. Their only motive power was sail and coolie tow lines. The average crew was composed of a “Boss Chinaman” with eight or ten subordinates, who were specialists in their particular duties and fifty or seventy-five coolies, also a few Chinese women.

There was evidently an understanding between the owners of these junks, because it was always the same junk and crew that arrived each year at extreme low water mark, to placer mine the downstream tip of Hog Island. This island now inundated by the back water of the McNary Dam was located between Kennewick and Pasco.

Captain Charles E. Lum had a “Horse Spread” on the southeast bank of the Columbia River opposite Pasco. It extended for over a mile and a half along the river. The “Horse Spread” had a large ranch house, several smaller houses, corrals, barns and other buildings, also a wonderful subirrigated garden tract. Wong, the “Boss Chinaman”, would buy hogs, poultry, eggs, and vegetables from Capt. Lum. He always paid with gold dust as Capt. Lum had gold scales. The Junks usually left for the downstream journey before ice started to run in the Columbia River.

One year cold weather came early and struck suddenly. Wong, the “Boss Chinaman”, could not move his Junk from its operations. He asked Capt. Lum if he could rent housing for his crew, and secure food, and fuel for them. Capt. Lum told Wong that the only vacant buildings he had were a large house with a basement and a vacant “dugout” that had been used for an ice house. Wong examined the structures and showed Capt. Lum how to put up the bunks for the coolies - one cubical above the other. Accommodations for 50 coolies were secured in the one house. A floor, wood stove, and other furniture were placed in the old “dugout” for the two Chinese Ladies of easy virtue.

These Coolies were large powerful men. They were selected and trained for physical feats of strength. They worked harnessed and yoked like beasts of burden. I have seen 50 of them yoked together in two-man teams, carry a large driftwood log for firewood. With 25 coolies on each side of the large log, it resembled a huge centipede. They wore special harnesses when they worked on the treadmill pumps. Straps that went over their shoulders were fastened to the treadmill and by lifting against these straps their weight was increased thus transmitting more power to the treadmill. Special harnesses were also used with the tow lines.

Thought their life was menial, the coolies were quite intelligent. They could read and write their language and do mathematical problems on their abacus.

The coolies main article of food was rice which was cooked in large copper kettles. The rice was supplemented with pork or fowl. The Coolies cared little for beef or mutton but were very fond of pork, chicken, and duck which they prepared in many ways. They cooked certain vegetables, cabbage, beets, turnips and beans. They served many kinds of soup but never fried their food. One of their delicacies was a cake made from soy flour and served with spiced ginger root. On their “Festive Days” they brought out their litchi nuts, bamboo sprouts and other Chinese foods. They drank Chinese tea hot and cool. They never drank water unless it was boiled and had tea in it.

The coolies’ recreation was to a large extent gambling. Their favorite game was dominos, played with flat, oblong, wooden pieces dotted after the manner of dice. They also played Fan Tan and smoked opium in a limited way and visited the “Dugout”.

Fifty yards from this “Dugout” Kennewick had build its first School House.

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