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Wyoming History

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Japanese in Wyoming

Part two of four parts

Part 1

Part 3

Part 4

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SunsetIn spite of protests, the number of Japanese railroad workers and coal miners increased. The Kemmerer Camera reported in 1902 that at Oakley, Japanese coal miners celebrated "their emperors birthday by giving a varied program of sports on the company grounds last Sunday." The games "were well organized" and "were chiefly Japanese such as wrestling in oriental style." The reporter noted, "the generous hospitality with which the guests were entertained will long be remembered." Naturally, some of the Japanese found the weather in Wyoming less than favorable and chose to seek employment elsewhere. One section boss near Kemmerer reported that his entire Japanese section gang had quit on him. Like so many other workers new to Wyoming, "they said it was too cold here and they [were] going to a warmer country."

Slowly, many settlers in Wyoming began to accept the presence of Japanese workers. This was due, in part, to their generous festivals and their work ethic. The festivals held on the emperor's birthday were celebrated region-wide. At Kemmerer, Rock Springs, and Oakley, the residents enjoyed festivals and free food provided by Japanese immigrants.

In the last decade of the nineteenth century, the most powerful corporation in southwestern Wyoming, Union Pacific, decided it would begin actively recruiting Japanese immigrants to work in the company's coal mines and on its railroad. prior to this action, Union Pacific actively recruited immigrants from all over Europe, thus creating a diverse population in the coal camps of southern Wyoming. In 1899, Union Pacific Coal Company hired more and more Japanese workers to help increase coal production. Soon other coal companies followed suit, leading to the formation of sizeable Japanese communities in coal camps throughout southwest Wyoming at the turn of the century. These Asian immigrants were forced to live in company-owned housing isolated along the fringes of coal-mining communities.

In addition to working in Union Pacific's coal mines, the Japanese were employed as section hands on the railroads. Here, again, they were often isolated from their co-workers in both housing and work assignments. In spite of the discrimination, Japanese coal miners and railroad workers became an integral part of the southwestern Wyoming communities. In the coal camps throughout the state, Japanese miners aspired to become shopkeepers, entrepreneurs, and craftsmen; but this upward mobility often met with resistance because of the prejudice against Asian immigrants. Union Pacific, as the largest employer in southwestern Wyoming, did little to lessen this prejudice. A brief look at Union Pacific's hiring of Japanese coal miners is enlightening in regard to how this prejudice developed.

On April 22, 1899, a newspaper in Rawlins, Wyoming, ran an article stating:

The Union Pacific [Coal Company] is now trying Japanese miners at Rock Springs. If they prove a success, several hundred will be employed. The company claims it cannot get sufficient employees from other nationalities to get out the amount of coal that they desire.

Within a year, 259 Japanese lived in the railroad and coal camps of Sweetwater County.

The Japanese began to arrive in southwestern Wyoming in the late 1890s. By 1909, there were 436 Japanese immigrants in Sweetwater County. Most of the Japanese were initially employed as miners and railroad workers, but some later became shopkeepers, restaurant owners, professional photographers and artists. One oral historical account illustrates why Japanese immigrants sought jobs in other fields outside the coal mines:

[My dad] come over to this country about 1906, I believe; [he went to] Seattle, Washington. He was a cook for a long time. I don't know what year he come over [to Rock Springs], but he started to work in the coal mine. I guess he was a track layer and shoveled coal--all inside the mine. Gosh, I think he got buried once. The coal come down and sealed it. After that he come out of there and said, "No more. . . ." It didn't hurt him, but he was buried. It was a kind of spooky experience for him. It would be for me too; I'd get out of there. So that's why he went into business [for himself].

The coal mines, however, prevailed as the largest employer of Japanese. Japanese towns emerged outside of large mining towns in Sweetwater county such as Hanna, Frontier, and Rock Springs. These villages appear on numerous turn-of-the century mine and railroad maps and are all obviously segregated from the rest of the towns. A 1907 map of Superior, for example, illustrates a Japanese community separate from the rest of the mining camps. Photographs and oral histories from this period also indicate that separate Japanese communities were built in Rock Springs, Hanna, Frontier, and Reliance. All of these communities were located in southwestern Wyoming, but coal camps such as Acme in northern Wyoming also had separate Japanese towns that were purposely constructed away from the rest of the mining community.

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If you have any questions please feel free to contact Dudley Gardner.

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