Archaeologists uncover 150-year-old rail town in Utah

Oct 15, 2021, 9:02 PM | Updated: Mar 10, 2022, 3:27 pm

BOX ELDER COUNTY, Utah — The story of a 150-year-old Chinatown in Utah is finally being told, thanks to a team of archaeologists and descendants of Chinese rail workers.

We’re talking about the old ghost town of Terrace in the desert northwest of the Great Salt Lake.

An old picture of the town. (Utah State Historical Society)

It’s actually the first ever controlled excavation in Utah so far, focused on the Chinese experience.

They played a major role in building the transcontinental railroad, and archaeologists say that piece of history was for the most part, buried.

What looks like mere fragments, Doctor Christ Merritt explains, are instead, pieces of a story, pieces of someone’s life in the 1870s.

“This is a Chinese medicine bottle, and it was a stone medicine, made of calcite,” he said. “This was prescribed for internal bleeding. That tells you about that heavy life for the Chinese worker, you know, swinging that eight-pound sledge, hauling railroad ties and steel rail.”

Some artifacts found in the excavation of the town.

There’s not much left of Terrace today — a town that was formed around the building of the transcontinental railroad, and separated by it with a Chinatown kept on one side of the rails; everyone else, on the other.

“We’ve been in my family, searching for this history since I was 5-years-old,” Anna Eng said.

Eng grew up with the stories of her great-grandfather, who left his family in China to support them through the work he did out here.

Anna Eng

“To be able to understand what our great-grandfathers lived through, what they experienced, is incredible,” she said. “And this whole experience has just been incredibly moving.”

The biggest finding on this two-year long excavation, Merritt, said, was very much unexpected.

“We thought we would find fragments of a home,” he said. “What we actually did is we hit intact house floorboards.”

The foundation of a home now re-created in a 3D model.

“It’s small. It’s a little under 12 feet by a little under 7 feet, but probably two to four men would have lived in that house, communally cooked in that house,” Merritt said.

The excavation group. (Siu Lin Santee)

All of them are pieces that unearth a history. Eng said she’s found answers about her great-grandfather who died in an accident, never getting the chance to see his family again.

“We knew that he had been killed, we just didn’t know where,” she said.

And knowing that now, Eng said, “it’s tremendous.”

“I can’t even express what this means,” she said.

Much of Terrace is now fenced off because of past problems with vandalism. Merritt said that house is now buried again to preserve it for future generations.

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Archaeologists uncover 150-year-old rail town in Utah