Rock Springs City officials recently approved $154,000 to commemorate one of the city’s — and Wyoming’s — darkest days.
Known as the Chinese Massacre, Sept. 2, 1885, was the day 28 coal miners were shot or beaten to death, their homes burned and, according to newspaper reports from the following days, as many as 500 people were driven into the hills west of town.
No one was ever prosecuted for the crimes committed that day, which was the climax of a Union Pacific labor dispute.
The calamitous events were not openly spoken of in Rock Springs for years, but as time passed, local educators and historians persisted in the sentiment that those who refuse to learn and accept history are doomed to repeat it.
Now Rock Springs City Council members have voted to own the town's history, unanimously approving the allocation for a statue memorializing the Chinese Massacre.
‘Requiem’ For Rock Springs
A bronze statue of a Chinese government official, known as Ah-say, holding a tattered banner with the scattered remnants of his culture and his burned home laying at his feet will be placed facing Bridger Street. The sculpture will be named "Requiem."
David Alan Clark of Lander was commissioned by the city to create the sculpture. Clark wants to complete the sculpture in about a year from now and an unveiling is expected sometime in 2025.
Anti-Asian sentiment was prominent across the United States in the 1870s and 1880s. Many people thought Asian workers were taking jobs away from Americans.
However, many Americans also were appalled by widespread violence against Asians at the time, and there were calls for Rock Springs to be boarded up and abandoned in the wake of the Chinese Massacre.
It’s A Risk
Memorializing the event, from a public relations perspective, is a risk. In the view of some, especially Rock Springs residents who may have had family members that were involved, it's a sleeping dog that's better left alone.
Jennifer Messer, museum coordinator for the Rock Springs Historical Museum, said that since about 2000 there's been increasing interest in the massacre. Filmmakers and various writers have visited Rock Springs to conduct research. Rock Springs School District 1 made it part of its curriculum.
There were some people in Rock Springs who opposed drawing attention to the massacre and didn't want it highlighted in any way, she said.
"It's been almost 140 years since it happened, and for a solid 25 years it's been a feature of the curriculum in Sweetwater County," Messer told Cowboy State Daily. "Kids here have a grasp of the situation. They understand there are ways you treat people in a community, and this was not a great example."
In 2016, the Rock Springs Historical Museum placed a sandstone monument near the intersection of Bridger Avenue and M Street titled "Peace," that displays the names of the 28 miners who died that day.
However, Messer said the sandstone memorial lacks interpretive information and is "very understated."
"I think having a large-scale sculpture and benches will be a really nice way for people to sit and contemplate what happened," she said. "It's also a place where people can pay respects and we are excited about being able to host tours for school kids to learn about state and local history."
Own Your Past
Messer added that owning what happened is healing and that in the 20 years she's worked at the museum only one person ever told her his family was involved in the massacre.
"There is something valuable about people being able to say that what happened wasn't good and that even though they weren't involved they feel bad that it happened," she said. "I'm looking forward to the public having a place to learn about it, reflect promote healing and feel like that side of history got heard."
M.J. Clark, wife and business partner of sculptor David Alan Clark, said the sculpture will be 7 feet tall and will sit on top of a concrete pedestal. Around the base, the sculpture will include broken pickaxes, lanters, shovels, tea cups and other items that reflect Chinese culture.
The Clarks have conducted a lot of research on the massacre to prepare for the project. M.J. said it's like taking a movie and packing all of the meaning into one frame.
A Time Of Violence
The Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 placed a 10-year ban on Chinese laborers immigrating to the United States. M.J. said the Act gave people an excuse to discriminate and violence against Asian workers was widespread.
Clark said the Chinese miners only drank tea and were hard workers while Irish and German miners frequently showed up for work hungover. She said the Chinese miners also were healthier because the tea they drank was boiled and therefore it was uncommon for them to miss work due to water-borne illnesses.
What Lit The Fuse?
In the Union Pacific coal mines in Sweetwater County and elsewhere, miners didn't get paid for moving overburden, only coal. By some newspaper accounts, a dispute broke out over who had the right to a particularly rich coal deposit.
According to the Library of Congress, the violence erupted when the Chinese miners refused to participate in a strike for higher wages.
Along with 28 fatalities, 15 were wounded and many of the bodies were tossed into the flames of the 79 homes that were set on fire. Several hundred Chinese fled west into the hills and some of them were never found. A few days later, the remaining miners were put on trains and taken to Evanston.
U.S. President Grover Cleveland requested that Congress indemnify the Chinese government for the loss of the homes. According to newspaper accounts, $144,000 was paid to the Chinese government.
Clark said once in Evanston, the miners were told they would be sent to San Francisco and that they could return to China. But instead, they were put on trains and hauled back to Rock Springs where they returned to work in the mines.
"They realized they couldn't run the mines without the Chinese, so they took them back to Rock Springs to the smoking ruins of their homes," she said. "They had to bury their dead, rebuild their homes and go back to work."
Clark added that Rock Springs officials made a courageous move in recognizing the significance of the Chinese Massacre, and shining light on the events of that day will help make sure it never happens again.
David Alan Clark has sculptures on display across the country. In Wyoming, his sculpture of John Wesley Powell is in Green River at the Sweetwater County Historical Museum and another Jim Bridger is on display at Fort Bridger in Uinta County.
Repeated attempts by Cowboy State Daily to contact Rock Springs Mayor Max Mickelson were unsuccessful.