Written by Anjuli Grantham
“It is at the Phoenix Hotel/ that the bugs and the roaches do dwell.”
This couplet re-focused my wondering mind as I rummaged through vertical files at a family research library in Oregon City, Oregon. I was looking into the history of the McLouglin House, built in 1846 and currently managed by the National Park Service, when I came across anecdotes related to Dr. John McLoughlin and the McLoughlin Memorial Association. Dr. McLoughlin was Chief Factor of the Columbia Fur District of Hudson's Bay Company at Fort Vancouver and is recognized as the "Father of Oregon." After all, it was his letters extolling the fertility of the region that tempted the initial settlers who traveled west on what became the Oregon Trail. At the beginning of the 20th century, the McLoughlin Memorial Association formed to save the McLoughlin House and in doing so became the Pacific Northwest's first preservation organization.
I sensed that this little ditty about insect infestations held some promise in illuminating a poorly documented period in the house's history. In the years after McLoughlin's heirs had sold it, the house was a hotel, boarding house, and reputedly a brothel known as the Phoenix Hotel. But trying to find out more than these basic facts was proving illusive. I eagerly read on, and discovered that according to the reciter of the poem, the Phoenix Hotel was considered dirty due to its association with Chinese laborers. Chinese laborers? In Oregon City? I then came across a photocopy of an old newspaper, bearing the title "Why No Chinatown in Oregon City." Now this was getting interesting.
After more research, I discovered that in the 1880s, Portland had one of the largest Chinese populations in the nation. Dozens of Chinese laborers worked across the street from the Phoenix Hotel at the woolen mill in Oregon City, just downriver from Portland. The 1880s were a tumultuous time in the Northwest. An economic recession hit the region. The hundreds of unemployed, unskilled, and wandering white men who had moved west, envisioning the promises of Manifest Destiny, discovered towns with no jobs. A handful of demagogues blamed their unemployment on Chinese immigrants, asserting that Chinese "coolies" were taking what were rightfully white men's jobs. By 1886 Anti-Coolie Leagues organized in neighborhoods, towns, and cities across the Pacific Northwest with the expressed purpose of expelling the Chinese immigrants from their jobs and from the Northwest.
In the winter of 1886, Oregon City citizens approached the managers of the woolen mill and demanded that the mill fire the Chinese operators and replace them with white workers. The managers obliged, but not at the rate that the Anti-Coolie League and local Knights of Labor demanded. As a result, in February a handful of men gathered at the Phoenix Hotel. There they decided to rid Oregon City of the remaining Chinese workers. Under the cover of darkness they walked from the hotel to a boarding house nearby where the mill workers slept. The mob wrestled the approximately 30 Chinese workers from their bed, marched them to the pier, and shoved them aboard a steamship headed to Portland. The next day only a few Chinese residents remained in Oregon City. Similar expulsions happened throughout the region that same year, with the most dramatic occurring in Tacoma, Washington, where in one night hundreds of Chinese residents were forcefully removed from town. The wave of anti-Chinese violence crested in the late winter and early spring of 1886.
When the McLoughlin Memorial Association fought to preserve the McLoughlin House more than twenty years after Anti-Coolie League members gathered within it, they likely were not keen to recall the less than heroic incidents which the house had surely witnessed. And here we have one of the values of historic preservation. It protects the tangible resources that connect us to our intangible, sometimes forgotten, past. Take the McLoughlin House as an example. In this one house we can bear witness to the grand narrative of the American West which encapsulates our nation’s proudest and most shameful moments.
Anjuli Grantham researched the McLouglin House while working as an intern at Fort Vancouver National Historic Site. She recently accepted a postion as curator of the Baranov Museum in Kodiak, Alaska. Anjuli attended the 2010 National Preservation Conference as a Diversity Scholar.