Monday, April 21, 2014

Poacher Gulch

Tales of Chinese terraces along a remote, heavily timbered hillside in Sanders County attracted the attention of Forest Service and University of Montana archaeologists in 2006. The site was unlike any other in Montana with rock-lined terraces, moss-covered with age, spanning several hundred feet along a steep slope. Forest Service archaeologists discovered these terraces in 1979, tucked away in an obscure drainage known as Poacher Gulch. Locals firmly believed that Chinese miners built them. The moss and a tree trunk growing through an iron wheel seemed good evidence that the site was of great age.

Photo by Chris Merritt
As the local story went, Chinese workers laying tracks of the Northern Pacific Railroad along the Clark Fork River in 1883, underpaid and mistreated, left their jobs to search the hills for gold and silver. It was logical, and these terraces resembled terraces Chinese farmers constructed in Idaho’s Payette National Forest. So between 1979 and 2006, the Chinese terrace theory was so convincing that it nearly became accepted as fact. Archaeologists assumed they would discover evidence of 1880s Chinese occupation, when laborers were in fact laying track along the Clark Fork. However, that is not what came to light, and it served to prove that local stories do not always match historic facts. Forest Service archaeologist Milo McCloud, University of Montana graduate student Chris Merritt, and a Passport in Time volunteer crew worked for weeks under terrible conditions in cold and rainy weather in 2007.

Photo by Chris Merritt
They found no evidence of Chinese settlement. Instead, they found thousands of tiny pieces of tarpaper, mushy wood, nails dating to the early 1900s, and the cultivation of corn on the terraces. The “Chinese terraces” of Poacher Gulch turned out to be something completely unexpected. No Chinese ever lived there. Its real inhabitants were cultivating corn for moonshine during Prohibition in the 1920s.

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