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Contributions of Chinese railroad workers in Utah’s history examined at free lecture

Archaeologists digging near Terrace looking for artifacts from late 1800s Chinese railroad workers.
Chris Merritt
Archaeologists digging near Terrace looking for artifacts from late 1800s Chinese railroad workers.

The historic Echo Church is open every Saturday this summer and will be hosting the traveling exhibition: “Chugging, Screeching, Rumbling, Billowing: Utah’s Industrial Revolution.” A lecture featuring this part of Utah’s history will follow the exhibit’s opening.

Echo, Utah, is no longer the thriving Summit County community it used to be in the mid-1800s when it served as one of the stops along the Mormon Trail. It later became a junction when the first transcontinental railroad was joined in 1869. After Interstates 80 and 84 were built in the 1950s, the town slowly faded. Today, the population is about 50.

Local historian Sandra Morrison notes the church isn’t the only historic building left in Echo. There are still a few dozen homes, an old two-room schoolhouse and a post office still in operation.

Through grants, including the Summit County RAP fund, the Echo Church will be open every Saturday this summer through Labor Day weekend from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m.

Saturday, June 15, Dr. Chris Merritt, the Utah Historic Preservation Officer, will discuss what he found at an archaeologic dig in Terrace, Utah, a place that once housed a large population of Chinese workers who helped build the rail line. Terrace is about 40 miles west of the Golden Spike Historical Park in the very northwestern corner of the state. Merritt says Terrace existed between the completion of the railroad and the early 1900s when the town disappeared.

“After the railroad abandoned the town, it was fully turned into a ghost town within months,” Merritt said. “That left today a very rich archaeological history that was still on the ground from old foundations and the artifacts of the people that lived in the community. The town of Terrace was also the third largest concentration of Chinese in Utah Territory in the 1870s. And so, it's an interesting glimpse into understanding the lives of that immigrant group.”

This is the first time in the U.S. that archaeologists have fully uncovered a Chinese home from the transcontinental railroad era.

“Archaeology is such a powerful tool to really understand the daily lives of those in the past. History, whether books or newspapers, can give us a lot of events, names, dates, that archeology, when it's paired with history, can make that history much richer by giving those personal objects as personal artifacts. And as archaeologists, we uncovered over 3,800 artifacts from this home.”

Pottery found during the dig in Terrace, Utah.
Chris Merritt
Pottery found during the dig in Terrace, Utah.

Artifacts uncovered include tableware porcelains, stoneware jars that held traditional Chinese food like soy sauce and ginger and Chinese coins. This dry, salty corner of Utah, he says, helped preserve even organic materials like fish vertebrae, a coconut shell and a braid of human hair.

“That's why archaeology is so important,” he said. “It removes a lot of the biases because in history, people wanted to depict themselves in a certain way, but a famous anthropologist always said, ‘We never lie to our trash pile.’ And so, it kind of does speak to the true human existence – it’s not polished and catered. It's lived.”

All the artifacts recovered will be put into the new Museum of Utah that is under construction at the Utah State Capitol which will open in 2026.

Merritt’s free lecture Saturday begins at 4 p.m. and will last about an hour, including time to answer questions. The Historic Echo Church is just off I-80 at exit 169, then follow the signs to Echo. The church is located at 50 Temple Lane.