Thursday, September 15, 2005

CPRR Worker's Hut

From: "Chris Graves"

Carol and I had the opportunity today to walk the old CPRR grade East of Colfax, California, and photographed a worker's hut that is about [75] feet from the old grade.

This hut is 6 feet in diameter, and 4 1/2 feet from floor to ceiling. It is "dry laid," that is, no cement or material other than the stone that comprises the hut was used. The rocks are well fitted together, but the roof is not water tight. (To photograph the inside from the roof, a stone was moved to accomodate the camera. The stone was put back when the photo was taken.) I noted no other signs of human habitation – no cans, bottles, dishes, etc.

Whoever lived in this place was small – the entrance did not allow me to enter the hut.

1. Front of hut, with Chris sitting on the right

2. Looking at the entrance – note the quarried granite stone on the left

3. Entrance

4. Entrance

5. Looking down at the top of the hut, from the old CPRR grade. This was difficult to find, unless a person had fallen down the hill, or was looking for this hut, it is nearly impossible to see from even a few feet away.

6. Looking down from the roof. Rock walls and roof stones fitted together in an expert manner

7. A closer look at the quarried stone in the entrance.

I noted many piles of stone along the old CPRR grade in Nevada a few weeks ago, that would have roughly the same dimensions as this hut. If this hut were collapsed, it would closely resemble the piles noted East of Moor, Nevada.

I wonder how many more of these things are still standing in the Sierra?

—G J Chris Graves, NewCastle, Cal.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Chris -- Are you sure it's original function was as a hut? How about a black powder magazine? It just seems too restrictive to have something so small, so isolated related to a construction project as great as CPRR. Were there signs of cooking fire smoke, for instance, on any wall? Again, the interior space seems so small as to preclude a person, a bedroll and a fire "hearth" or firepit. I'll really look forward to others' responses to your remarkable find.

9/15/2005 1:38 PM  
Blogger CPRR Discussion Group said...

From: "Chris Graves"

Went back up there this morning, and pushed the detritus out of the entrance way. This hut has a stone threshold, and a stone floor. The stone floor goes wall to wall. Once I was able to gain entrance, it is easy to see smoke stains on the ceiling. I did not note any other signs of human habitation; no broken glass, no cans, no iron.

... On this return trip, I noted the distance from the old CPRR grade more carefully – it is no more than 75 linear feet from the grade, however it is down a steep embankment some 100 feet or more.


9/15/2005 2:29 PM  
Blogger CPRR Discussion Group said...

From: "Don Snoddy"

I bet it was a powder magazine.


9/15/2005 4:34 PM  
Blogger CPRR Discussion Group said...

See additional information and photographs.

9/15/2005 9:13 PM  
Blogger CPRR Discussion Group said...

From: "Don"

Good deductions. I don't think many of us took the time to really think it through. I certainly didn't when I suggested a powder magazine. The quantities used at any one time would make a small stone storage facility useless. I don't know exactly where they tried nitroglycerine. Do we have anyone in the group with connections to a laboratory? Perhaps some of the smoke stains could be analyzed for content? CSI here we come.

9/17/2005 8:27 AM  
Blogger CPRR Discussion Group said...

From: "Kevin Bunker"

I'm still not convinced its function was not as a black powder magazine. Yes, Giant Powder and other varieties came in kegs, but from those kegs known dimensions, a short-use facility like this still seems logical. Keep the smaller supply close at hand to the task and move on. Need another stone lined magazine further upline? Labor for this at the time the CPRR was being built was relatively cheap, so build as many such structures as required and wherever required.

Yet, what if it's entirely unrelated to the CP? Just because it's fairly close to the right of way doesn't mean it *must* be related to CP construction. Any archeologists or cultural anthropologists out there among us???


9/17/2005 10:25 PM  
Blogger CPRR Discussion Group said...

From: "Wendell Huffman"

I've been following all this discussion with interest – and really with little to say. My private (and pointless) comment to Chris was that it was a Hobbit house.

My objection to visualizing this "hut" as a powder magazine is that it was so far below the railroad grade – apparently down a steep path. All those kegs of power would have to be carried to the hut, and then carried from it. While a powder magazine would likely have been some distance away from the activity, it would still have been convenient to transportation.

What comes to my mind is a bit more nefarious: perhaps an opium den or a brothel. I'm still not clear how big the thing is. Can someone lay down in it? Or, could it have been a shrine, or something of a religious nature. What, exactly was a "Joss house".


9/18/2005 10:36 AM  
Blogger CPRR Discussion Group said...

From: "Don"

I like the brothel idea, though it sounds very small for all the rolicking that would have been going on. Whose to say it has to be Chinese?

From what little I know a joss house is a shrine for a Chinese god, whose generic names were joss, or idol. In the museum we had several items from the joss house in Rock Springs that were pewter and were for holding incense sticks, etc. This being the case I suppose the hut could have been a shrine, one didn't need to go inside to worship the idol, just that it was protected perhaps from the elements and could hold whatever offerings were put there.

9/18/2005 7:43 PM  
Blogger CPRR Discussion Group said...

From: "Chris Graves"
I suppose it would be helpful for the folks that are commenting on the stone structure mentioned on the CPRR blog to know that this structure is immediately at the  end of the Secret Town trestle.  It is built on the only ground available for such a structure, as the trestle height would have prevented any one from getting to such a structure unless he/she scaled the trestle from top to bottom, or vice-versa.  As to being a brothel, those cold hard stones on the floor would make for an uncomfortable encounter (not speaking here of personal experience, just a random thought from an old man).  Lynn Farrar thought it might be a meeting place for opium users; if that be the reason for it, I'd guess that 3 folks could squeeze in at any one time.  Floor to ceiling the max height is 4 feet, while the floor is some 6 feet in diameter. 

—Chris Graves

9/19/2005 8:41 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

……to continue the discussion.

I agree with Wendell, the “hut” does indeed resemble a “Hobbit House”; however, in the absence of a known Hobbit population in this area of the Sierra, I will not follow that course of reasoning.

I also agree that we do not know for sure that this structure was associated with the railroad; however, the circumstantial evidence strongly suggests that it was. The quarried granite cornerstone speaks volumes. It is inconceivable that someone would have hauled such a heavy stone by horse or wagon to this location prior to the construction of the railroad, especially with consideration of the cost of freighting at that time and the distance to the quarries. It is also obvious that the person or persons that erected the structure were skilled at stacking stone, like someone employed to construct the culverts of the CPRR, or the retaining walls used in such locations as Cape Horn to the west, or the Chinese Wall between tunnels 6 and 7 to the east. The fact that the CPRR hauled quarried granite to this area by rail, and the fact that there were skilled laborers in the area at that time seems to be too much of a coincidence. It is certainly reasonable to conclude the structure does not predate the railroad. And it seems very unlikely that someone at a later date, who happened to be skilled at masonry, would have decided to construct such a structure adjacent a noisy railroad, where engines labor up the grade. For what possible reason? I think it very likely the “hut” is from the time period of the original construction.

Now that Chris has revealed the fact that the “hut” is located near a trestle, and not a cut, I am even less likely to go along with the powder magazine theory. There is little need for black powder when building a trestle. It would also be difficult to carry kegs up and down a steep slope, and stuff them through a small opening into a small structure. And if the structure is not waterproof, what purpose would it serve? And as the grade gains altitude to the east, where black powder was used is abundance, and the weather more severe, there is no known evidence of such structures. While I do not deny the possibility, I just do not think it practical.

I had two Asian friends to my house for dinner last Thursday. I took the opportunity to show them the photos of the “hut”. Without prejudicing their opinion I said: “this structure is located near the railroad in the Sierra, it could have been built by Chinese, what you think its purpose”. Independently each answered, “Storage”. This was in keeping with my previous opinion; however, they added a dimension I had not thought of. Each stated that an important feature of the structure is the fact that the stone and its earthen environ would tend to keep food cool, remember, there were no refrigerators, nor was the system yet in place to supply ice to this area. It certainly makes sense, and was something I had not thought of.

Wendell’s suggestion of a brothel is likely made in jest, and is no doubt influenced by his geographical location were the trade contributes to the economy (grin); however, I do think his suggestion of a shrine is plausible. Due to my vocation, I frequently visit the homes of Asians, and can attest to the fact that many have relatively elaborate shrines, even though the home may be quite modest. It has been my experience over the years that the shrines are almost always in the homes of Asians that were not born in this country. It is not inconceivable that the Chinese working on the railroad would have joined in the construction of a shrine to serve their reglious needs. And based on my grandfather’s stories of San Francisco in the late 1800s, opium is also a consideration.

I do hope there is a resolve to this puzzle, that we find a reference or an expert that can positively identify the purpose of this structure. At this point, I give most weight to the idea of food storage, and a close second to the idea of a shrine.

I am fresh out of ideas, and remain most willing to listen to the ideas of others.

9/20/2005 11:47 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hi, I have a small website dedicated to learning more about the early Taoist temples of California, called Joss Houses:

I don't know if Chinese working on the railroad would have built small shrines. But it is a distinct possibility.

The Chinese miners built shrines for Guan Ti, Xuan Wu and Guan Yin primarily. Xuan Wu (aka Bok Kai) is a god that controls floods, and Guan Ti is a god of wealth and persistince. Guan Yin is the Buddhist goddess of mercy.

Not sure what gods were involved with blasting, tunneling and road construction, but they would have been the one's venerated at a railworkers shrine.

Of course, its most likely that this site is a storage locker, but the smoke stains might be the result of incense burning, which can be quite thick on holidays.

-Jess O'Brien

1/23/2006 10:43 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

1991b Who's Been Workin' on the Railroad?: an Examination of the Construction, Distribution,
and Ethnic Origins of Domed Rock Ovens on Railroad-Related Sites. Historical
Archaeology, 25(1):37-65.

Would this relate perhaps?

-Jess O

1/23/2006 2:05 PM  
Blogger CPRR Discussion Group said...

From: "chris graves"

This is most interesting, as piles of stones are found all along the grade. Where can we find more about these ovens?


1/23/2006 7:34 PM  
Blogger CPRR Discussion Group said...

From: "Priscilla Wegars"
Subject: Rock ovens

Haven't looked at everything yet but wanted to respond about the "hut." ... I did indeed write that article.

They are rock ovens for baking bread, and were built by Italian or possibly Greek, RR workers. The library at the University of Montana has a photo of a group of Caucasian men standing around one of them, holding a small sign. A blowup of the sign shows that it is in Italian, and reads, "This is our oven," with a date (1906 I think).

They are often called, erroneously, "Chinese ovens."

1/30/2006 9:53 PM  
Blogger CPRR Discussion Group said...

From: "Chris Graves"
Subject: Rock ovens/'hut' at Secret Town

Well, well. That 'oven' must have been built during the 1913 construction ...


1/30/2006 9:55 PM  
Blogger CPRR Discussion Group said...

From: "Chris Graves"

Priscilla Wegars, of the University of Idaho's Asian American Comparitive Collection, has kindly forwarded to me a copy of an article she authored for the magazine "Historical Archaelogy", Vol. 25, No. 1, pp. 37-65, 1991, an article in which she discusses at length "small, domed rock structures (that) are found throughout western North America.

Pictured are structures identical to the rock "hut" that can be found at the East end of the Secret Town Trestle, this structure was discussed at length on the CPRR Discussion Site late last year.
The photos that Mrs. Wegars has illustrated her work with also show workmen of Italian and Greek descent in front of these structures, with the structures being used a ovens.

Among the ovens noted are the following, all along railroad grades:
Garfield, Colo., at a railroad camp at Kremmling;
Gunnison, Colo., along the Denver & Rio Grande, Lake City Branch, built by Italians.
Boundary County, Idaho, along the grade of the Spokane International, built by Italians
Lincoln County, Montana, along the grade of the Great Northern, built by Greek/SE Europeans, Italians, Chinese
Lane County, Oregon, Southern Pacific Natron Cutoff, 1909-1910, Greek, with a photo captioned "Baking bread at Greek's Camp."

Should you wish further information regarding these stone ovens, Mrs. Wegars can be reached at
She has satisfied this Pilgrim's curiousity, Thanks, Mrs. Wegars.


2/16/2006 8:25 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

i have seen these "ovens" at the site of a major fill operation done around 1910 on the Milwaukee Road at First Creek near Superior In Mineral County Montana.

2/10/2007 7:30 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I think it has to do something with storage. Possibly used by Indians that were in the area before the building of the rail line.and if there are marks from fire, possibly a fire pit. I live in Utah and have strong family history from echo canyon. My 3rd greatgrandfather owned the first grist mill in the state, in echo canyon. I have seen simmilar "storage" "pits" in echo also.but the ones I've seen are built right under the grade on some areas.

11/24/2012 2:40 PM  

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