Canyon City was established in June 1862 when gold was discovered on Canyon Creek about two miles upstream from the John Day River. The first Chinese gold miners and laborers arrived soon thereafter. By 1864 county records document the sale of mining claims to Chinese partnerships near the town. The 1870 census shows that out of a total population of 419 in Canyon City, 162 (38%) were Chinese. Eighty percent of the Chinese were miners working in the nearby placer mines. Two others ran boardinghouses, one a restaurant and one was a physician. Other Chinese worked as general laborers, cooks, house keepers, launderers, boot menders, and gardeners. Eight Chinese women are documented consisting of four house keepers, three launderers and one general laborer.
By 1880 the Chinese population in Canyon City was in decline as the focus turned to mining the placer deposits in the river gravels around the town of John Day, two miles to the north. The population of Canyon City Chinatown dropped to 84 (21%). Fifty-five percent of the Chinese still worked in mining but other occupations included wood cutters and a chop house, as well as additional gardeners and doctors. The earliest surviving photograph of Canyon City from 1881 shows the Chinatown on the floodplain between the town center and Canyon Creek (Figure 1).
In 1885 a fire ravaged the Canyon City Chinatown and most of the residents moved to the larger Chinatown in John Day. There has been speculation that this may have been arson in an effort to force the Chinese to move but no documentary evidence supports this. Given the anti-Chinese violence occurring at that time it is possible this happened but local newspaper accounts do not show the virulent anti-Chinese rhetoric that accompanied this violence in other places. The 1880 census clearly shows that the Chinese population in Canyon City was already declining while that in John Day it was increasing. It seems likely the shift from Canyon City to John Day was primarily based on economic and social considerations by the Chinese themselves.
Nothing remains of Chinatown but the Chinese presence in Canyon City is recognized in the Grant County Historical Museum and the murals at the city park (Figures 3 and 4) and less formally by the roadside bed of oriental poppies which bloom every spring (Figure 2).