The town of John Day was originally established as a supply hub for the gold mining town of Canyon City located two miles up Canyon Creek. Established in 1862 after the discovery of gold, Canyon City’s potential growth was limited by the narrow canyon but John Day had ample room to expand. As the gold deposits around Canyon City dwindled in the later 1800s, John Day surpassed it in size and economic importance.
In the 1870 census John Day had 278 total residents, of which 85 (31%) were Chinese. All of the Chinese were male, 81 (95%) were miners while two were cooks and two were farm workers. The lack of Chinese merchants and other service businesses demonstrates a full-fledged Chinatown was not yet established. By the 1880 census this had changed considerably with John Day’s total population rising to 560 and the Chinese population exploding to 359, a full 64% of the community. Mining still dominated the Chinese occupations with 316 (88%) miners recorded. Other Chinese occupations included a barber, two boarding houses, two blacksmiths, five cooks, two doctors, a jeweler, eight merchants, three store keepers, a shoe maker, a hog peddler and a tailor. Three Chinese women were documented, two who ran a “bawdy house” and one who worked as a house keeper. This shows that a vibrant Chinatown had developed offering a wide range of essential services and goods.
The next full census record available is from 1900 by which time the total population of John Day had declined to 382, led by a precipitous decline in Chinese population to 32 (8%). Ten of the remaining Chinese were miners and seven were general laborers. Other professions included a baker, a carpenter, a grocer, three stock herders, a house keeper, a launderer, four merchants and a priest.
This population decline was driven by the depletion of the placer gold deposits and lack of other economic opportunities in this isolated region. For the Chinese this was undoubtedly exasperated by racism which included the legal prohibition on owning real estate.
The only remaining building from the John Day Chinatown is the Kam Wah Chung which is open seasonally as a museum.