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OPB Examines Hells Canyon Massacre in New Documentary


Later this month, OPB will premiere the new Oregon Experience documentary “Massacre at Hells Canyon.” It examines a largely forgotten massacre on the border of Eastern Oregon where, in the 1880s, as many as 34 Chinese miners were murdered. It is the site of what some have called one of the worst massacres of Chinese by whites in U.S. history.  

The half-hour documentary premieres Monday, January 23 at 9 p.m. on OPB TV and will be available to watch online at watch.opb.org at the same time.  

Tens of thousands of Chinese laborers came to North America in the 1850s with the Gold Rush. In addition to gold mining, they provided necessary services to newly developed communities. They operated laundries, tended vegetable gardens, opened boarding houses, and worked as cooks. By the thousands, they worked on railroad projects that connected the West. They cleared farmlands, worked in canneries and provided labor for factories. They also faced widespread discrimination.

Throughout the 1880s, Chinese immigrants watched their communities be burned, attacked and sometimes destroyed by racist mobs. In some places, Chinese were lynched or shot, while others were run out of town. They had almost no legal rights to defend themselves.  

One of the worst atrocities happened in 1887, when a gang of horse thieves gunned down as many as 34 Chinese gold miners on the Oregon side of the Snake River near Hells Canyon. Though the killers were known, and at least one confessed, no one was ever convicted. For more than a century, the murders were covered up, and no one was held accountable.  

Today, the massacre at Hells Canyon is finally acknowledged after a Wallowa County clerk discovered hidden trial documents in 1995. A memorial now marks the spot where the Chinese gold miners died in Hells Canyon, and groups are working to preserve the stories of the early Chinese Americans who helped settle the West.  

The new Oregon Experience documentary “Massacre at Hells Canyon” examines not only the murders but also the hidden history of the Chinese laborers who helped build the West in their search for “Gold Mountain.” The program is narrated by Chinese-American Bruce Locke, Hollywood actor and fourth-generation Oregonian. It features interviews with:  

  • Bennet Bronson, historian and author
  • Chuimei Ho, historian and author
  • Marcus Lee, Oregon Chinese Consolidated Benevolent Association
  • Greg Nokes, author “Massacred for Gold”
  • Marie Rose Wong, Seattle University  

“Massacre at Hells Canyon” airs Monday, January 23 at 9 p.m. on OPB TV and will be available to watch online at watch.opb.org at the same time. It is written and produced by Kami Horton and edited by Bruce Barrow.  

The community is invited to attend a public screening event for “Massacre at Hells Canyon” at The University of Oregon Portland Campus on Thursday, January 19 at 6 p.m. (doors open at 5:30 p.m.). The event is free and open to the public, and will include a Q&A with Producer Kami Horton. More information is available at opb.org/hellscanyon.  

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