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‘Moon Bones’ Explores Chinese History in the Wood River Valley
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Sunday, October 30, 2022
 

STORY AND PHOTOS BY KAREN BOSSICK

Julie Weston has laid bare a dark side of the Wood River Valley and Stanley Basin in her new mystery novel “Moon Bones.”

Her photographer Nellie Burns and her dog Moonshine land smack dab in the center of a conspiracy to enslave Chinese workers in the 1920s in the Stanley Basin when the death of a Chinese man leads her and Sheriff Asteguitoiri to the ghost town of Vienna.

The book describes Chinese caves that once lined the west slopes of Bellevue, tunnels built in Hailey as opium dens, China Gardens being burned down by white miners and other anti-Chinese sentiment that pervaded the area’s mining towns in the late 1800s and early 1900s.

“The Chinese were a major factor in Idaho in the early days, and miners and townspeople had strong feelings about them because ‘they don’t look like us,’ ” said the Hailey author.

Weston will introduce her book at 6 p.m. Thursday, Nov. 3, at the Community Library. And she will include a power point presentation with photographs addressing local Chinese history, as well as a picture of a rooming house taken in 1924 and a picture of 1924 Ketchum.

People may register to attend in person at https://thecommunitylibrary.libcal.com/event/9749705. Or, they may watch it online or later at https://vimeo.com/event/2550597.

“Moon Bones” is the latest in Weston’s series of mystery books that take place in Ketchum, the Stanley Basin, Craters of the Moon National Monument and the silver strip of North Idaho.

Her newest book follows Nellie as she and the sheriff try to find the motive and slayer in the killing of a Chinese man near Galena. And it explores the complicated relationship of Sammy Ah Kee and his mother as it delves into the practice of sending the bones of the deceased back to China.

Weston researched the book via news clippings, oral histories and photographs at the Community Library’s Regional History Department.

“Because they were discriminated against and most left Idaho altogether by the early 20th century, to piece together their history takes a lot of work,” said Mary Tyson, director of the Regional History Department. “Weston did so and whets our appetite with imagined figures as she cleverly folds this important history into the world of Nellie Burns.” 

John Lundin, who assisted Weston in her research, said there was a substantial Chinese population in Idaho in the 1880s working in mining communities. In 1883, Bellevue’s Chinatown was located west of Main Street down the hill toward the Big Wood River. 

Bellevue’s sheriff made the valley’s first drug bust in September 1883 when he raided Chinese opium dens, arrested eight Chinese and one white man and seized $350 worth of opium.  Two of the Chinese were fined $20 apiece and one $5. And in 1884, Bellevue adopted an ordinance prohibiting Chinese laundrymen from being on Main Street. 

The Wood River News-Miner in 1884 reported “a matter of an appalling criminal nature:” “It appears that Chinamen, in accordance with their custom, have been disinterring the remains of their countrymen who have been buried at Bellevue preparatory to sending the bones back to China. This of itself is nothing unusual, but they have been scraping the bones and dumping the dried and partially decayed flesh into the ditch in the lower part of the town. Dr. Snow says he found pieced of decayed flesh large as a man’s hand on the edge of the water, besides other smaller portions of the refuse matter in the water.”

The Wood River Times reported in 1886 that several Chinese were charged with keeping an opium house. A Wood River Anti-Chinese League began that year to rail against “the little yellow men” with strange customs.  They resolved to go door to door to tell the Chinese they had three months to leave the Valley.

Nineteen Chinese miners were murdered in 1882 at Loon Lake in the Frank Church Wilderness, Idaho, and 31 Chinese were murdered on the Snake River in 1887 as their murderers stole  $50,000 in gold.

Lundin, who is researching a book he is writing about the Wood River Valley, said that the granddaughter of Neil Campbell—one of his relatives—lived in a building on the west side of Main Street at Elm Street. She owned a strip of land along Bellevue’s west side that included a hillside running down to what is now the Wood River Land Trust’s Howard Preserve.

Ruth Campbell Hice said that when she moved into the house after World War II there were tunnels in the hillside where the Chinese used to live. In fact, she rented one cave to one man but had the caves filled in after it collapsed.

The last person to live there had too much to drink one night and fell as he was going down the steps. He died of a broken neck.

Bellevue’s Chinatown was wiped out by a fire in 1920 when a still owned by a bootlegger exploded, Lundin said.  The fire uncovered many underground tunnels which contained wine, opium bottles and the remains of banks used by the Chinese.

Weston and her husband Gerry explored the ghost town of Vienna near Smiley Creek to get inspiration for her book. And she drew on information from the Seafoam Mining area northwest of Stanley where her own great-grandfather spent summers looking for gold.

A grave friends discovered on a bluff overlooking Indian Creek made good fodder for a backstory, even though it didn’t appear to have been a Chinese gravesite.

“I am having fun with these books and, because they’re fiction, I can do almost anything with them, although I try to stay true to time and place,” she said.

Weston said she stayed on course with the help of a writers programed named NaNoWriMo, which asks writers to pen 50,000 words during National Novel Month in November.

“I start in my notebook and transfer my words to computer and use that each day to keep track of how much I’m writing.”

Weston admitted it’s sometimes exhausting keeping up with Nellie as she pursues the bad guys.

“I could hardly stand it when the guy smashed Nellie’s camera, and I made it happen!”

JULIE’S OTHER NELLIE BURNS BOOKS:

“Moonshadows,” “Basque Moon,” “Moonscape” and Miner’s Moon.”

DID YOU KNOW?

Julie Weston's book "Miner's Moon," set in the silver mines of north Idaho, won a Bronze Will Rogers Medallion Saturday, Oct. 29, at a national contest . The Gold Medal went to Craig Johnson of "Longmire" fame.

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