BRIGHAM CITY — Contrary to a long-held urban legend, there probably isn’t a mass grave of Chinese railroad workers buried in a small section of the Brigham City Cemetery.
In December, Utah State University Anthropology professor Molly Cannon — with the help of the cemetery and the Brigham City Museum of Art and History —conducted a geophysical survey at the cemetery to find out.
The survey, which did not include any digging but utilized technologies called “ground penetrating radar” and “magnetic gradiometry,” was pointed at exploring the urban legend — that a section of the cemetery not currently used for modern interments is a burial site for Chinese transcontinental railroad workers who died of cholera during the 19th century.
According to the museum, the survey will provide “non-destructive imagery of subsurface deposits,” which won’t give a detailed imagery of human remains, but would indicate whether there is something buried there.
The project and its findings will be presented in an exhibit titled, “The Spike at 150: Myths and Realities” — part of the state’s Golden Spike 150th celebration.
Nearly 150 years ago, the first transcontinental railroad across the United States was completed in Northern Utah. On May 10, 1869, the ceremonial Golden Spike was driven at Promontory Summit in Box Elder County, connecting the rail lines of the Central Pacific and Union Pacific. The railroad played a major role in the history of Northern Utah, specifically Ogden.
Several events will occur around the state as the 150th anniversary is celebrated this year.
The Myths and Realities exhibit will run from March 23 through June 15 at the Brigham City Museum, 24 North 300 West. The museum is open from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tuesday through Friday and 1 to 5 p.m. on Saturday.
A smaller exhibit will also be featured at the Golden Spike National Historic Site, 6200 North 22300 West, Corinne.
Museum Director and Curator Kaia Michaelis said there are several historical facts that contradict the legend. Michaelis said many of the Chinese railroad workers had contracts with Central Pacific that stipulated their bodies would be returned to China if they died. Michaelis said often times workers who died were initially buried near where they died, but later exhumed and put on a train to San Francisco, then shipped back to China.
“The legend, while often repeated, is unlikely to be true,” Michaelis said in a press release.
Michaelis said there were no documented outbreaks of cholera on Utah portions of the railroad. She also said while there is some evidence to suggest Utahns were less prejudiced against Chinese workers than others in the United States, “it seems unlikely a small Mormon town would have allowed the bodies of Chinese workers who died of a poorly understood disease to be brought to town for burial.”