By Jill Evans, Administrator of the Stumptown Historical Society
Maurice Cusick of Whitefish, long with the Montana State Forestry Department, tells the story of one Japanese who lived in the Whitefish area up to 1918:
“The China Basin, approximately one mile north of Werner Peak was named for a Japanese trapper who died there during the flu-epidemic in 1918. To (many of the) oldtimers all Orientals were ‘chinamen’ so the China Basin.”
“The trapper was Ichinojo Skurai, a native of Hatsubara, Japan. He had trapped for several years along the Whitefish Divide from Canada in Whitefish.
“On October 26, 1918, he left Olney to start trapping on Werner Peak. Some days later his dogs came back to Olney. The local Japanese immediately started a search. They employed B ill Murphy to go to the cabin near Werner and search the area. There had been a fall blizzard which had covered all sign, so the search was laid aside until the following spring. The Japanese offered a sizeable reward to anyone finding the body.
“On approximately June 9, 1919, Bill Murphy found the body a few hundred yards from the cabin under an alpine fir tree. He evidently had become exhausted and took shelter there. Some say that he was sick when he left Olney.
“The coroner, J.E. Waggener, was at a loss as to what to do with the body which was approximately 22 miles from the nearest road. At Peter DeGroot’s suggestion he decided to let the Japanese take care of the remains.
“On June 11, 1919, J. E. Waggener, Bill Murphy and several Japanese from Olney and Whitefish went to the China Basin. The Japanese held a ceremony, built a large bonfire and cremated the remains. They gathered the ashes and later returned them to Japan.
“Those who knew Ishinojo Sakurai believed him to be a Japanese soldier and I believe that they were right”
Around 1927 special services at the Presbyterian Church in Whitefish were held for the Japanese several times by the Reverend V. G. Murphy of Seattle, a missionary to Japan who spoke Japanese “like a native.” The Japanese who remain in Whitefish today remember him with appreciation. They also remember Mars. Elizabeth Peck, who taught English to over 400 Japanese residents of Whitefish during a fifteen-year period.” In her memory there is a stained glass window in the Presbyterian Church of Whitefish, put there “by the Japanese”. Mrs. R. H. Pond aided both Japanese and other foreigners to study for U.S. naturalization. The American Legion Auxiliary and Mrs. Roy Arnold continued this work into the 50’s.
Today the Horis and Masuokas, the Shiomis and Hatsukanos and Kusumotos have disappeared from Whitefish, The old folks have died, gone to retirement homes, or returned to Japan. The young people have moved away, many of them to Spokane or Seattle, for better opportunities. Remaining a re only the Muraokas, the Sakaharas, the Kajiwaras, Don Suga, and one railroad retiree, named Niki Kikuo, who lives alone in the old Samson block building.
The Chinese, rather than the Japanese, bore the full brunt of Whitefish prejudice. As already mentioned, in January, 1904, all Chinese were being escorted out of town in the direction of Kalispell or Columbia Falls. By October of the same year.
“The Chinks are getting a strong foothold in Whitefish and are making an effort to corral the restaurant business. Ten-Day Jimmy, when he saw a yellow invasion threatened, concluded to change his base. The Caucasians are to blame…Lack of reliable white help in the kitchens is responsible…for the presence of John and his cousins.”
Chinese “noodle joints” were repeatedly described by the Pilot in derogatory style. The Chinese New Year-celebrated for two full weeks in the Chinese settlement-was treated in facetious mood. The Chinese and their eating establishments either were, or were considered to be, often unsanitary, “dirty.” A Whitefish woman remembers being asked. “But would you like to sit on the train next to a Chink?”
See more of their story in the Whitefish museum, located in the Train Depot.
Note: The quoted material is taken from Stump Town to Ski Town, by Betty Schafer and Mable Engelter, written in 1972 and reprinted by the Stumptown Historical Society in 2003. It is available for sale in the Whitefish Museum located in the Train Depot.