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Ovens provide look into Italian railroad workers’ lives

One of two rock ovens built around 1906 in Cheney by Italian laborers who worked on construction of the railroad in the area. (Courtesy of Archaeological and Historical Services)
One of two rock ovens built around 1906 in Cheney by Italian laborers who worked on construction of the railroad in the area. (Courtesy of Archaeological and Historical Services)

Among the immigrants who came to Colorado and the Pacific Northwest in the late 1800s and early 1900s to build the great American railroads, some were known to have created domed rock structures at railroad construction camps to use as cooking ovens. Though most are long gone, two still exist at Turnbull National Wildlife Refuge in the Cheney area.

So special are they that, though they are located just over two miles apart, these ovens were listed as a single entity in 1976 on the National Register of Historic Places. They were built by Italian laborers during construction of the Spokane, Portland and Seattle Railway, probably around 1906, to bake bread.

They are described in a cultural resources report in 2000 by Archaeological and Historical Services at Eastern Washington University. One of the ovens, 6 feet across and 2 ½ feet high and now collapsed into itself, is near the northeast end of Ballinger Lake. The other one, located not far from the rails-to-trails bicycle path off Badger Lake Road southwest of Cheney, is in a restricted section of the refuge not accessible to the public.

This second oven is made of relatively flat basalt stones laid in a pyramid shape with a hollow interior and an opening at the top which served as a chimney. It measures 4-by-6 feet and has an opening on the south side. According to the report, “fires were built in these ovens to heat the rocks. Coals were removed and the bread loaves were inserted through the side openings with long wooden paddles.”

In her extensive study on such ovens, “Who’s Been Workin’ on the Railroad?: An Examination of the Construction, Distribution and Ethnic Origins or Domed Rock Ovens on Railroad-Related Sites,” University of Idaho anthropology and archaeology faculty member Priscilla Wegars describes cooking in these ovens as a nearly three-hour process, most of which had to do with oven preparation, which included raking out the hot coals, sprinkling corn meal or flour in the oven, placing the loaves inside, closing the flue hole and sealing the door with a piece of metal or damp cloth. The actual baking time was just 15 minutes.

Wegars also speaks to the fact that folklore has mislabeled some of the oven in the Northwest as Chinese ovens. There is no evidence that they were constructed by Chinese railroad laborers, and she presents strong evidence for them having been constructed by Italian laborers. She notes that Italians, first employed on the railroads in the 1870s, monopolized the laboring jobs on most rail lines in the United States and Canada by the 1890s, and that they brought with them knowledge of how such ovens were built and used in Italy. Chinese workers primarily boiled or steamed their food and did not bake bread. Italian laborers lived in camps separate from the main construction camps and were known to bake their own bread and eat stews made from rabbits they caught.

Whoever created these ovens, the bread they produced was serviceable but not necessarily optimal. One historical account describes how bread dough shoved into the hot ovens with a wooden paddle yielded bread that was “so hard that if a man was struck in the head by one of the loaves it would have killed him.”


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