The namesake of the fossil beds, John Day, was a fur trapper who was robbed of everything, including clothing, near the mouth of a river. People would pass by and mention the incident, so it became known as the John Day River. The river flowed through the apparent wastelands of the fossil area, which were later named after John Day as well. These days, after gazing at striped hillsides and fossilized remains, regain some perspective by strolling through any of the towns that line the John Day River along this part of US-26—Dayville, Mount Vernon, John Day, and Canyon City. Founded as miners’ camps after gold was discovered here in 1862, many now cater mostly to local ranchers—but offer a warm welcome to the few visitors who brave a trip through this uninviting but unforgettable part of the world.
Starting in the west, Dayville (pop. 146) has what has to be among the world’s smallest city halls—a one-room shack at the east edge of town. The town of John Day (pop. 1,680), the metropolis in this chain of ghostly gold towns, holds the area’s one not-to-be-missed attraction: Kam Wah Chung State Heritage Site (125 NW Canton St., 800/551-6949 or 541/575-2800, daily May-Oct., free), run by the state and located in a nice park just north of US-26 at the center of John Day. Built as a trading post in 1866-1867, in the late 1880s the Kam Wah Chung building became a general store and medical center for the Chinese workers who toiled in the mines, and for 60 years it continued to be the center of the almost exclusively male Chinese community of eastern Oregon, which at times made up a majority of the regional population. Most of the building is preserved intact, displaying a fascinating collection of items ranging from herbal remedies and ornate red Taoist shrines to gambling paraphernalia and ancient canned goods. There’s also a bedroom with bunks and a wood stove left as they were by the last residents, Ing “Doc” Hay and Lung On, the herbalist and storekeeper who lived and worked here until the 1940s.
Right next to the museum is the town of John Day’s swimming pool, where the chance to soak ($3) is much appreciated on a hot summer afternoon. For food, the Grubsteak Mining Co. (149 E. Main St., 541/575-1970) has a sumptuous menu of rib eyes and other beef entrées, while the Squeeze Inn Restaurant (423 W. Main St., 541/575-1045) has all-around good food all day long, with an especially tasty Reuben-and-fries combo. A block away, just north of US-26, the Dreamers Lodge Motel (144 N. Canyon Blvd., 800/654-2849 or 541/575-0526, $89-99) has nice rooms.