‘Golden Connections’ celebrates history, honors railroad workers

Ashland Mayor Julie Akins speaks during Saturday's public art dedication. Drew Fleming photo for Ashland.news
April 25, 2022

Designer of new sculpture tells story of what shaped the public artwork

By Bert Etling, Ashland.news

Ashland Railroad Park’s newest public art installation, Golden Connections, was officially dedicated at a noon ceremony Saturday, April 23, with an estimated 80 people in attendance.

The sculpture features a large golden spike driven into an 11-foot diameter circle of iron, symbolizing the final connection for Southern Pacific’s complete rail circuit around the nation in Ashland on Dec. 17, 1887. The sculpture also honors the workers who built the railroad.

Golden Connections was created by artists Jennifer Corio and David Frei of Cobalt Designworks of Vancouver, Washington, just north of Portland. Their design was selected in March 2021 by a special, seven-member selection panel from among three finalists, which in turn were selected from seven designs submitted in response to a request for proposals issued in December 2020.

A dedication ceremony was held Saturday in Ashland’s Railroad Park for Golden Connections. Drew Fleming photo for Ashland.news

The project total cost, before landscaping and lighting, was $29,500, with $25,000 of that going to Cobalt Designworks, and all the funding coming from the Public Arts Commission’s Transient Occupancy Tax funding, according to a March 2021 presentation to the City Council.

In addition to Golden Connections, five bronze medallions will soon be installed throughout the Railroad District commemorating historic sites, completing a “hub-and-spoke” historical marker project in the district.

“It was a wonderful event,” Victoria Kindel said of the ceremony, “honoring the thousands, some of my resources say over 2,000, Chinese railroad workers, who built the first railroad through the Siskiyou Mountains. The importance of the railroad to Ashland is huge. Before the railroad came through Ashland was the most isolated town in the most isolated state in the continental United States. Chinese railroad workers changed that.”

Mayor Julie Akins also mentioned the Chinese workers in her remarks

““Thank you to the artists, the Arts Commission and city of Ashland for their work,” Ashland Mayor Julie Akins said at the event. “But thank you most of all to the Chinese immigrant workers who did the hard work of laying the tracks so our community could prosper — even though most of these workers never enjoyed the benefit of such wealth … They brought so much good but received so little. …

“I ask that we … let this art remind us to be inclusive so that our workers of today can afford to live here in Ashland,” Mayor Akins. “I ask that we consider our actions of housing costs, of being creators of living wage jobs and that we become a place of inclusion for all people — here in Ashland. In 100 years, we want to dedicate a new art installation which says — everyone was included.”

Jennifer Corio

In her remarks, Corio, the artist, talked about the story of how the sculpture came to be the way it is, and some of the people who helped shape it. The following is an edited version of her remarks at the dedication:

“It says a lot about a community who not only invests in the ARTS but also takes the time and the effort to celebrate it with the community when the opportunity arises. 

“Ashland is such a quintessential art community; it’s been steeped in the arts and culture for decades – so it is truly an honor for Dave and me to be invited to be a small part of Ashland’s artscape though this project. 

David Frei

“In (my husband) Dave’s and my art partnership, I do the conceptual development and design, and then Dave brings my visions to life with his craftmanship and skills in our metal shop ….

“This particular project has taken Dave and me on one of our most winding and meaningful adventures yet in our 15 years of creating public art together. …

“It all started when I read the Call-for-Artists back in December of 2020. I thought about the desired theme which was to reflect the historical significance the railroad played in the early development of Ashland ….

“What drew me most to this project was its opportunity for storytelling and placemaking within a historical context. … I came down to Ashland for a site visit. And I’m so glad, I did, because you have to see this beautiful backdrop with your own eyes! My first thought is that I must create a window, not a closed door, or something massive that would block this stunning mountainous landscape …

“I started researching, finding many wonderful local resources. I read Peter Finkle’s photo essays in Walking Ashland blog. I also read Marjorie O’Harra’s Ashland: the First 130 Years. And watched a great talk by local historian Larry Mullaly. 

“I was starting to really internalize just what a big deal it was when Southern Pacific chose Ashland as a main stop and full-service maintenance yard for their soon to be completed Portland-San Francisco line.  It was a big deal back then for a town to be chosen as a stop because it assured the arrival of people, goods, and opportunity to that town. This wonderfully rich Railroad District wouldn’t be what it is if it wasn’t for that decision. …

“Then there was the important Golden Spike moment (on Dec. 17, 1887) when that final track was laid right around here, which not only meant the completion of the rails over the ominous Siskiyou Mountains to finally join San Francisco to Portland, but it also created a complete circle of tracks around the country. A big national event.

“I also started to learn more deeply about the Chinese railroad worker experience. These men left their families and villages in Southern China in search of better opportunities and better pay to send back money to their families. They often took on the most dangerous jobs, like carrying explosives to blast through the Siskiyou’s. On top of the trials of hard labor, they also faced discrimination and poor treatment. These men made up nearly 80% of railroad workers yet they mostly remained nameless and faceless. Some believe the cruelest act against them was simply not recognizing them for their major contribution to building our country’s railways and, in many ways, the West as a whole. …

Chinese railroad workers in 1887 in the Siskiyou Mountains. Ashland Historic Railroad Museum Collection

“Golden Connections both celebrates the transformation the railroad spurred in Ashland while also honoring the Chinese men who built it. …

“Three iconic forms come together to tell these stories.  

“A circle mimics the circular nature of both the train turntable and the maintenance roundhouse that once stood nearby, (and) large train wheels, (and) symbolizes complete rail service all the way around our nation.

“The spiraling tracks at the circle’s peak signify the winding, circling journey over the Siskiyous. For a little technical trivia, in the 170-mile stretch over and through the mountains, the rails are so curvy that when you add all the curves together you end up going around in a circle 88 times. This spiraling shape tries to capture that.

“The Golden Spike becomes the focal point for the sculpture. Of course, It honors Ashland’s distinction as that pivotal final connection point, but more importantly, it highlights Ashland’s growth and evolution as a town and community as the train service was established. It really was a golden period for Ashland and the Railroad District as population, commerce, and culture expanded. …

“Once the selection panel decided that this was the concept that wanted to move forward with and see realized in Railroad Park, a whole new journey started. The overall design was set, but creating this message began a completely new exploration. …

“Friends of friends started coming forward to generously offer their knowledge and insights into the Chinese language and characters. I’d like to especially call out and thank Min Kuang. …

“Andy Stallman, who provided so much guidance throughout this project, pointed me to Chelsea Rose, historical archeologist … a principal player in the Oregon Chinese Diaspora Project, who offered some very specific and helpful feedback. …

“Jennifer Longshore, in a very wise move with great foresight, shared the concept and my initial message with Meiwen Richards, a longtime Ashland resident and active community member. …

“She cautioned against using words or characters that could be seen as empty or hollow, such as ‘thank you’ and ‘I’m sorry.’ And that this was a great opportunity to face up to our past behaviors, take responsibility for them, and finally offer our overdue recognition and gratitude. …

“We shared in our hope that people might stop and reflect on the history and how we treat people who are different from us and perhaps contemplate our own biases and behaviors towards others. …

“Meiwen then introduced me to Dr. Jiyu Yang… a multi-talented Chinese scholar and an excellent musician, calligrapher, and brush painter. Dr. Yang serves as head of the Wisdom Arts Academy, a nonprofit dedicated to teaching and passing on the traditional Chinese culture.

“Meiwen and Dr. Yang came up with the seven Chinese characters you see on the spike. Dr. Yang wrote these characters in calligraphy, which we then traced and digitized in order have them laser cut out of the stainless steel. …

“It was fascinating to witness the back & forth discussions about how best to translate the characters into English to really capture the authenticity and sentiment we wanted: ‘Chinese honoring: In honor of the Chinese men who built these tracks despite discrimination and without recognition. Today, with regret, we offer our belated gratitude.’”

Corio also thanked Aaron Anderson with the city of Ashland, Bill Miller with Ashland Parks & Recreation, and the Parks & Recreation Commission; John Richards “for help with site prep”; the entire Public Arts Commission (“and a special shout out to Ken Engelund”); David Lei, Amy Lee, Chuimei Ho, Bennett Bronson, Sue Fawn Chung, Jennifer Hubbert and Li Lu.

“This is truly a collaborative, community work of art,” Corio concluded, “full of golden connections.”

Email Ashland.news Executive Editor Bert Etling at betling@ashland.news or call or text him at 541-631-1313.

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Bert Etling

Bert Etling

Bert Etling is the executive editor of Ashland.news. Email him at betling@ashland.news.

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