Editor's note: This article is a part of a series reviewing Utah and U.S. history for KSL.com's Historic section

Lt. Gov. Deidre Henderson cracked a smile as she peered down at a marble sitting on a table along with random artifacts neatly placed around it.

A self-described history lover and student of it, she recognized the small sphere because she had plucked it from the ground last year during an excavation of Terrace, a ghost town just north of the Great Salt Lake in western Box Elder County. Then she zeroed in on what Utah archeologists believe to be remnants of a century-old glass bottle of toothpaste.

"Toothpaste? How do you know that was toothpaste?" she asked Chris Merritt, the preservation officer for the Utah Division of State History, who was showing her around a room full of artifacts within the division's temporary headquarters.

Merritt explained there's a little bit of writing left on the jar fragment that reads "Imperial." After a quick online search, Merritt and other archeologists were able to find records of a brand of toothpaste with the same name. It was sold in a bottle like the one before them.

"It came powdered. And then you'd mix in water," he said, adding it had all sorts of chemicals for people of the late 1800s to clean their teeth.

Both of these objects are examples of the thousands of artifacts recently discovered from a 12-square-yard excavation site in Terrace. They were collected by archeologists between 2020 and 2021.

Even in that relatively small sample size of a large community for its time, archeologists found somewhere between 10,000 to 15,000 artifacts.

"I mean every time we scraped a trowel, we found something new," Merritt said. "The number of artifacts we found in (that area) was staggering. ... But that's a very small lens into the past."

Chris Merritt, the preservation officer for the Utah Division of State History, left, provides information about artifacts collected from Terrace, Box Elder County, to Lt. Gov. Deidre Henderson Wednesday morning. Over 10,000 artifacts were uncovered in recent digs.
Chris Merritt, the preservation officer for the Utah Division of State History, left, provides information about artifacts collected from Terrace, Box Elder County, to Lt. Gov. Deidre Henderson Wednesday morning. Over 10,000 artifacts were uncovered in recent digs. | Carter Williams, KSL.com

Merritt offered an initial report of findings last fall, but with the help of a team of volunteers, archeologists are now cleaning off the dirt from the small artifacts collected during those digs and figuring out everything they can about the old town that was once home to about 1,000 people at the height of its existence. These small items matter because marbles, glass shards and other bits and pieces are what remains of Terrace today.

"Now we're moving into the laboratory phase, where all the artifacts that were recovered over the last two years are being cleaned, sorted, identified and cataloged so we can start reconstructing the full story of the occupants of this community," he said, as volunteers from Utah and the West used toothbrushes to clean small pieces of history in the room behind him Wednesday.

Learning more about Terrace

Terrace blossomed with the growth of the transcontinental railroad. It was one of the last construction sites west of Promontory Summit, formed just before the wedding of the rails on May 10, 1869. It not only topped out at about 1,000 people, but it also once had the third-highest number of Chinese settlers in the territory — behind just two other railroad communities in the area.

A photo of Terrace, Box Elder County taken sometime between 1870 and 1880.
A photo of Terrace, Box Elder County, taken sometime between 1870 and 1880. | Utah Division of State History

The town remained a vital stop on the line in the early years of its existence but became obsolete when the railroad companies built the Lucin Cutoff at the turn of the 20th century, meaning trains could run across the Great Salt Lake instead of rolling around it.

At about the same time, most of the remaining buildings on Main Street burned in a large fire. By the 1940s, all that remained were pieces of the railroad line, which were then collected to be sold for scrap.

There are some photos and records from Terrace's heyday, but an understanding of what life was like during that time is mostly fuzzy. Most of the records offer a perspective of life from white European settlers, not everyone who lived there.

"History is incomplete. When you look at history books, it's written by the victors, it's written by the literate, it's written largely by men in this historical period of the 19th century," he said. "So the Chinese workers who lived and died in Terrace — their stories are limited to really the artifacts that were left behind after their lives. That also applies to women and children in these communities, whether they are Chinese or not."

Archaeology has already offered better insight into the life of the town from 1869 to its demise now long after 1900. Based on where artifacts are scattered in the area, it appears the town was racially segregated in some form or fashion. That's because the Chinese and European American culture clusters don't include mixtures of the two archeological histories.

“It’s exciting to pull on the threads that are lesser-known and to find the people who really did contribute a lot to where we are today but maybe got no credit for it.” - Lt. Gov. Deidre Henderson

The artifacts collected over the past two years come from where the Chinese railroad workers lived, so experts can help cover the gaps in Terrace history. They've helped understand the diets of the people at the time and even uncovered businesses that were never documented.

"It's important to understand the past," said Henderson, who volunteered to excavate in Terrace last year and helped clean off objects Wednesday. "And it's important for the people of Utah to understand the past, where they come from, how they got where they are, the things they enjoy, (and) who they have to thank for those things. That's what's important about this."

The current period of cleaning is expected to be completed this week. Then experts will begin to catalog all the small findings, which will likely take months. Once it's all complete, the state believes it will have a final report on everything collected from the site published sometime next year.

However, there are many new pieces of information that have been discovered in recent months. Since the preliminary findings were announced in October, which included floorboards of what likely once was a house for Chinese workers, historians have found new details about Terrace.

An Arizona man whose ancestor founded Terrace's first meat market read about the findings and contacted the state preservation office with the first known oral history of the community. Other people with ancestral ties to the old town also came forward.

Merritt said archeologists also believe they have finally discovered the burial site for the Chinese immigrants who died in Terrace through the newly discovered information. In an oral history, a boy who was raised in Terrace described going to a Chinese funeral, which included a "rough location" to where it was held.

A couple of weeks ago, archeologists used a California forensic team to help them determine where they now believe that site is. That location is not being disclosed; Merritt said there aren't any plans to excavate at the possible burial site but the team can use that information to protect it from looting and wildfires — the two biggest threats to the ghost town today.

Henderson said those threats are why local, state and federal governments need to protect antiquities. She believes Terrace is an example of the kinds of historical stories that need to be told and preserved — and why she's volunteered time to rewrite the story of the town.

"It's exciting to pull on the threads that are lesser-known and to find the people who really did contribute a lot to where we are today but maybe got no credit for it," Henderson added. "That's the part of history that excites me and that's one of the things that excites me about this Terrace excavation."

More to come

People can already check out the open land that is Terrace by making a stop along the Transcontinental Railroad Backcountry Byway. The Bureau of Land Management and Utah Division of State History plan to install new signage soon that conveys the context of the site.

Both agencies hope the signage will help discourage looting, where people take objects from the land. Every little item is important in piecing together the history of the community.

Meanwhile, some of the items excavated over the past two years may end up in a traveling exhibit before finding a home in the planned state history museum, Merritt said. The number of objects in that collection will likely grow because he and other archeologists already have the itch to get back out to Terrace and dig for more clues.

Future digs are likely to include all parts of the ghost town.

"We want to tell a complete picture," he said. "We started with the Chinese community because the white story was privileged in that we know a lot about the businesses and a lot of the railroad workers who were of European descent, but not very much about the Chinese descent."