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So here are some of those photos of Lone Fir Cemetery [google map] I mentioned a few days back. I'd never been there before, and I've been meaning to visit for a while now. The idea occurred to me again around Halloween, but it didn't seem right to go just then, since I was going out of historical curiosity, not just to be morbid or out of some juvenile thrill-seeking impulse. Visiting on Halloween just seemed kind of silly and melodramatic. Plus on Halloween, or on the day after, I figured there'd probably be too many people of the living variety there; it'd be like going to the mall on the day after Thanksgiving or something. And in any case, on Halloween it was cold and clear and sunny outside, and I'd had the idea that bad weather would be better for b+w photos. Well, it was raining quite a bit when I visited, and the color photos turned out way better than the b+w ones. Have I mentioned yet that I'm not a professional photographer?
Lone Fir is one of the oldest cemeteries in the area, and Metro administers it under their pioneer cemetery program, even though it's still accepting new residents. Many of the newest arrivals are immigrants from Russia and Ukraine, with long Cyrillic inscriptions and elaborate designs on distinctive polished black headstones.
We Portlanders are a reserved and rather squeamish bunch, and we don't have the same attitude towards death as people do in, say, New Orleans or Charleston. We don't talk about it, we don't think about it, and we avoid places associated with it whenever we possibly can. And naturally we don't admit we're doing any of these things, because that would be talking about it, which we don't do. So even though I've lived here most of my life I knew absolutely nothing about Lone Fir until just over a year ago, when the Chinese graveyard controversy cropped up.
The next photo is of the southwest corner of Lone Fir, or of where it was until 1948. At that point the county decided it needed space for a new office building, and what better place to build than on top of the Chinese corner of the old cemetery? (No, it doesn't make a lot of sense to me either, but those were peculiar and highly bigoted times.) So they dug up everyone in the area and plunked an ugly office building on the spot. Recently the county decided it didn't need the building or the land after all, so they tore the building out and were making ready to sell the land. Then it turned out people had been careless back in '48 and had neglected to dig a few people up. They'd been there all that time, under the parking lot. (I'm sure I've seen a movie or two that started out that way.) So now the talk is that there'll be a memorial of some kind. But right now there's no money for that, so the spot currently looks like this.
The statue in the above picture is part of a war memorial tucked away in the center of Lone Fir. The four sides of the base dedicate it to veterans of the Civil War, the Mexican War, the Spanish-American War, and wars against the Indians. We have a surprising number of monuments and markers concerning the Spanish-American War, considering what a brief and relatively bloodless conflict it was. There's a bunch of stuff in the Plaza Blocks, and the Battleship Oregon mast in Waterfront Park, and I understand there's a rather obscure marker near the Veterans Hospital, south of OHSU, and this monument. And if we have four, there are probably even more scattered around the area that I'm unfamiliar with. I've been meaning to do a post about war memorials in the city, but that's going to require a bit of additional research.
Another photo looking across the grounds. Parts of Lone Fir, such as this spot, look rather sparsely "settled". That is, until you realize that of the 30,000+ people here, an estimated 10,000 are either lost or unmarked, due to time, weather, vandals, or simply poor record-keeping.
The interior of Lone Fir is basically invisible from the street on three sides of the place. On the sides facing Stark and Morrison Streets (the north and south sides, respectively), all you see is a high, blank, gray retaining wall topped by a chain link fence, with barbed wire on top. (And yes, that means many of the residents here are in fact above street level, despite being underground.) On the west side, there's a row of houses between 20th avenue and the cemetery, so you can catch occasional glimpses between the houses of headstones backing up to someone's back yard.
There are one or two small signs on the perimeter fence informing you the entrance is somewhere on Morrison St., but even if you're on Morrison it's tough to find the entrance. If you scroll up and look at that photo of where the Chinese part of the cemetery used to be, you'll see another chain link fence in the distance, separating the old parking lot from the cemetery proper. The main entrance is simply a gate in that fence. By all rights, Lone Fir ought to have an ancient, elaborate, Gothic wrought iron fence, and an entrance arch of stone or brick. But it doesn't, and as far as I know it never did.
This last photo is a detail of the tombstone of James B. and Elizabeth Stephens, early pioneers in the area. The back of this stone holds the inscription "Here we lie by consent after 57 years, 2 months, 2 days sojourning on earth awaiting nature's immutable laws to return us to the elements of which we were formed". Which to me is a touching, and refreshingly nonreligious, sentiment.
Clearly I'm not the only person who feels that way. You can't see it in this photo, but above each portrait someone had recently laid a single red rose.
Next door is the oldest grave in the cemetery, J.B. Stephens's father Emmor, who died in 1846. Oregon wouldn't even become a state for another three years. To me, what's even more striking is that the elder Stephens was born in 1777. It's quite rare to see any mention of a year starting with '17' in this part of the world, in any context.
Other info & resources:
- Friends of Lone Fir
- Portland Public Art blog
- A large number of photos tagged with "lonefircemetery" on Flickr. Most of these are better than my photos, but in my defense it was absolutely pouring rain when I visited.
- A Willamette Week article about Lone Fir and a couple of other old graveyards in the area.
- A recent Portland Tribune story
- An old post about the place by B!x
- Lone Fir's page at Graveyards.com. Yes, there really is such a thing. Gives GPS coordinates of the place and everything, and has a photo of the nondescript main entrance.