By Don MacGillivray
Lone Fir Pioneer Cemetery is one of the little known treasures of Portland’s past. By simply walking through the headstones and monuments one can reflect on the 25,000 souls of Portland’s pioneers, founders, leading citizens, and many of the colorful personalities that were part of Portland’s early years.
The list includes Asa Lovejoy who tossed the coin to determine if the city would be named Portland or Boston; two of Oregon’s governors; five Portland mayors; Dr. John C. Hawthorne, Captain John Couch, and Daniel H. Lownsdale.
The cemetery has sections devoted to pioneers, veterans, firemen, Masons, Chinese, and Japanese. There is the Gothic Revival, Macleay Mausoleum, the Pioneer Rose Garden, and the Soldiers Monument dedicated to the veterans of the Mexican War, the Civil War, the Indian Wars, and the Spanish-American War.
In the early days of Portland, the forested East Side was cleared to allow for the future farms and developments of a growing city. The first burial on the site was that of Emor Stephens who died in 1846 and was buried by his son James Stephens on the edge of his donation land claim.
This became the farm of Coburn Barrell and in 1854 two of his business partners were buried there after dying in the explosion of the steamboat Gazelle. The only tree left standing in the area was a lone Douglas fir. It still stands on the highest point in the cemetery just to the east of the pioneer graves.
The cemetery was incorporated in 1866 and Aurelia Burrell suggested that name be changed from the Mt. Crawford Cemetery to the Lone Fir Cemetery and the name stuck. In the earliest days, the small West Side cemeteries of Portland were moved to Lone Fir Cemetery soon after its official establishment.
As the cemetery neared its capacity, support for its care dwindled and it became overgrown. Despite several expansions and renewals, the management of the cemetery was taken over by Multnomah County in 1928.
In 1997, the cemetery was transferred to Metro along with other pioneer cemeteries in the county. At this time, vandalism and misuse was becoming a problem, sometimes with serious damage to the gravestones and memorials.
A group of volunteers and interested citizens in 2000 formed the Friends of Lone Fir Cemetery to help with its care. They worked on publicity, activities, and financial support for one of Portland’s secluded treasuries.
They conduct regular tours of the cemetery once a month on Saturdays for a small donation and work parties during the spring, summer, and fall.
Each Halloween is celebrated with a unique tour with appearances by some of the historic characters that reside in the cemetery.
The flat, unappealing gravel lot In the southwest corner of this sylvan cemetery holds great potential for becoming a major feature of Lone Fir Cemetery. It is known as Block 14 and in the 19th century over 1,000 Chinese immigrants were buried here. The area became known as the Old Chinese Burial Ground.
It was the Chinese custom to return their remains to China to be reunited with their ancestors and a small portion of Block 14 was used for burial of deceased patients of the nearby Oregon Hospital and Asylum, founded and managed by Doctor John C. Hawthorne. The hospital was located just a few blocks away at SE 12th Ave. and Hawthorne Blvd. until 1883.
Chinese immigrants have been in Portland since 1850 and were integral to the building of the city. They performed many of the most difficult jobs by building railroads, mining, clearing land, chopping firewood, laundering clothes, and growing vegetables on available land.
Between 1928 and 1941, the remains of approximately 800 Chinese men buried in Block 14 were disinterred and sent to China for reburial. In 1952 Multnomah County built the two-story Morrison Building on Block 14 after conducting a search for additional undiscovered burials. Then in 2000, the building was determined unsafe and obsolete and the property was declared surplus creating an opportunity to sell it for future development.
Then in 2004, the Friends of Lone Fir Cemetery, the Oregon Chinese Consolidated Benevolent Association and Buckman Community Association informed the county that Block 14 may still contain human remains.
An archaeological investigation using ground-penetrating radar found several anomalies that were identified as intact burials. Accordingly, the building was demolished without disturbing the recently discovered graves and Block 14 was deeded to Metro thus reconnecting it to the cemetery.
The various support groups realized this was an opportunity to improve the cemetery by creating a memorial to the contributions of the Chinese community in early Portland.
A working group of experienced and concerned citizens got together to establish and promote plans for the site and determined that Block 14 should become a garden, a memorial, an historical monument, and place to reflect and learn about of the many facets of the cemetery.
The resulting landscape design provides everything that was asked for along with an excellent public entrance to the cemetery.
The Lone Fir Cemetery Foundation, established in 2011, is working to create the Lone Fir Heritage Garden by raising the necessary financial resources. When it opens, The Lone Fir Cemetery’s Heritage Garden will honor Chinese immigrants, the patients from the Oregon Hospital and everyone buried in the historic cemetery.
The cemetery will gain a formal entry point along with a variety of interpretive displays that will give the public its history that is older than the city itself.
For more information about Lone Fir Cemetery visit Metro’s web-pages where the are links to the Lone Fir Cemetery Friends and the Foundation. Visit the cemetery and take a tour. Donations are welcome for the growth and the restoration. It is a wonderful place to visit for a restful walk while observing Portland’s past.