By Don MacGillivray
Lone Fir Cemetery is the oldest and most diverse cemetery in Portland. It began with the burial of Emmor Stephens in 1846, only two years after the location of Portland was determined. The cemetery was placed on the eastern boundary of the donation land claim of James B. Stephens.
Nine years later it was platted as the Mount Crawford Cemetery when Portland’s founders needed to move many of their earliest burials to more solid ground. It was renamed Lone Fir Cemetery for the only “lone fir” tree on the small hill within the bounds of the early cemetery.
Today it is estimated that there are over 25,000 graves in Lone Fir Cemetery, many of which are unmarked.
In 1947, Multnomah County built an office building on block 14 of Lone Fir Cemetery and paved much of the site. When the building developed serious maintenance issues 50 years later, the county believed the property could be sold for development. After much consideration it was decided to sell the property to Metro since they would be a good steward for this significant historic cemetery.
In 2004, human remains were discovered during the demolition of Multnomah County’s office building. The work was stopped and after weeks of testing and investigations, officials determined that human remains were still left in unmarked graves near the building.
Block 14 was used for the burial of early Chinese workers in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. It was assumed that all of these graves had been removed and transported to mainland China, but this proved not to be so.
After a long pause, further investigation of the excavation continued and the building continued to be demolished with great care so as to preserve any additional burials. In 2007, Lone Fir Cemetery was listed on the National Register of Historic Places. A year later, the work group with the help of a local landscape architect made public the master plan for a memorial garden to honor the people who were buried here.
In 2008, a work group of interested volunteers and staff gathered together to determine the best course of future action for the site. The work group determined that Portland should honor the memory of these departed Portlanders by creating a Cultural Heritage Garden on this site that would include an interpretive exhibit telling the story of the early Chinese heritage in Portland.
It is estimated that approximately 1,000 Chinese immigrants between 1890 and 1930 were disinterred and returned for reburial in China to be in company with their ancestors.
In addition to the burial of early Chinese workers, Oregon Hospital for the Insane used Lone Fir Cemetery as the burial site for their unclaimed, deceased patients in the late 19th century. It was decided to recognize these people in the plans for the Cultural Heritage Garden in the same cemetery where Dr. Hawthorne is also buried.
Dr. Hawthorne built and managed Oregon’s first psychiatric hospital 1861-1883 on a site near SE Hawthorne Blvd. (previously Asylum Ave.) and SE 11th Ave. in the city of East Portland.
It has been 15 years since the work group began its work to create and develop a Cultural Heritage Garden in Lone Fir Cemetery at SE Morrison St. and 20th Ave.
Recently $4 million from the Metro’s 2019 parks and nature bond has been dedicated to design, develop and construct the project over the next four years. It is welcomed by the Lone Fir Cemetery Foundation, the Chinese Consolidated Benevolent Association, the Mental Health Association of Portland and inner SE neighborhoods in addition to the Metro Parks Department.
The Cultural Heritage Garden will be a place that honors the stories of these people that have been forgotten to history. Now the work can continue with further community engagement, project development and construction with a renewed design.
As work on the Cultural Heritage Garden continues, the earlier design is likely to be refined to reflect any new information that will provide a more complete story of the early Chinese community and the troubled people confined at Oregon’s first asylum for the mentally ill.
When complete, the Cultural Heritage Garden will feature memorial elements of these people that were once interred here. It will also feature a new pedestrian entrance into Lone Fir Cemetery with illustrations and artwork providing information about the history of the site as well as an attractive space for all the users of the cemetery to pause and reflect on their memories of their loved ones.
The project is dedicated to the stories of these marginalized groups and now their contributions to the City of Portland will be remembered and honored.