Early Portland Cemeteries - Stark, Caruthers, Beth Israel, and Jefferson Street
By Connie Lenzen, CGSM
Two yellowing newspaper clippings in "CemeteriesPortland" file at the Oregon Historical Society in Portland tell about early Portland cemeteries: Stark Cemetery, Caruthers Cemetery, Beth Israel Cemetery, and an unnamed cemetery at what is now SW 21st and Jefferson Streets. The article came from the 26 April 1887 issue of the Portland Oregonian.
Probably few of the present inhabitants of Portland, outside of the old pioneer residents, are aware of the act that at one time in the history of the place a cemetery was located in what is now the very heart of the city. Yet such is the case. Thirty-five or forty years ago, when Portland's present site was covered with a heavy, dense forest, and almost impenetrable thickets of undergrowth, when there existed only a very small village of straggling dwellings and perhaps a dozen business houses, the people who lived here never dreamed that the then seemingly ill favored spot was destined to become a populous and prosperous city. This failure to look into the future, and to make proper allowance for the natural expansion of the nascent hamlet, is no uncommon thing in the history of nearly all the towns and cities of the country. Two important considerations are generally overlooked by the founders of cities; one is the matter of an adequate water supply when the village outgrows its short clothes and develops into a city with its multiplied requirements; the second most noticeable feature is, perhaps, the selection of sites for cemeteries. Municipal histories demonstrate that in every instance where cities exist, the burial places of the departed have been found to be too near the habitations of the living, and, as the town develops by degrees, these places of sepulture have to be removed to more remote localities. San Francisco is a good example of the shortsightedness of those who laid the foundation for that thriving and beautiful city. Laurel hill cemetery, as well as that of the Catholic churc and Lone Mountain, once so remote from the heart of the city, are now almost within the suburbs. Twenty or thirty years hence these cemeteries will be thickly surrounded by residences and places of business, so steady and rapid is the expansion of the city. It is but natural, after all, for communities, like individuals, are more engrossed with present wants and in providing means to answer the present requirements of human life than in indulging in visionary dreams of the future. In a small, straggling pioneer hamlet the inhabitants naturally make temporary provisions and let the future provide for itself. Besides, who can look down the long vista of coming years and foretell with any degree of certainty what destiny may have in store? Portland's early settlers were no exception to the rule, for they made the same miscalculations as to the future, which the demands of after years have required to be remedied. Reference is made specially to the matter of selecting public burial spots.
Far back into the years that are gone, the village cemetery was located just west of where New Market theater stands. There are no means now at hand by which the precise former limits of the "graveyard," as it was for many years generally designated, can be definitely established. In point of fact, there never seemed to have been any particular "metes and bounds" to the tract set apart for public sepulture. The area now bounded by Second, A, Pine, and Third streets, contained the village cemetery. As far back as 1847 the first interment was made in that place. During the latter part of the winter of that year, a Mr. Smith was buried there. again, in 1849, a Mrs. Warren died and was laid at rest in the same grounds. In 1850, Mrs. Wm. Berry, a daughter of the late Stephen Coffin, whose name is so indissolubly interwoven with the early history of Portland, was buried there. Soon after an infant son of Mr. Coffin was also interred in the cemetery. Between 1847 and 1854 a large number of bodies were buried in that tract. Prominent among those whole remains found temporary resting place were Crawford Dobbins and David P. Fuller. Both were victims of the terrible explosion that occurred on board the old steamer Gazelle at Canemah in 1854. Fuller was instantly killed, while Dobbins was so badly injured that he died in a few weeks after the blowing up of the boat. Their bodies laid in the North Portland cemetery for over a year, and were finally taken up and removed to Lone Fir (then known as Mount Crawford), where they have since reposed undisturbed.
Records, so far as possible to determine, fail to show that the North Portland cemetery was ever formally dedicated as a burial place or donated to the town. Forty years ago Portland contained only a few hundred inhabitants. What was then the village of Portland was included within Stark street on the north, Fourth street on the west, Taylor street south and the Willamette river east. Outside of those limits heavy forests covered the site in every direction. Originally the land belonged to Hon. Benjamin Stark, one of the early founders of the place. It was situated directly on the dividing line between the ground owned by Mr. Stark and the Couch claim. As people died, their remains were taken down below the limits of the scattering hamlet and buried.
Thus, in the course of several years a number of graves accumulated there. It was a convenient locality, no objections were made by the proprietor of the land, so by common consent, it was used as a burial spot. For years the land was densely clad with timber, covered with a tangled maze of small brush and beset with fallen trees. The principal larger growth was fir, but a number of pine trees were interspersed. No fence or railing at any period inclosed the ground "where the forefathers of the hamlet slept."
Neither was the track surveyed and platted as a cemetery. Graves were dug here and there, in an irregular manner, just as might be suggested by convenience or personal preference of surviving relatives or friends. Nature was left undisturbed, in a measure, and no systematic effort was ever made to improve the tract, or to beautify it as a permanent resting place of the departed. The dead were laid to rest amid the leafy groves and beneath the spreading branches of the perennially green fir and pine. Around some of the graves loving relatives and considerate friends caused to be placed railing enclosures, and a number of these were to be seen scattered over the grounds for some years after many of the bodies had been exhumed and reentered elsewhere.
Interments continued to be made in this pioneer burying ground for about seven years, and during that time it was general cemetery grounds for the village. Early in the year of 1854, Mr. Stark gave notice that he should claim the ground and wished to use it for his own private purposes. Shortly after, the common council took some official action in the premises. An ordinance was passed and approved by the mayor, Wm. S. Ladd, which provided for the removal of all the bodies, and required the relinquishment of the land as a public place of interment. So far as known, no more bodies were buried in that tract after the passage of the ordinance. On that aspect the records are silent, but the presumption is fair that no more burials occurred. But it was not until 1857 that the general order of removal was actually carried into effect. The bodies were exhumed by contract from the city and removed to other places, under the individual superintendency of relatives and friends. However, prior to 1857 a good many remains were taken away, among them those of Crawford Dobbin, D. P. Fuller, the daughter and son of Mr. Stephen Coffin, and others. Some time was required to remove all the bodies, and open graves were quite common during the period covering the exhumation. A number of serio-ludicrous personal incidents are related by several of the old and surviving pioneers of those days in relation to this cemetery. Stray paths (at that time the streets were roughly surveyed, but had never been opened) let in different directions across the grounds, and while wandering through the gloomy woods after dark, it was no infrequent occurrence for person to stumble into these sepulchral openings, to their great disgust and discomfiture. Small boys, and even large lads, often pitched headlong into the enclosed holes while rambling about after night, it is entirely safe to venture and were scared out of several years' growth by the terror of the accident, which the superstitious associations of the place so greatly magnified. For many years there have been sorts of legendary reports circulated that a number of the bodies buried there were never removed, and therefore human bones lie mingled with the soil under the streets and buildings. It is said a number of sailors and strangers found last resting places in those grounds; that no particular record was ever kept of the names, and the spots were unmarked except by small wooden headboards which soon decayed and crumbled back into the soil. It should be borne in mind that no marble or other stone was employed in these pioneer days to mark the graves in the North Portland cemetery but wooden slabs and monuments were not uncommonly used. However, the reports are doubtless without foundation in fact. By ordinance all bodies were ordered to be removed, and this was accomplished by persons who were duly awarded the contract. The probabilities are none of the remains were overlooked at the time, and the oft repeated stories about "dead men's bones" are possibly mythical.
About the time that the ordinance referred to above was passed, or shortly after, another cemetery was established. This was the old and also now abandoned one, which is located south of Portland adjoining the macadamized road. Finice Caruthers and James Terwilliger each donated to the city a five acre tract for a public burial place. At that time the location was considered quite remote from the center of the city, and its limits it was supposed would never be encroached upon by subsequent march of improvements. These five acre tracts adjoined, and thus constituted an unbroken ten acre piece. Persons who have come to Portland within the last few years can scarcely realize that that whole area was once clothed with a dense forest. Such was the condition of the land for a long time after it was dedicated to the city. The land inclines quite sharply to the east, the old White house road being the line toward the river. To these new ground a number of the bodies were removed from the old cemetery above described, but the most were taken direct to Lone Fir. Owing to the steep character of the ground, and the additional fact that there were numerous springs, it was found to be poorly adapted to the purposes intended. So full was the earth of these veins of water that a grave dug and left open for a few hours would become half filled from the copious seepage. Practically it was abandoned in the course of six or seven years, but during that time there were many interments. Among those buried there was John G. Riley, a compositor on The Weekly Oregonian, who dropped dead. He died during the year 1856, and his remains still lie unmoved. No slab marked the spot and now the exact location of the grave is unknown. A Mrs. Markley, so far as can be learned, was the first person buried in these ground. Three children of Rev. C. S. Kingsley, who was formerly principal of the old Portland academy and female seminary, were buried there, and also two children of R. A. R. Shipley, now of Oswego.
After Lone Fir cemetery was incorporated, many of the bodies were removed there by friends and relatives; still a number of human bones lie mixed with mother earth, unclaimed, uncoffined, and unknown. As the ground proved to be so unsuitable, the place was never used generally, and before long was deserted. Probably there have been but few interments for nearly a quarter of a century. A number of graves are plainly visible from the highway, and one large moss-covered and weather-stained old marble slab tells the careless passer of the dust which slumbers tranquilly below the sod. Recently Multnomah and Hood streets were opened through the land, and in the progress of the excavation several of the bodies were disturbed. Decayed coffins and many bones were unearthed by the vandal hands of progress. A few days since a portion of an embankment caved away, exposing a skeleton, and the bones were placed in a box and given Christian reinterment.
Subsequent to the abandonment of the land as a public place of sepulture, most of the timber has been cleared away, and the ground is very desirable as a location for residence owing to its elevation and the fine view of the river it affords. A number of handsome dwellings are scattered along the hillside above, and from the rapid march of improvement in that direction, the whole area, once included in the cemetery limits, will soon be thickly covered with buildings. That portion donated by Mr. James Terwilliger to the city, promises to shortly become a subject of litigation. The deed was made out in 1854 and the joint donation accepted by Mayor Ladd in behalf of the city. Some years ago the land was incorporated within the city proper, and at the same time an ordinance was passed by the common council prohibiting the burial of bodies within the prescribed limits. After the passage of the ordinance, the authorities cut up the land into lots, blocks and streets. Mr. Terwilliger, the original donor, claims that as the city of Portland has failed to utilize the land for the purpose for which it was deeded, it reverts to him. Accordingly he has taken temporary possession of the land and proposes to hold it, or at least to make a test case of the matter. As he is in possession, suit will have to be instituted by the city to settle the question as to who is entitled to the property. City Attorney Tanner will soon prepare the necessary papers, when the case will be submitted on its merits. Mr. Terwilliger donated the land, he claims, for a certain specific purpose, and that, as the city did not so use it, he is entitled to have it back again. This land is now very valuable and is estimated to be worth something like $50,000. The case promises to be an interesting one, and the result will be very important to the municipality. That portion of the donation made by Finice Caruthers will be claimed, it is said, by the South Portland Real Estate Association.
Due north of the land above mentioned, and at present bounded by Hood, Corbett, Meade and Porter streets, was located, for the past thirty years, the old Hebrew cemetery. Originally the land belonged to the city, and was purchased by the Congregation Beth Israel more than a quarter of a century ago. This plat contains one acre and covers an area of about two blocks. Until within five or six years it was the Jewish burying ground and was the resting place for hundreds of bodies. Gradually, however, as the city spread, the cemetery was found to be too near, and some years ago a tract was bought by the Hebrew Society, enclosed and regularly laid out. Bodies have since then been taken to the new grounds. Early last spring the city, by ordinance, provided for the removal of all the dead from the old enclosure. As in the first instancethat of the North Portland cemeterythe work of exhumation and reburial was done by contract, the city defraying all the necessary expenses. Over a month was required in which to accomplish the work. Every grave was opened and the bodies or crumbling dust, as the case might be, were carefully removed to the new plot and there tenderly committed to the silent bosom of earth. The old ground still belongs to the Congregation Beth Israel, and just what disposition will be made of the valuable property is not known at present.
One of the oldest places of human burial, which, for the long lapse of years, has been permitted to remain without molestation, is at the head of the canyon. This spot is near the intersection of Jefferson and Twenty-first streets, if the latter street were surveyed through and opened. It occupies a rather sharp point on the left hand side as one goes from the city over-looking the old Canyon road and about due south of the city park. Only a few bodies were buried there and, so far as it is possible to ascertain, none have ever been disturbed. No interments have taken place there for probably twenty-five years or even longer. Dr. Hooper, of the pioneer drug firm of Hooper, Snell & Co., who died may years since, was buried on that point. Traces of these ancient graves still remain, but very faintly, and the spots, beneath which the pulseless clay slumbers, can only be discovered by careful scrutiny.