Honoring the forgotten: Advocates work toward a new memorial at Lone Fir
It's a special time of year at Lone Fir Cemetery, a time when hundreds come by for a foggy stroll through the graveyard, many on the popular Tour of Untimely Departures.
They'll see the graves of Oregon's elite, names like Hawthorne, Lovejoy and Pittock. They'll see stark reminders of more recent arrivals, photos engraved on ornate black headstones of Eastern European immigrants to the region.
But many won't give a second thought to the gravel lot on the southwest corner of the property, a site that for years has been neglected, even abused.
Metro Councilor Barbara Roberts talks with Oregon Chinese Consolidated Benevolent Association member Rebecca Liu about plans for Block 14, the gravel lot in front of them at Lone Fir Cemetery.
It's a site that's home to an unknown number of dead Oregonians, souls who were never properly recognized on their way to the hereafter.
The gravel lot is Block 14, Lone Fir's lost parcel that, in the 19th century, was the final resting place for many of Portland's unwanted. Thousands of Chinese immigrants and asylum patients were buried here, unmarked and, until recently, forgotten.
Rebecca Liu is trying to change that.
Liu is a member of the Oregon Chinese Consolidated Benevolent Association. A decade ago, she heard that a Multnomah County-owned maintenance building was for sale. Through the association, she also heard a story of the site.
The site had been home to a county building, which was demolished some time after Metro took over Lone Fir's operations from Multnomah County. In doing research of the association's records, though, she found the site was home to much more.
"They all just recorded 'Chinaman, Chinaman, Chinaman,'" Liu said, "thousands of 'Chinaman.'"
A former principal at a Chinese school, Liu remembered seeing ledger books elsewhere in the archives – thick, with heavy paper and leather covers, three columns each on a page. The books appeared to be burial records, but only said East Portland as the location.
"They have the Chinese name of the deceased, the original place they came from, what village – in detail, which area, which county… their birthday, and day of the death too," she said. "Up to 1920."
Many Chinese laborers came to the United States in the 19th century to work on railroads – not only the transcontinental routes that helped Oregon's ports flourish, but the streetcars that enabled Portland's outward growth. Men weren't alone in making the journey – women, too, came to the United States seeking opportunity.
Immigrants, or their families, wouldn't just pay for passage across the Pacific. In many cases, they'd pay for the return trip, so their remains could be interred with the rest of their family in China.
It was up to local Chinese associations – in Portland, San Francisco and elsewhere – to log who was buried where, for return to the homeland.
Metro cemeteries manager Rachel Fox said that wasn't uncommon, no matter the culture of origin.
"From the late 1800s to the early 1900s… you'll see for every burial there was probably three disinterments," she said. "A lot of people came and gathered their loved ones to ship them back east."
But in many cases, only men were so fortunate.
"Every (child's) name, and woman's name, had a big cross over them," Liu said. "Do not touch it."
Unmarried women were not to be disturbed in the afterlife, she said, meaning many were forever left at Block 14, the forgotten lot of Lone Fir.
Fox said that in Chinese folklore, unwed women haunt if they die.
"Their souls go with the man they marry, and if they don't marry a man, their souls don't go anywhere," she said. "Their souls stay on earth."
Chinese folklore wasn't the only source of tortured souls at Block 14.
In East Portland, on Asylum Road, was Dr. James Hawthorne's home for the insane. Hawthorne was recognized for his compassionate treatment of those with mental illness, Fox said, and his clinic on what is now Hawthorne Boulevard was world-renowned.
"They all had jobs – they tended farms, they did laundry, nobody was doing stuff for them," Fox said. "They were meant to feel valued."
Hawthorne paid for proper burials if patients had no family to claim them. Some were buried in the grassy arboretum that is today's Lone Fir; many were buried in Block 14.
"The mental health patients had no headstones, no identification in terms of recognition," said Metro Councilor Barbara Roberts. "They were buried outside the cemetery fence, as were the Chinese workers – nobody really knew they were there."
The slow healing
Not surprisingly, many of the fallen were forgotten. Attitudes toward immigrants and mental health patients were, to say the least, unhealthy; eventually, Multnomah County built a structure on the Block 14 site.
In 1994, Lone Fir, not including Block 14, was transferred from the county to Metro as part of the county's restructuring of its priorities. About a decade later, the county's shop on Block 14 was condemned, and the prevailing thought at the county was to sell the site to a private developer.
That's when neighbors, and members of the Chinese association, spoke up about word-of-mouth rumors of bodies still buried on the site.
The site was transferred to Metro, and research began into the conditions underneath the building, which was demolished about six years ago.
"They brought in ground-penetrating radar to see if they could discover any sort of disturbances that look like graves," Fox said. "They confirmed that they did."
Still, the site did not feel like it was part of Lone Fir, in many ways appearing like a stepchild instead of a lost family member. Fox said Metro has done what it could with limited money – a fence now borders the outside of the site, with a simple black chain around the site's perimeter on the Lone Fir border, discouraging passers-through from trampling on graves.
More importantly, Metro, the association and the Friends of Lone Fir began a visioning process, to plan how to properly recognize the souls in that gravel lot.
The final tribute
The design of the planned Block 14 memorial garden points west (top), with a courtyard recognizing mental health patients on the east side of the site.
On a recent tour of Lone Fir, Roberts, Oregon's only woman governor, visited the final resting places of Portland's early elite and former governors. She visited the graves of suffragists she respected, as a nod to the approaching Women's Suffrage Centennial Celebration 2012.
She also spent several minutes outside of Block 14, discussing the site and memorial project with Liu.
"We can offer them a dignified story and a dignified final resting place," Roberts said in an interview earlier this year. "It's a small issue, but it's an important one for Metro – if we are going to manage all those pioneer cemeteries, we need to do it with care and respect. This is a way to begin to do that."
Metro has worked through the past few years developing a concept plan for the site, to respect those interred there. Fox said they're fairly certain of specific sites where bodies are buried – walking paths will skirt those areas. In the center of the site, an oblong grassy field points toward China – home – in the area believed to be where most of the immigrants are buried. The field is to resemble a boat.
"It's tradition that spirits are carried in boats to the west, to go to their final resting place," she said.
On the east side of Block 14, a memorial courtyard and a funerary burner mark the transition to the area where Fox and others believe asylum patients were laid to rest.
Another landscaped area, along with a tribute to the bell tower at Hawthorne's hospital, pay homage to those buried there.
The site is also envisioned as a main entrance to Lone Fir, with an interpretive area at Southeast 20th Avenue and Morrison Street telling the stories of those buried at Block 14.
The project is estimated to cost $2 million, money the association, Friends of Lone Fir and others are working to raise.
"This is a terrible climate to be passing the hat around in," said Marcus Lee, another association member. "It's important for the Chinese community to give their ancestors… back down the line the recognition and the honor they were never given."
Lee said it's also a chance to educate today's Portlanders, including many Americans of Chinese ancestry, about the hardships immigrants faced when coming here generations ago. Chinese exclusion laws and other regulations made it hard to live in mainstream society, something long forgotten.
The site is something the association will be working on for some time, Liu said.
"This is about a commitment, a mission," she said. "It's a call – somebody has to take care of this."