Resurrecting Portland’s history by the telltale tombs, under the lone fir

Column by Margie Boule, published in The Oregonian April 8, 1999

Today, a pop quiz: What do Madonna, the first editor of The Oregonian, juvenile delinquents and the sister of a mysterious madam have in common?

I wandered through the answer on a sunny morning not long ago.

Back in the early 1900s, the owner of the Lone Fir Cemetery, which rests at Southeast 21st Avenue and Morrison Street, offered all 301/2 acres to the city of Portland, no strings attached. The city fathers declined. “They said it wouldn’t do them any good, so far from Portland,” says Lupine Jones of Metro Parks and Green Spaces. “For people to come across (the Willamette) on the mule-powered boat and come out a big, long muddy road to Lone Fir just wasn’t worth it.”

That’s how the county — and now Metro — came to own the pioneer cemetery. It’s filled with more than tombstones. It has mysteries of its own, and tales to tell.

Let’s start with the fancy gravestone, not far from the front gate. The official Metro description doesn’t read like most government information papers: “Impressive gravestone erected by a brothel madam for her sister. The sister’s body was removed about a year later, and her name, dates of birth and death and inscription carefully chiseled off the stone. No one knows why.”

Everywhere you turn, there are stories. Stories of East Portland pioneers whose children died, one after another, in infancy. In the Northwest corner is the grave of Michael Mitchell, once a famous minstrel. Michael’s fortunes fell; he was found frozen one morning in 1862.

“Here lies one who has taken steps, that won the applause of men. But grim death came and took a step which he could not withstand.”

There are famous names and once-powerful men here: George Law Curry, governor of the Oregon Territory. Thomas J. Dryer, first editor of this newspaper. Asa Lovejoy, who wanted our town named Boston but who lost the famous coin toss to F.W. Pettygrove, who preferred Portland.

Nearby is the grave of Rosa Rankin, a 7-year-old girl who fell through a broken plank in the Fourth Street Bridge at Sullivan’s Gulch in August 1880 and drowned.

And then there are the graves of Dr. James Hawthorne and his patients. Hawthorne opened an asylum in the mid-1800s. His mentally ill patients had little money, so when they died, Hawthorne bought their burial plots. When he died in 1881, he was buried beside 131 patients.

There are more than gravestones. One burial site is marked by a marble punch bowl that once resided in a local saloon.

But it’s the Macleay “mansion” that’s hardest to miss. Donald Macleay was a merchant and financier. Judging by the structure he built in Lone Fir in 1877, he was good at his work. The vault and private chapel featured gilt, marble and intricate stained-glass windows. A few years ago, the Madonna film “Body of Evidence” included a scene at the site.

But it’s boarded over now. Vandals have broken the windows, stolen the artwork, defaced the walls. But then, so many of the gravesites in this place have been damaged over the years. Weeds grow over smaller stones; midnight visitors leave cans and broken bottles behind or smash stone statues or push over plain markers.

It’s as if people don’t realize that this place, with its first lone fir still standing above the others, has importance to all of us.

Some local folks are trying to change that. Lupine Jones has been working with a nonprofit family services center called Portland Impact to bring young people into the cemetery and history into the present. Juveniles who’ve been ordered to perform community service have been coming into the cemetery to do cleanup work.

Lupine decided to make it more than just a litter patrol. “We needed the ground maintenance done,” she says — there isn’t nearly enough money in the budget to maintain the cemetery using public funds — “but I thought it would be the perfect opportunity to integrate a real lesson in history and community.”

So the young people work for a few hours, then spend 30 minutes on a “history hunt.” They follow clues, find gravesites, learn about the pioneers who lived and died here. After a few more hours of cleanup, they give presentations to one another about what they’ve discovered.

“They start to realize how difficult life was back then . . . and then they start wondering how people could vandalize a place like this,” Lupine says. Remember, some of these kids are vandals themselves. “We end up having very interesting conversations. Some of them go on to do tracings of the headstones and write reports.”

You don’t have to be sentenced to community service to learn about the Lone Fir Cemetery. On Saturday, April 17, Stop Oregon Litter and Vandalism (Solv) will sponsor its annual “Solvit” cleanup day at 90 sites in Oregon. The Lone Fir Cemetery is one of them.

It won’t be all work. Lupine is planning a history hunt. And volunteers from the Oregon Historical Cemetery Association will answer questions and provide clues. If you’d like to sign up for cemetery duty that day or to assist at any of the other Solvit sites, call 844-9571.