Shaky deals from past haunt efforts to preserve Douglas cemeteries today | Juneau Empire (2024)

Nine adjacent cemeteries now bisected by a noisy highway were once the pride of Douglas. But the bucolic park — resting place of more than 500 — was born of a shaky political deal that haunts the properties even today.

Volunteer groups currently clear brush at the historic sites for four hours a month April through September to help ensure their preservation. But nearly 300 local residents recently signed petitions favoring the City and Borough of Juneau taking over ownership and responsibility of the cemeteries.

However, Juneau Assembly members at a Committee of the Whole meeting May 6 voted 5-2 to see if any community organizations are interested in maintaining the properties for an unspecified stipend, after City Attorney Robert Palmer told them determining who owned various parcels and acquiring them could be a lengthy and difficult process.

“There’s a lot of complicated pieces,” said Assembly Lands Committee Chairperson Alicia Hughes-Skandijs, citing concerns about the inequity of maintaining parcels under city control, while private parcels were not. “You could eat up a lot of staff time” resolving ownership.

That decision was criticized by Ed Schoenfeld, an advocate for the groups working to preserve the cemeteries.

“Douglas is being treated like second-class citizens,” he said. “Volunteers are great, but relying on them is not sustainable.”

The complications involving the cemeteries date back to the post-Civil War era, when local communities began to commemorate the dead on “decoration day,” typically in May when flowers to lay upon graves were abundant.

A woman lies on a gravestone in the city section of the Douglas cemetery circa 1910-1915. (Alaska State Library, P162-150, Ed Andrews Collection)

The Douglas grave of Union veteran Orlando Hutchings was thus honored in 1899. That original cemetery and the original Native cemetery must have been crowded because the previous year a public movement had begun to establish new burying grounds. Big community fundraisers were staged and the Douglas Chamber of Commerce helmed the campaign, goaded by their neighbors across the channel.

“A general feeling of resentment prevails on the island at the treatment received from the Juneau paper which asserted…we bury our dead in a cemetery maintained by Juneau. It is the general wish that we have a cemetery here on the island.”

Juneau’s nine-acre Evergreen Cemetery had been established in 1891 by an association of local businessmen; graves from Chicken Ridge above town were relocated there.

Over in Douglas, the Chamber appointed five members to find a new resting place for the dead: W.C. Boyd, Martin Olson, store owners P.H. Fox and Mike O’Connor, and Rev. Charles Replogle who ran the segregated government school for Native children. Two weeks later, the committee identified “a very suitable site.”

“We found a beautiful site next to the foothill, high, dry and gravelly, overlooking the bay. We, there, on a large spruce, claimed the ground with a notice.”

However, the ground they claimed did not belong to Douglas or to the cemetery committee. Instead, three of those men leveraged a closed door deal to claim it. The handshake agreement in Fox’s department store in the summer of 1899 would come back to haunt them – and to stymy those who a century later would seek borough care of the properties.

By 1900, there was plenty of progress to show. Designated “Superintendent of Construction,” Boyd began the work of clearing access to the new cemetery. “No one realizes the immensity of the undertaking unless they have inspected the mass of stumps and trees and underbrush to be removed…When completed this road will prove a continual attraction for the Sunday excursionist.”

The following spring, 1901, the cemetery was described as one of the most beautiful in Alaska. A plot cost $5 (about $200 in today’s dollars) and uncleared property was a bargain: five burials for $10 and larger lots starting at $50 for associations.

Adriana Botelho works to clean a headstone as part of restoring the Lawson Creek Cemetery on May 22, 2021. (Michael S. Lockett / Juneau Empire file photo)

The Native cemetery was the first to form (after the city cemetery) in 1901.The next year, Eagles, Servians and Japanese secured sections. By spring, 1903, two acres had been cleared, nearly five acres had been surrounded by a wire fence and more than 70 souls had been interred. Then, an “outrage” erupted. A man who claimed to own the land posted “No Trespassing” signs in the cemetery.

Four years earlier, former stamp mill supervisor at Treadwell, mining engineer W.A. Sanders and two partners, Minnie Ross Holman and W.A. Thompson, and had applied to patent thirteen mining lodes that overlay a great swath — 50 acres — of Douglas. It wasn’t a secret. The lengthy half-page legal notice was published in the Douglas Island News ten days straight in the summer of 1899.

Fox, Replogle, and Boyd, “representing the town of Douglas,” formed a committee to protest the land grab. Sanders got wind of their objection and “came over from Juneau” to negotiate. Sanders met with the Douglas men at Fox’s store and agreed to deed back all lots, easem*nt of streets and other points in which his patent interfered with the town, if the protest were dropped…(W)ith reluctance and after more threats from the committee,” Sanders put the concessions in writing. This was important because Douglas leaders were contemplating incorporating the town to set up a local government.

The men then “demanded grounds…for a cemetery,” to which Sanders allegedly replied, “I will give you a cemetery…and will build a road to it…there is a good dry knoll there and you can have it; my word is good for it.” But he refused to put the promise in writing. In 1903, Sanders was back from a year prospecting and tried to reneg.

In a long open letter “to the Citizens of Douglas,” May 13, 1903, “in view of the outrage committed on this community,” Boyd and Fox recounted the original negotiation. They reported confronting Sanders about his cemetery promise, which “at first he denied…He then declared he wasn’t about to buy land and then give it away.” The committee offered him “the government price” of $5 an acre and the meeting broke up “with the understanding that the affairs would be adjusted amicably.”

“We will further state that although we may have some legal trouble yet, we will undoubtedly win out…and whoever attempts to obstruct or interfere with the Douglas Island Cemetery, will have all of the Douglas Island people to fight.”

Whatever the resolution, it was kept private. Three weeks later, more than 200 people rallied in unfavorable weather for a Decoration Day program at both the old and new cemeteries, legal trouble seemingly aside.

Jamiann Hasselquist points out the fractured headstone of a Japanese man known only as T. Yamane buried in 1907 in the Lawson Creek Cemetery, as they work with other volunteers to restore the cemetery, on May 22, 2021. (Michael S. Lockett / Juneau Empire file photo)

Within a couple years, the cemetery road was declared “one of the best improvements ever made in Douglas (and) popular with all the people…In the evening it affords a place for lovers to promenade, gaze into each other’s eyes, hold hands, etc.” The route was so appealing that in 1905, the city council appropriated money to cut the trail all the way to Lawson Creek in order to create Crystal Falls Park.

Perhaps inspired by the City of Juneau taking over Evergreen Cemetery in 1907 or maybe by the 1911 investment in a large plot by the Odd Fellows, Douglas editorials decried the deteriorating condition of its decade-old cemetery. “The cemetery looks a place forlorn…Why are cows allowed to…tramp over the graves(?)”

The Oddfellows – and the community — went all in. The Oddfellows cleared the 45,000-square-foot site, poured stately concrete stairs which marched up the middle and surrounded a prominent monument, and erected a handsome ornamental fence. The Catholic Church moved in next door on the south side in 1912 on a plot running up the hillside, with a white cross at the top.

The beautification challenge was taken up by Douglas women in 1913. “The most progressive society in Douglas today is the Civic Improvement Club … for the betterment of sanitary conditions…and composed of all the women on the island who are interested in the progressive idea, irrespective of nationality, religion or political opinions,” said the Douglas Island News.

Douglas and Treadwell residents readily opened their pocketbooks. The Alaska Treadwell Gold Mining Company topped the list with $300 (about $9,000 in today’s dollars), followed by 130 other contributors for a total of $775 (nearly $25,000 today) dollars.

The cemetery continued to attract subscribers, including the Masons that year and, finally, the Russian Orthodox Church in 1916.

Then, in April 1917, the bottom fell out for Douglas when three of the four underground mines were flooded with seawater and a portion of the town collapsed. Most of the men were put out of work and the population of Douglas proper dropped by nearly half to under a thousand.

Voluntary care of the cemeteries declined as well, and soon it wasn’t clear who was buried where. In 1919, 20 years after the first movement for a new cemetery, City Clerk L.W. Kilburn secured the old records of the Douglas Cemetery Association and by 1927, a revised record, chart, and burial lot plat had been completed. But care for the cemeteries eroded.

In 1934, 60 graves from the original Douglas cemetery, as well as from Servian, Asian, and Native sections of the “new” cemetery were dug up to broaden the road and build a bridge across Lawson Creek. Most remains were moved to the City portion of the cemetery.

In 1937, a massive fire destroyed much of Douglas, including the town’s vital records.

For nearly 50 years, Douglas officials assumed its cemetery was public property. That changed in 1948 when the Ross Estate (which held the deeds Sanders claimed back in 1899), protested being taxed on the land which had “been appropriated for cemeteries.”

No doubt the city cooperated; other Ross Estate property was being eyed for an elementary school. In 1960, Gastineau School was built atop the old, original Native cemetery, despite local knowledge of the significance of the site.

In June of 2012, contractors remodeling the school unearthed a 1927 headstone and wooden container with human remains. This should not have been surprising. A 1995 City and Borough of Juneau (CBJ) survey of the ten island cemeteries reported 12 markers in the remaining patch of the old Douglas Native cemetery (across from the school) which longtime locals had known was part of a larger section now below the school. Ground-penetrating radar detected up to 22 additional possible grave sites. City officials and the Douglas Indian Association agreed that remaining graves should not be disturbed and, following a blessing ceremony at the site, work resumed the next month. Today CBJ Parks and Recreation staff maintain the visible section of the old Native cemetery across from Sayéik: Gastineau Community School.

The nine “new” cemeteries, once the jewel of Douglas and Treadwell, today are an almost invisible patchwork of public and private parcels along Douglas Highway where volunteers periodically hack away at the rainforest and dig for toppled headstones.

• Laury Scandling is a board member of the Gastineau Channel Historical Society and editor of its biannual newsletter Gastineau Heritage News. This article is modified from a longer version originally published in the fall 2023 newsletter.

Shaky deals from past haunt efforts to preserve Douglas cemeteries today | Juneau Empire (2024)


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