Portland, Ore., might have been known as Boston, Ore., if not for the outcome of a simple coin toss in 1845. Founding father Asa Lovejoy had been pulling for Boston as the city’s name, but co-founder Francis Pettygrove, who was partial to the Portland moniker, outflipped him.
The penny they used is enshrined at the Oregon Historical Society, and Lovejoy himself rests in peace at Lone Fir Pioneer Cemetery, in the city’s Buckman neighborhood. (Pettygrove, fittingly enough, is buried in another cemetery on the opposite side of the Willamette River.)
Lovejoy isn’t the only Portland V.I.P. who’s been laid to rest at Lone Fir, which was established in 1855 and is listed on the National Register of Historic Places. The 30.5-acre cemetery houses the remains of the Bottler Brothers, a couple of this beer-centric city’s earliest brewers; Dr. J.C. Hawthorne, whose sympathetic treatment of the mentally ill earned him renown in the medical community; and African-American suffragist leader Hattie Redmond, among other historic figures.
“It almost acts as a history book of the city,” says Emma Williams, Portland’s cemetery program coordinator. A portion of Lone Fir known as Block 14 once served as a burial ground for many of the Chinese immigrants who helped build the city. Nearby, Dr. Hawthorne provided burials for more than 130 asylum patients who were without friends or family. Memorials to both groups, as part of a larger cultural heritage garden, are currently in the works.
In 2011, National Geographic Traveler named Lone Fir as one of the world’s top 10 cemeteries to visit. Frank Schaefer, a board member of the volunteer group Friends of Lone Fir Cemetery, says its appeal stems not only from its rich history, but also from its role as a public green space.
“People bike, run, picnic, play guitar, write poetry, and have lunch there,” he says. “It’s for the living as well as the dead.”
“The living” includes 90 species of birds and 550 to 560 trees -- one of which, a Douglas Fir, serves as the cemetery’s namesake. And Lone Fir contains Portland’s sole remaining Pioneer Rose Garden, made up of roses brought by settlers via the Oregon Trail. Friends of Lone Fir plans to restore the garden over the next few years.
The group also runs monthly historical tours, which typically attract 20 to 30 attendees. Its semi-regular Halloween Tour of Untimely Departures drew 1,600 people the last time it was held, in 2011, and will take place again this year.
Not to be outdone, the Portland Actors Ensemble has performed Shakespeare at Lone Fir -- only tragedies, of course. Next up will be Macbeth, in the summer of 2015.
The eventful lives and gasp-inducing deaths of some of Lone Fir’s residents undoubtedly help lure the cemetery’s 7,000 to 8,000 visitors per year. But for every well-known drama contained there, untold secrets remain, bolstering Portlanders’ respectful affection for this contemplative place.
“There are a lot of stories we’ll never know,” Schaefer says. “It’s not just people who are important to Portland’s history; everyone in there has a story.”
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