Visitors to Portland’s Lone Fir Cemetery may wonder at its name–the “lone fir” is now one of many in this lush and green space, home to nearly 25,000 souls at rest.
In 1854, Oregon pioneer James B. Stephens sold a large part of his land in Portland to Colburn Barrell under the condition that Barrell maintain the gravesite of his father, who was buried there. Just a few months later, there was no question of what the land would be used for after Barrell’s ship Gazelle exploded, killing 24 of the 60 people onboard.
Body parts were blown into all directions, both into the sea and on land. Identification wasn’t easy, and early Portland settlers opened up their homes to store the bodies until they could be buried. Though Barrell had intended the land he had just purchased from Stephens to be his own personal plot, he ended up interring several victims of the explosion there, including his friend Crawford M. Dobbins, calling the cemetery Mount Crawford after him.
Years later, in 1866, Barrell tried to sell the land to the city, but they were not interested. Thanks to a group of Portland families, the property was incorporated, and 20 more acres of land were added. Mount Crawford was then rechristened Lone Fir: The name was suggested by Barrell’s wife Aurelia, in honor of the (at the time) lone fir tree on the property.
In 1887, Stephens’ wife Elizabeth died, and he had a special gravestone carved for her resting place. The sculpture depicts James and Elizabeth, standing together holding hands, in a manner that can only be described as visually ... arresting. The tombstone also has a rather creepy quote imprinted upon it: “Here we lie by consent, after 57 years 2 months and 2 days sojourning through life awaiting natures immutable laws to return us back to the elements of the universe of which we were first composed.”
For two years, James visited his wife at what would also be his final resting place, so that he could “imagine holding his wife’s hand again”. He died in 1889 and was buried beside her.
Elsewhere in the cemetery, you'll encounter the nearly 10,000 of the residents of Lone Fir buried without names, including 132 patients of an insane asylum run by a man named Dr. Hawthorne in the 1800s–Dr. Hawthorne was also buried here. One section of the cemetery, known as Block 14, was used to house the unidentified remains of Chinese railroad workers, who were later exhumed and moved in 1948. Some, however, were undoubtedly left behind. Cemetery records claim about 1,100 immigrants were buried here, and only 265 bodies were moved.
The eerie occupants of the Lone Fir Cemetery are not limited to the unnamed. Wander down the aisles, and you may see the grave of Emma Merlotin. Emma, 33 years old at the time of her death, was a famous beauty and infamous sex worker in Portland. She was murdered brutally, hacked apart with a hatchet. In an attempt to find her killer, one of her eyes was removed by photographers, who, at the time, believed that the last image a person saw would be preserved in their eyes. Unsurprisingly, this revolutionary thought did not result in her murderer being apprehended.
One of Dr. Hawthorne’s patients–one whose name was preserved–is another fascinating case. Charity Lamb was well known for having killed her husband with an axe, supposedly because she was jealous of her own daughter. It seems now that Charity was likely acting in self-defense against an abusive husband, but as the first woman convicted of murder in what was then the Oregon territory, her notoriety outlived her.
Today, James and Elizabeth Stephens, the two pioneers of Portland and founders of Lone Fir, greet visitors as they trek through the 30-acre burial ground that lies just across the river from downtown Portland. Tourists and curious locals have described the gravestone of the guardians of Lone Fir as “unsettling,” “creepy,” “weird,” “spooky,” but also, “awesome,” “incredible,” “amazing,” “sweet,” “romantic,” and “beautiful.”
Though the cemetery is open daily to the public from 7:00 A.M. to sunset, Halloween is Lone Fir’s busiest time of year, when the cemetery hosts the popular “Tour of Untimely Departures”, featuring the graveyard’s most famous residents, including James and Elizabeth Stephens. Nearly 1,000 people queue up outside for a chance to meet them, and to see their undying love, carved into stone, for themselves each year.