by Alex Garland
The history of a place often solidifies as the days tick by, with old documents scanned and archived for online viewing, books written and published about historic people and places, and a growing interest in genealogy and ancestry. Some places, however, seem to wither, becoming forgotten, overgrown, and cast into the murky waters of time’s eternal trickle. Seattle’s Comet Lodge Cemetery near Graham Street on the southeast edge of Beacon Hill is one of those places that has fallen out of memory for many.
Walking through the graveyard, it feels both liminal and almost parklike, with trees spaced throughout, dandelions and daffodils in bloom, and desire paths or game trails winding through the grass. Were it not for the randomly spaced grave markers and occasional grave-shaped depressions, one might think it was just another park or empty lot.
Some Seattle cemeteries are well-known. Lake View Cemetery in Capitol Hill is the final resting place for some of Seattle’s most famous pioneers, like Doc Maynard, and for martial artists Bruce Lee and Brandon Lee; Jimi Hendrix is buried in Renton’s Greenwood Memorial Park. Other final resting places are not so final. Denny Park was once a cemetery, but its 221 bodies were moved to private cemeteries in the early 1880s to make room for parkland.
The Comet Lodge Cemetery began as a likely burial place of local Duwamish people, whose graves have since been disinterred, desecrated, and forgotten. Before Seattle settlers began burying their dead, the local Indigenous population was already calling the area sacred. Beacon Hill historian David M. Buerge told the Emerald about his research into the area: “It may have been used by winter villagers at Teh TAHL ks near the intersection of Spokane Street and I-5, and/or Tu QWEL teed at the north end of Boeing Field, in the same way that winter villages at Pioneer Place and Belltown shared the burial ground at the foot of Marion and Cherry streets.”
A large monument at the southeast corner of the land reads, “Comet Lodge Cemetery Established 1895.” According to the Historic Property Inventory Report, the cemetery was established in 1893 and platted in 1895. The land was part of the claim owned by Samuel Maple and contained the remains of dozens of early settlers, including many members of the Maple family. Maple was a member of the Collins party and was one of the first white settlers of what is now Seattle. According to Carolyn Farnum of the King County Cemetery Researchers, in 1979, it was deeded to Independent Order of Odd Fellows (IOOF) No. 139 Comet Lodge by the estate of Diana Borst Collins Woodbridge Sour.
The cemetery saw its last burial in 1936 and soon fell into disrepair; by the 1950s and ’60s, City Councilmembers and citizens began raising the issue regarding the lack of care. Despite a deed for the land in the King County archives clearly listing the cemetery as being sold in 1908, the Grand Secretary of the Grand Lodge of Washington could find no information on ownership by the IOOF.
“What I can tell you is that Comet Odd Fellows Lodge No. 139 was instituted July 20, 1893, by J.C. Mitchell, Grand Master, and consolidated with Glendale Lodge No. 328 in 1935. I have gone through Comet’s annual reports from 1893 to 1935, and they do not report a cemetery. I have also gone through Glendale Lodge’s annual reports, and they do not report a cemetery either.”
Through researching documents in the King County Archives, the Emerald learned that the IOOF Comet Lodge of Seattle turned over the property to an individual, H.S. Noice, for $1 in 1907, and Noice in turn sold the land to Hiram R. Corson for $10. The portion of the property not used as a cemetery for settlers was sold, and because of the lack of taxes paid on the property or lack of bidders during the 1938 tax foreclosure sale, the land was deeded to King County.
The land continued to deteriorate, often being used as a dumping ground for appliances and vehicles, but occasionally, descendants, family members, and concerned citizens would show up for organized work parties, clearing trash and blackberry brambles. In the 1980s, however, the property caught the attention of Don Kipper, a self-described “cemetery authority,” director of the Elysian Fields Cemetery Association, and a known entity in some Seattle community groups. Despite having zero authority from the City or County, Kipper began clearing the site with a bulldozer in 1986. Damaging headstones and desecrating graves in the name of cleanup, Kipper butted heads with many neighbors who disagreed with what he was doing.
In 1989, the Comet Lodge Cemetery Association, a nonprofit organized by Seattle residents, wrote a letter concerning the preservation of the cemetery as the “historic landmark and pioneer burial site that it is, combined with a neighborhood memorial park, and that this objective be carried out with dignity, simplicity, and good taste. Above all, this should be accomplished without further change to the contour of the land and/or disturbances to existing grave sites.” The letter also explicitly states, “Nor do we condone certain prior actions of [Elysian Fields’] principal, Don Kipper.”
Regardless of the blowback Kipper faced, some citizens were determined to make the cemetery restoration part of their purpose. One of those Seattle residents, John Dickinson, also received his share of ire from neighbors and other concerned members of the public. Passionate about Seattle’s history, but perhaps a little misguided in his attempts, Dickinson, a claimed descendent of two people buried in the cemetery, decided it was his responsibility to maintain the property. Dickinson began cutting down trees; one fell and injured a county worker. Despite the County issuing a cease-and-desist order and also pulling his work order, Dickinson persisted, eventually earning himself a trespass notice and a permanent ban from the cemetery. His thorough (but unsourced) website is still accessible.
Despite time’s relentless advance forward, some have discovered, or remembered, this little corner of Seattle, full of bones from those who walked before us. Multiple articles have been written about the cemetery, but none has fully solved its mysteries. Thankfully, in the early 2000s, the Comet Lodge Cemetery Project was funded for the 2000–2001 school year by Heritage 4Culture. This project was the result of a partnership between Cleveland High School students (under the direction of veteran teacher Faith Beatty) and the Washington State Cemetery Association (WSCA). This project has proved invaluable for keeping records and attempting to preserve history.
As part of this project, students interviewed those associated in some way with the cemetery. The Emerald is including portions of these interviews.
Feb. 12, 2002
Interviewers: Sophia Chan, Abdiaziz Farah, Felecia James, Andi MacDonald
Interviewee: Marilynn Clausen, member of the Comet Lodge Cemetery Association and descendent of Frank and Katherine Albrecht, great-grandparents, and Katherine Albrecht, great-aunt, who are buried at the cemetery.
Q: Do you visit their graves often?
A: Well, I’ve been up there a number of times. The graves, you probably are aware that where the graves were, the actual stones were moved, some have disappeared. There is one stone that is left up there that belongs to my great-aunt. And, I had been up there originally, before all this place. I saw where the stone was, so it was part of the family plot at that time. Then when Don Kipper came up, he moved all the stones, but my great-grandparents’ stone disappeared a number of years ago, so we don’t know where that is.
Jan. 25, 2002
Interviewers: Susie Vi, Frank Nguyen
Interviewee: Andi MacDonald, president of the Washington State Cemetery Association and consultant to King County for Comet Lodge Restoration Project since 1999.
Susie: Can you tell us about the first time you saw the cemetery and describe the situation it was in?
Andi: The first time I saw the cemetery was 1999. I went through the cemetery, walked through it with Dave Preugschat of the King County Property Services Division. He was the director at the time. And, we saw nothing but blackberry bushes covering the cemetery, vines going up the tree. There was one path through the cemetery and little dugouts in the brambles that homeless people were living in. There was a lot of garbage.
Susie: Tell us where the headstones were located.
Andi: Most of the headstones in 1999 had been bulldozed to the south end of the property. Some of them were still left about, I’d say about seven were still left standing where they originally were. The rest were either destroyed by the backhoe, raked to the south end of the property, which is on Graham Street, or they were buried under dirt.
Susie: Why did they backhoe the cemetery?
Andi: A man by the name of Don Kipper with the Elysian Fields Association, or something close to that, said that he owned the cemetery, when he didn’t own the cemetery, and he had been in there many times working at the cemetery, claiming ownership, and felt it was within his right as the cemetery authority (which is the legal description of someone who owns a cemetery), felt it was within his authority to do whatever he wanted with the cemetery, and he was trying to erase all recognition of the cemetery, make it look like it was just an empty piece of property, and he was going to build a house on it and then plant vegetable crops, he said, to feed the neighborhood.
Susie: So what happened to him?
Andi: Well, a lot of the neighbors became very upset over what he was doing, and when he brought the bulldozers in, they knew he was up to no good. Some of them started calling King County and complaining, and the City of Seattle. And it was found at that time, by King County, that they owned the cemetery. And, some people even called the state, the Washington State Cemetery Board, which is the legal state group that oversees cemeteries in Washington, called them, and they came out from Olympia and they brought sheriffs with them and they made him stop. They issued him a cease-and-desist order and said that if he did any more work, he would be arrested because he didn’t own the cemetery.
Susie: Was he ever arrested?
Andi: No, he wasn’t, he went away, he went away and nobody ever saw him again.
Susie: Why does the cemetery look the way it does?
Andi: When King County Property Services Division found out that they really were the people that were supposed to be overseeing the cemetery and the County owned it, they decided that, because of all the changeovers and people who worked in that position, it kind of got lost in the files and nobody ever saw it again. That was back in 1940, 1950. Then, when Dave Preugschat found out that King County really owned it and that he was kind of in charge of it, he said he didn’t know that, he was going to make amends, and he started working with people, coming up with money from the County, getting support, and he decided that they were going to make it look like a cemetery again. And he is the one that spearheaded it.
Susie: Who decided the money for the landscaping?
Andi: The County had some money put aside for landscaping and for renovating the cemetery, but it wasn’t really enough to even get started, and they started having neighborhood meetings called “charrettes,” meetings of the neighbors, and the neighbors all decided they wanted to do certain things They went through the whole process, still found out that they just didn’t have enough money to do anything, the County didn’t either, so somebody contacted Ron Sims, and y’all know who he is. He visited one of the neighborhood meetings, one of the charrettes, and said that he would support the renovation of the cemetery out of money that is set aside for special projects for the County, by giving $100,000 to the renovation. So with his money donated, then the County had enough that they could renovate the cemetery.
Feb. 5, 2002
Interviewers: Sophia Chan, Abdiaziz Farah, Jeannette Truong, Devario J. Reece
Interviewee: Dave Preugschat, manager of the King County Property Services Division; took an active role and was the lead in the restoration of Comet Lodge Cemetery.
Q: Were there any problems with the cemetery, the tombstones being tipped over, and you had to put them back, or … ?
A: The site itself has been a problem site since it became generally inactive in the late teens, so basically it’s been a problem site probably for 80, 80 years or so. After the County took ownership, the community itself was complaining about the site deteriorating and vegetation growing up. In fact, I even ran across a newspaper article from 1949 when the then county commissioners said that the site was in terrible shape and they were planning on doing something at that point in time. Of course, nothing happened for years and years. There’s always been controversy about who actually owned the site even though the county took it over, tax title. And, in the late 1980s, there was a group of people who decided they were gonna take, basically take the site over as owners of that site, and actually, there was a gentleman who came in and was going to put in a house on the site, and the original state that I saw where the stones were strewn all over, he actually brought in a bulldozer and moved stones around in the site, to clear out a place for the house. The County and the Sheriff’s Office booted that gentleman out. The site then lay dormant for about 10 years. The blackberry vines took it over, and then we got working with an individual who wanted to clean the site up. He created a lot of community controversy about how he wanted to do that. We then stepped in and started the cleanup ourselves. So, the site itself has a long history of being a “problem site.”
Q: After cleaning it up, did you find extra space in there or did you uncover more tombstones?
A: In the cleanup effort, I think we did identify a lot more tombstones on the site than we thought were originally there; they were all covered up with vines and everything. And the site itself was a problem because there are plenty of records from different sources about who originally were buried at the site. However, there are very poor records about who were moved from the site, so we have a list of like 450 names of people who bought plots and probably were buried at the site. We have absolutely no idea who was removed from the site, so with that in mind, there is no space available in the site for anything else. We do not know exactly where people are buried at the site, we just know they are. And, therefore we treat the entire site, basically, as a cemetery plot. Uh, it’s assumed that within the boundary of the cemetery there are people buried there wherever you are. Because we just don’t know where they are.
Q: Do you see any future in Comet Lodge Cemetery other than it still being a cemetery or do you think it can be something else?
A: I believe that the site is at it currently is how the site will be. There will be no additional burials. Like I said earlier, it’s just impossible to know where people may be there. It will not be an active cemetery but I expect it to be a place hopefully in perpetuity that people can visit as an old cemetery.
A list of names purported to be those who were once buried there is among the archives, with hundreds of names, ages, death dates, and locations if known. Photos of the documents are shown below, as are photos of another document that shows some names and causes of death. While the veracity of these names cannot be guaranteed by the Emerald, they are included for historical purposes.
According to Cameron Satterfield, the communications manager for King County Executive Services, currently, the Real Estate Services section of the county’s Facilities Management Division (FMD) “is responsible for periodic mowing and other landscape maintenance at the cemetery. As for documenting and maintaining the history, FMD does have some files in its possession.” If Denny Park can transform from a cemetery into a city park, perhaps a South End cemetery can be more than an overlooked lot. Maybe those who were here before deserve a more honorable way to exist in eternity than covered up by fill dirt and forgotten.
Lessons from history show that individual citizens’ attempts to manage the property haven’t gone well, and if the County has no plans to improve the lot, it likely won’t become more than simply parklike. Even if the County only lightly maintains the property, it will remain home to an array of birds, small mammals, insects, and all manner of life that help sustain a healthy environment. Perhaps letting it return to nature is fitting, as the dead are as much a part of life as the living.
“Let him be just and deal kindly with my people, for the dead are not powerless. Dead, did I say? There is no death, only a change of worlds.”—Chief Seattle
Alex Garland is a photojournalist and reporter. With a degree in emergency administration and disaster planning from the University of North Texas, Alex spent his early professional career as a GIS analyst for FEMA. Follow him on Twitter.
📸 Featured Image: A desire path winds through the Comet Lodge Cemetery. (Photo: Alex Garland)
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