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Sedro-Woolley High School
senior class memorial project
for Northern State Hospital cemetery
Part Two: memorial

By Noel V. Bourasaw, Skagit River Journal

(Aerial photo of NSH)
This is an aerial photo of the hospital campus, taken in 1949 for a Seattle Times special section.

      Those of us who attended Sedro-Woolley High School in the 1950s and '60s marvel sometimes at the vastly different history curriculum of the school in the 21st century. Back then we studied textbooks written several years before in a post World War II-Cold War framework and we spent only a few hours looking at our local history. We note this in introducing you to a marvelous project called the Northern State Hospital Cemetery Memorial, a senior class project.
      It is led by Karl Heuterman, who has encouraged students for many years to research history and get involved in local history projects. The senior class leaders are Ashleigh Baumgardner, who was honored recently with a Washington Scholars scholarship award, Brittany Bazinet and Michael Hennigs.
      As their pamphlet explains, The Senior Project at the school is a three-part process. It involves the writing of a research paper, the creation of some tangible product, and the presentation of this project to a community panel. The student must complete this process to the satisfaction of the committee and their mentor in order to graduate. Needless to say, this undertaking is one of the more significant projects that have come out of Sedro-Woolley High School.
      They answer the question of "why a memorial?" by noting that approximately 1,500 people are buried in the Northern State Cemetery while there is only one tombstone. Since the hospital closed in [1976], the blocks that identified the deceased patients by initials only have been removed. It is the goal of Ashleigh, Brittany and Michael to honor the memory of these people with a single memorial for all.
      They need our help in the community. They note that the building of the memorial will not be cheap. To appropriately honor the individuals interred there, cutting corners isn't a viable option. If you are not able to donate money for the memorial, the student leaders ask that you suggest a creative way that your group or church can organize a creative method to raise money.
      All donations are maintained in the Northern State Cemetery Fund at the Sedro-Woolley branch of Wells Fargo Bank. Some of the generous benefactors should be honored. They include: Skagit Surveyors and Engineers, Sims Honda, Ed and Debra Bazinet, John and Linda Parker, Karl and Cindy Heuterman, Pioneer Center North employees, Lemley Funeral Chapel, Del Nagro Masonry, Buzz Inn and Scott Hanson.
      I have some personal memories about this cemetery. My late father, Victor A. Bourasaw, worked at the greenhouse at Northern State from 1953-1973 and he supervised crews of patients who maintained the campus grounds of the hospital proper, Dr. Jones's mansion and the 1,200 acres surrounding the hospital. Whenever he could, he obtained permission to take crews out to trim the grass and clear brush around the cemetery. He worked with the Catholic Church to organize teams of volunteers with the help of the late Oscar LeCompte, whose personal mission was to provide hallowed ground for the forgotten patients whose remains were entombed there. I remember what a beautiful spot it was, north of what we now call Highway 20, and as I pushed old-fashioned lawnmowers in my teens and swung a scythe, I marveled at how nature was winning in its attempt to regain control. As the rumors of the closure spread in the early 1970s, Dad was very frustrated that he had to argue to get permission to tidy the cemetery area at all; the dead had been forgotten. Over the decades since, I have observed how community members such as Dave Evans, Cookson Beecher, Berniece Leaf and others have tried again and again to alert the town to the condition of the cemetery and to try their best to correct the neglect. This senior project is the most impressive attempt so far to rectify the situation.
      While directing the Portal program at the old campus, Dave Evans spent hundreds of hours coordinating programs to restore the cemetery. When the Journal first began publishing a series of articles about the hospital in 2001, Dave provided background on the attempts. He noted that Barb Schlagel, the former administrative assistant; Barb Thompson and Denver Bumgarner were among the people who had in-depth knowledge of the project. They also produced a video. Dick Fallis, the dean of our Skagit valley historians, has also spent a lot of time reviving memories of the cemetery and the hospital and produced a book about the hospital twenty years ago, which is sadly out of print but attempts are being made to republish it. Below, you will find Dave's memories of the cemetery history and attempts to restore it, and below that, you will find a list of features we have on this website about the hospital. We are also working on a story for publication later this year about what has happened at the campus since the closure and the plans to establish a recreational area there. If you want to help these students accomplish their goal, you can email Karl Heuterman at kheuterman@swsd.k12.wa.us

History of the NSH cemetery and post-hospital closing
By Dave Evans, Superintendent of the Portal program on the hospital campus, 2003
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      As described in the 1913 report, [state officials] decided soon after the establishment of NSH to build a morgue and crematorium. There were a lot of deaths in state hospitals then, as many patients were there for life. Their discharge was through the doors of the morgue. The crematorium was in use until about 1955, after which the hospital contracted with local crematoria and the facility at the hospital was dismantled.
      The cemetery site off Helmick road was probably chosen for its remoteness from the NSH campus. It was unsuitable for the purpose, as the ground is spongy with a high water table. The former morgue attendant, Burlon London, described to me burials in which the box containing the corpse would have to be weighted down to keep it from floating until the grave was closed. I use the term "box" advisedly — there were no proper caskets and London knocked together boxes out of rough lumber, for shallow burial.
      The cemetery seems to have been fairly well maintained until the World War II era. There were stones with the occupants' initials to mark the gravesites. During the 1950s and '60s, however, little upkeep was done and there were no burials after about 1957. For years, crews of loosely supervised patients were sent to mow the grass. They often pulled up the stone markers to make mowing easier and replaced them at random.
      By 1981, almost no markers remained and it was impossible to establish a point of reference in using the crude gravesite map which London had drawn years earlier. By researching all the available records, I estimated that about 1,500 persons were buried in the cemetery. We had the names of several hundred, all of whom had been buried intact. Any map which showed the grave sites of those who had been cremated had been lost at the time of the hospital closure. It has never been found, despite diligent searches by myself and others. In effect, we had a list of the burials of the deceased Catholic patients. At that time, the Catholic Church did not permit cremation and the hospital respected this prohibition.
      The partial map which we did have generally listed the year of burial and the deceased's initials. During my tenure at Portal, 1981-1994, I made an effort to track down such information as I could when there was a request from a relative. I had access to the old NSH patient charts and if a patient had died at the hospital there would often be a notation as to the disposition of the body. And, as information about the genetic component of major mental disorders became more widely known, families inquired more frequently about the diagnoses of deceased relatives.
      There was a list of 204 patients who had been cremated at NSH and there were also the ashes. When NSH was closed, there were 204 containers of cremated remains stored in the morgue. The morgue attendant had never gotten around to burying them, although would have entailed digging only one large grave. The containers were tin cans which had been obtained from the Hospital cannery, with the deceased's hospital number printed on each in grease pencil. The most recent date of death was 1953 and some of the remains had been stored for many years before that. In 1943, the cans were taken to Hawthorne cemetery in Mount Vernon for storage.
      In 1982, shortly after I had been appointed superintendent of Portal, the Hawthorne manager got tired of trapping over the cans in the cemetery garage and did what any thoughtful citizen would do — he wrote a letter to the newspaper. This created quite a stir and the story got on the national wire services. The Skagit Valley Herald published a spooky, backlit photo of the cemetery man peering over the containers.
      I spent a lot of time during the next couple of months trying to locate any next-of-kin of the deceased patients. The state employees in Olympia who were the custodians of the old patient records kindly went though each chart minutely and gave me names and last-known addresses of relatives. I wrote to them all, without much hope after so many years had gone by. We also tried to track names in phone books and put notices in many newspapers. In the end, I did hear from a handful of relatives and two sets of remains were claimed by family. I felt this made the effort worthwhile.
      The unclaimed ashes were buried at Hawthorne. The gravesite is by the road, immediately to the left as you go in the main entrance. Rev. David Close of St. James Episcopal Church in Sedro-Woolley conducted a committal service.
      In 1974, there had been a somewhat similar scandal involving remains of NSH patients. When the hospital was closed, anything which was judged to be of value to Western State Hospital was carted to Steilacoom. A great deal of other property was simply left in the abandoned buildings or dumped. Among the things dumped were the contents of the anatomical museum.
      In the first part of the 20th century, many state hospitals maintained small collections of body parts for use in demonstrating various forms of pathology to the staff. Not surprisingly, in view of the callous treatment which state administrators afforded the NSH patients and employees at the time of closure. The body parts were simply hauled to the Whatcom county dump. When someone at the dump later uncovered human remains, there was another publicity storm, but I missed that one.

Update 2006: Many people have written to us, seeking information about their relatives who died while patients at Northern State Hospital. Until now we had no answer for them. We are pleased to announce that Jon Schleiff, an employee at NSH before its closing, was assigned to locate the cemetery plots and he has continued this process for the last two decades. While researching, he found a damaged map of the original layout. He then checked the death census and matched the initials on the map. You may contact Mr. Schlieff directly at mzmriz1966@yahoo.com

      Viewing the NSH cemetery site in 1982, one would have to look very diligently to detect any sign that it had been used for burials. There was an old barbed-wire fence around it and the borders were choked with wild bushes and weeds. The grass had not been cared for and there was a small streambed running through it, obviously a course for water runoff. Only one or two of the little stone markers were still in place, with a couple more placed up against the fence. Cows had been allowed to graze there.
      I began a campaign to get some state funds to correct some of the problems. It was obvious that the individual gravesites could never be restored, but I wanted to do something about the drainage problem, install a proper fence, and perhaps re-seed the site with grass. My supervisors in Olympia were sympathetic, but no money was approved until much later. The Department of General Administration, which now owned the property, and the Department of Social and Health Services, whose predecessor agency had operated the hospital, each wanted the other to include the request in its capital budget.
      In the early 1980s, Dr. Charles Jones, who had been superintendent of NSH from 1950 to 1960 and who was now retired in this area, founded a group of people interested in NSH. Curiously, this non-profit organization was named the "Norlum Foundation," after the old Northern Pacific Railway rail address for what was then the Northern State Asylum. The foundation had the goals of supporting the current programs operating on the NSH site, encouraging additional tenants to utilize the property, and in particular, to raise funds for the restoration of the superintendent's mansion, unused since about 1967. Most of the Norlum members were not very interested in the issue of the cemetery; perhaps it was seen as a project, which would be competitive with the mansion project. Two local people who were interested, however, were Bob Cockburn [who has worked for years at Cascade Job Corps on the campus] and Cookson Beecher [then the editor of the Sedro-Woolley Courier-Times]. They lobbied for the cemetery restoration and did what they could to call attention to the problem.
      After some ten years of frustrated efforts, a modest amount of capital funds was approved, not long before the closing of the Portal program. Plans were drawn up for a fence to enclose the site and for a suitable memorial in the middle of the property. Several Norlum members met with the architect to provide suggestions on what form the latter should take. I retired not long after this and I have never been back to see what happened.

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Story posted on May 6, 2004, last updated Jan. 30, 2007, moved to this domain Nov. 12, 2011
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