The story behind the Lone Fir cemetery


(Photo by Leah Nash) Grace Heckenberg stands in Lone Fir Cemetery. Nearby, more than 100 residents of Oregon’s landmark Hawthorne Asylum lie buried in unmarked graves.

“That portion of the cemetery set apart for the burial of Chinamen is the southwestern part and in that corner a great many celestials “sleep the sleep which knows no waking.” Near that part of the grounds the patients who died at the asylum were for many years buried. Rows upon rows of graves are to be found in close proximity, close to the south side, a short distance east of where the dead celestials are buried. Most of those graves are marked with the names of the departed, but there is a sense of stranger-like and friendless exclusion about these mounds and it strikes one as being an act of charity to place them so close together. Even in death the suggestion of association and companionship affords a gleam of consolation.”

— The Oregonian, 1887

(From the Nov. 14, edition)

Mental-health advocates memorialize asylum residents buried and forgotten in Lone Fir Cemetery (By Mara Grunbaum, Contributing Writer)

Charity Lamb, Oregon’s first ax murderess, was buried at Lone Fir Cemetery in 1879. Around 1930, her grave was layered over with asphalt. In 1955, a building was erected atop the pavement, and Charity Lamb – along with more than 100 other patients of the long-since demolished Oregon Insane Hospital – was nearly forgotten.

Researchers believe that up to 132 people who died in Portland’s first private mental hospital are buried at Lone Fir Cemetery’s southwest corner, where a Multnomah County office building stood until 2005. After persistent agitation by mental-health advocates, Metro regional government, which now controls the property, is planning an onsite memorial for the asylum patients – and trying to include people who have experienced mental illness in the design process.

Grace Heckenberg has worked for years to cast light on the patients of Dr. James Hawthorne, the pioneer psychiatrist who built the Oregon Insane Hospital in what was then the city of East Portland.

In 1969, when Heckenberg was 17, she spent a year as a psychiatric patient at the Oregon State Hospital in Salem. Now 56, Heckenberg visits Lone Fir often. She says she feels solidarity with those who lived in the Portland asylum.

Years ago, Heckenberg and others began to comb through historical documents and realized there could be patients buried under the cemetery parking lot. She asked the county about an official commemoration, but at the time, she says, no one was interested.

“At a certain point I just became extremely discouraged and decided that they were never going to be recognized,” Heckenberg said. “Maybe the memorial’s just in my own heart. I know they’re down there.”


Lone Fir, in Southeast Portland’s Buckman neighborhood, was a private burial site for pioneer families that became an official cemetery in 1855. Historical maps show that in the late 1800s, the corner property, or “Block 14,” was designated for the burial of Chinese immigrant railroad workers, who were not allowed elsewhere in the cemetery. Many of their bodies were disinterred and returned to China before Multnomah County began to build on the land in the 1930s.


Census records from 1870 show dozens of residents of the Hawthorne Asylum, listed as either “insane” or “idiotic.” The residents came from all over the world, including Scotland, Germany and Peru.

But in 2004, as the county prepared to sell the property to housing developers, ground-penetrating sonar revealed anomalies in the earth below the building. An excavation turned up shards of Chinese pottery, two coffins and human remains. The county scrapped its real estate plans, demolished the office building and turned the site over to Metro, which began working with Portland’s Chinese community to plan a memorial for the buried laborers.

Though no archaeological relics identify the asylum patients, other evidence places them beneath the access road on the edge of the Chinese sector.

Between 1864 and 1879, the Oregon Insane Hospital contracted with Lone Fir for burial of asylum residents. Hospital records list the names of deceased patients transported to the cemetery, but most of them are nowhere to be found among Lone Fir’s tombstones. An 1887 article in The Oregonian describes dense rows of asylum burials just to the east of the Chinese section, where the parking lot is now.

“The people who had money were buried in other places,” said cemetery historian Stanley Clarke. Those who were too poor to make other arrangements landed in Block 14, where the state paid a standard $5 grave-digging fee to have them buried en masse.

Wooden markers may have identified the graves, but those likely rotted or burned over time. “My feeling is that they were very simple burials – might not have even had so much as a pine box,” Clarke said. “Evidence would just disintegrate. Ashes to ashes, dust to dust.”


Jason Renaud, an advocate with the Mental Health Association of Portland, had all but given up on a memorial for Hawthorne’s patients when Metro contacted him last summer to ask for help designing an asylum remembrance. Most of the gravel pit on Block 14 was dedicated to the Chinese memorial, he was told, but the easternmost end was reserved for Hawthorne’s patients.

Renaud stressed the importance of design input from “people who would likely have been Dr. Hawthorne’s patients,” he said. In October, Metro held meetings at Cascadia Behavioral Healthcare, LifeWorks treatment center in Gresham, and Central City Concern in Old Town.

Janet Bebb, the Metro staffer in charge of the memorial, attended the meetings and tabulated results of an online survey. A third of respondents identified themselves as people with mental illness. One theme of the feedback, Bebb said, was that any display should honor the lives of individual patients in addition to telling Dr. Hawthorne’s story.

Other interpretive decisions are less straightforward. There are those who see Hawthorne’s asylum as a dark place — some patients were shackled, and a bell rang to warn neighbors when someone escaped. Contemporary reports gave the hospital positive marks, but “there are some people that say maybe that’s eyewash,” Bebb explained.

Heckenberg, on the other hand, thinks fondly of the asylum. She considers Dr.

Hawthorne’s philosophy of “moral care,” which prioritized social interaction and outdoor exercise, a more holistic alternative to today’s medicinal psychiatry.

“People think it’s just onwards and upwards, (or that) everything in the past was just the bad old days and now we’re enlightened,” Heckenberg said. “I don’t think that’s true. People need to see that there are other models that have been used, that we’ve let slip away.”

A preliminary design for the memorial, drafted by Jane Hansen of Lango Hansen Landscape Architects, will evolve as the discussion continues.

“There’s a lot of push-pulls on this topic, and we’re trying to listen to people and find the right balance,” Bebb said. “Many people feel some element of both of those truths needs to be there.”

So far, Metro has put $80,000 toward the joint memorial project, which Bebb says will take about $1 million to complete.

In 2005, City Commissioner Randy Leonard secured $150,000 of city money to help with memorial planning and cemetery-wide improvements. A former firefighter, Leonard first took interest in a section of Lone Fir where 19th-century firemen were buried. When he heard about the paved-over Chinese graves, he committed to fundraising, and he later learned of the asylum patients as well.

In the next budget cycle, Leonard hopes to dredge up $250,000 more for construction. Though it will be “pretty rough” to find the cash in a withered budget, he said, “This is one of those investments in the city that will exist probably for hundreds of years to come. I think it’s important for us to come up with the money to help them.”

Many see more than an incidental connection between the two groups of people buried in Block 14.

“It’s discrimination,” Bebb said. “This was the place where people who were not allowed to be buried anywhere else were buried. Their stories are very different, but they were both kind of shunned.”


Even though the cemetery lot was empty when she visited on Nov. 9, Heckenberg parallel parked on the street instead of driving over the hidden graves.


(Photo by Leah Nash) Grace Heckenberg stands behind the fence in the area of Lone Fir where Hawthorne Asylum residents are buried without recognition.

She often walks the grounds with her friend Kevin Fittz, 43, whose own psychotic breakdowns and “hellish” hospital stays as a young man led him to work for psychiatric patients’ rights. In the 1990s he sat on a federal mental health advisory panel, and at one time, he says, he knew “more mentally ill people in the state of Oregon than anyone else.”

Lone Fir has distinctly personal significance for Fittz. “I’ve spent an awful lot of time in Lone Fir in the middle of storms or emotionally trying days,” he told the group at an Oct. 28 memorial meeting. He said he hopes to see “something to identify each human being, each soul, who was buried there.”

Fittz worries that Metro’s interest in the opinions of people with mental illness is superficial at best. In his 20 years of advocacy, he says, significant patient involvement in bureaucracy has been sparse.

Renaud is more optimistic about the ground-up approach to designing the memorial. Mental health patients “have been included in some mental health policy discussions in the past, but reluctantly and out of tokenism,” Renaud said. “Unless Kevin (Fittz) or I pounded on the door, that door remained closed… This is the first time people with mental illness have been incorporated into a public policy discussion in Portland because of their strengths — an interest in the welfare of persons with mental illness and an ongoing interest in telling their own history.”

Like everyone else, Renaud feels a connection to the departed asylum residents. “You start thinking about all the memories of people who are there, and they start talking to you,” he said. “It’s a spooky experience, but not an unpleasant one. The dead want to be remembered.”

5 responses to “The story behind the Lone Fir cemetery

  1. Pingback: The forgotten at Lone Fir Cemetery « brethren priestess online

  2. Pingback: Mental Health Association of Portland » Blog Archive » The Story Behind the Lone Fir Cemetery

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  5. Julie Handsaker

    Something must be done. Something with dignity that will honor those lives that were laid to rest in Lone Fir. Let us not forget, that on the day they were born, they were someone’s little baby, a baby held in someones arms with love.

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