Ben Patterson had to pull the devil’s club and alder to the side to get a good look at the gravestone.
Patterson, the landscape maintenance supervisor for the City and Borough of Juneau’s Parks and Recreation department, looked down at the grave marker. It marked the burial place of Sarah Archer, who died Oct. 25, 1904.
“That had to be an expensive stone,” Patterson said. “Look at that. Rose-colored granite.”
The gravestone rests in the middle of what is referred to as the City Cemetery in Douglas, one that has become incredibly overgrown. Plants and small trees rise well above six feet tall, dwarfing Patterson as he battled through the brush to show various gravestones.
Patterson is getting good at finding the stones among the shrubs. He’s led a few tours of the cemeteries on Douglas this year because they’ve been a recurring topic at city meetings.
Earlier this spring, former mayor Merrill Sanford approached the Assembly with a request for the city to take over maintenance of seven cemeteries on Douglas. Like in Evergreen, which the city runs, there are a variety of different cemeteries on Douglas: Catholic, Oddfellows, Masons, Eagles and more.
A memo from Parks and Recreation Director George Schaaf stated that Sanford is currently the trustee of the Eagles Cemetery and wants to donate the 5,230-square-foot property to the city so the department can take better care of it. The Corporation of Catholic Bishops of Juneau owns four cemeteries — properties known as the Asian, Native, Catholic and Russian Orthodox cemeteries — totaling nearly 50,000 square feet.
Both Sanford and the Corporation of Catholic Bishops of Juneau have said they would be willing to give the city their cemeteries at no cost. The remaining three cemeteries on Douglas, though, have hazier ownership situations. Sanford told the Assembly that a great deal of the early paperwork regarding the cemeteries was lost in a 1937 fire, and the ownership of these cemeteries is in question.
The registered owner of the Masons Cemetery, according to Schaaf’s memo, is the Ross Estate. Patterson said it’s unclear who exactly the Ross family is, but the cemetery has not been regularly maintained in quite some time.
The other two cemeteries, the Servian Cemetery and the City Cemetery, have no registered owners. Patterson said the Servian Cemetery is just a plot or two that rests on someone’s property.
The City Cemetery, on the other hand, is a sprawling, jungle-like patch of about 35,000 square feet. According to a 1995 CBJ study, the City Cemetery was founded in 1899 and there were about 275 burials there. Only 52 markers have been located, according to the study, but there are numerous depressions in the ground and the study said that if the area were maintained there could be more markers found.
Mary Kay Pusich, a Douglas resident and member of the Douglas Advisory Committee, spoke at an Aug. 7 Parks and Recreation Advisory Committee (PRAC) meeting about the historic importance of the cemeteries. She said she’s talked with people who want to know where their ancestors are buried, but who can’t find them because the cemeteries are in what she called “terrible disarray.”
“These cemeteries need to be mowed,” Pusich said. “We need to find these people buried there that created the community that island now exists for.”
City officials are open to the idea of taking this responsibility on, appreciating the cultural significance of the cemeteries. Both Schaaf and Patterson said the department doesn’t currently have the staff to take care of the cemeteries, especially with such a daunting task ahead of them to clear the land off.
The estimated up-front cost to clear the cemeteries is $10,000, according to Schaaf’s memo. In addition to that, Schaaf requested that the city fund an additional staff member for the department to help ease the workload. Schaaf said in the PRAC meeting that this employee would be seasonal, working from about April to September. Funding this position, Schaaf estimated, would cost just shy of $26,000 per year.
Though it’s just one position, Patterson said, it “would make all the difference” to have someone dedicated to mowing, weeding and trimming those properties regularly. He said there are 33 properties throughout town, such as harbors and parks, that the department regularly mows. Adding the task of maintaining the cemeteries without adding staffing, he said, would overextend the employees.
Mayor Ken Koelsch expressed concern about taking over properties when the ownership of them is unknown. He said he doesn’t want to start clearing off the property and then have someone come forward with paperwork that shows that the land belongs to them.
Koelsch said he wanted to make sure that the Assembly members got the word out that they were looking into taking over the cemeteries. The Assembly members are still in the early stages of looking at this issue, and it has not been officially set for public hearing yet.
Patterson said that as Evergreen Cemetery has gotten more and more accessible over the years, people have come from around the world to visit the graves of ancestors. He hopes that improving the Douglas cemeteries will allow people to do the same.
He mentioned two Norwegian men recently who stopped by an ancestor’s grave and pledged to mail Patterson a Norwegian flag to place on the grave.
“It never ceases to amaze me,” Patterson said.
• Contact reporter Alex McCarthy at 523-2271 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter at @akmccarthy.