Amid the overcast skies and persistent drizzle of Saturday morning, a group of volunteers gathered at Lawson Creek Cemetery to clear moss and mud from tombstones long obscured by overgrowth.
“Recently, Lawson Creek is transforming into a really beautiful place. It hasn’t been cared for for decades. It seemed like the right thing to do to clean it up,” said Bob Sam, who’s spent decades restoring cemeteries, first in Sitka, and now in Juneau. “We have a wonderful group of community volunteers helping out.”
The Lawson Creek Cemetery’s first residents were interred there more than 100 years ago, said Jamiann Hasselquist, who’s deeply involved in restoration efforts.
“1899 was when the Asian and the Native cemetery was created,” Hasselquist said. “1901 was when the Russian Orthodox came into place.”
Divided into sections, some areas have had some maintenance done, but many sections of the cemetery, particularly the areas reserved for the Alaska Native and Asian dead, have been neglected and are overgrown.
“I understand why the Asian section and Native section was completely ignored, because of the institutional racism. But what about the stuff across the street? Why is it so overgrown,” Hasselquist said. “Historically, in Douglas, things have been built on top of. Look at the school, for example.”
Sayéik Gastineau Community School was built on top of a Tlingit burial ground, which was paved over for the school and to build the same highway which borders the Lawson Creek Cemetery, possibly covering more graves.
For Hasselquist, helping to restore the cemetery helps her to clear her being of negative thoughts, she said.
“This is our history in Juneau. It’s just being covered up by salmonberry bushes and no ones taking care of it. It feels good to be doing the work and uncovering it. You can just feel that there’s good things that are happening,” Hasselquist said. “It’s because I’m out here doing this work. And I’m doing good things for my people and for the whole community.”
Sam echoed the sentiment. Involved in cemetery cleanups for years, he said the hard work helps him to sleep well at night.
“It’s very important to upkeep cemeteries no matter who owns it. The better you take care of a place, the more it shows you respect it,” Sam said. “Currently, they’re neglected. Every night they’re invaded by people who party or leave trash. But if you clean it out, even they respect it. Juneau’s cemeteries, as of today, are very beautiful.”
The stones cover a lot of Juneau’s early history after Westerns established themselves as a major presence in the area. The dead come from as far away as Finland and Japan.
“There’s so much history in these stones,” Hasselquist said. “To really think about the whole map of the world, to think of gold rush days or Treadwell.”
Eyes to the future
Hasselquist said there’s an ongoing plan to clear the underbrush and to scrub the headstones clean.
“By August, we might be done lopping off salmonberry bushes and having all the raking done and getting some of those stones restored, making it brighter and beautiful,” Hasselquist said. “It’s kind of in steps. We cleared out one side to remove the brush.”
Further cleaning and raking of the underbrush is continually turning up more headstones, Hasselquist said. “Behind that house and to the left of that house, that whole area is just filled. Some of those graves looked like they had two people, and we don’t know why. The project has extended its timeline with our new find. We’re not sure at this point.”
Hasselquist said the volunteers are looking to find ways to celebrate those buried there, as well as to document the history, even reaching out to researchers in Japan to learn more about the man buried in Juneau’s cemetery.
“Having community members come up and help on Saturday is a good learning opportunity. Oftentimes, it’s a once in a lifetime experience,” Sam said. “Sometimes, these people find even their own relatives. It touches deeply on these people to do this work and they never forget it.”
Volunteers work on the cemetery as they can, Hasselquist said, each for their own reasons.
“You’ll find some of us during the lunch hour,” Hasselquist said. “You’ll find some of us after work on the weekdays.”
Lawson Creek is just one such neglected cemetery in Juneau, Hasselquist said. Volunteers had also done substantial work on Evergreen Cemetery, with assistance from the owner of The Gym, and were looking at restoring other cemeteries in the area.
“There’s other places for us to go. There’s another Native burial ground off of Thane Road,” Hasselquist said. “This project is never going to end. This is one location that’s going to receive the attention it deserves.”
Those interested in volunteering should check out the group’s Facebook page, Restoring Lawson Creek Cemeteries at https://www.facebook.com/restoringlawsoncreek/. Hasselquist also said the group is looking for tools or equipment to borrow to help with some of the more complicated tasks, such as a wood chipper.
• Contact reporter Michael S. Lockett at (757) 621-1197 or firstname.lastname@example.org.