SALEM, Ore. — A chevron of cragged concrete pokes through the grass and weeds near the northern border of Salem Pioneer Cemetery. One end is longer than the other and seems to disappear into the ground.
It is barely noticeable, even to those familiar with the landscape of the 16 ½-acre, highly visible cemetery not far from downtown.
The concrete is believed to be the last remnant of a Chinese shrine.
Officials from the city of Salem, which owns the 176-year-old cemetery, needed help pinpointing the shrine’s exact location.
Rick Hilts, the owner of neighboring City View Cemetery, led them straight to the spot.
“It was brilliant,” said Kimberli Fitzgerald, historic preservation officer for Salem. “We were really struggling, and he remembered playing in the area with his brother as a kid.”
The city — in collaboration with Willamette University, the Oregon State Historic Preservation Office, and the Friends of Pioneer Cemetery — has launched a public archaeology project to help uncover not just the shrine, but a slice of Salem’s past.
Using ground penetrating radar (GPR), a magnetometer and other innovative archaeological investigative tools, the project calls for using minimally invasive methods.
Fitzgerald recently invited me to observe some of the initial GPR scans of the site and to attend the kickoff meeting of the project advisory committee. Members of the committee include representatives from local heritage and Chinese cultural organizations.
“The whole process is intended to be inclusive and not secretive,” said Fitzgerald, the project manager. “I want it to be welcoming.”
The ultimate goal is to find an appropriate way to either reconstruct or memorialize the shrine. But first, there is work to do — and questions to be answered.
CHINATOWN IN SALEM
Draw a square with Ferry, Liberty, State and High streets NE as the edges, and you roughly have the boundaries of what was Salem’s Chinatown in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.
Most of the city’s Chinese residents lived and worked in that condensed area, which has been described in newspapers as being crowded with rented tenements that included laundries, markets, cookhouses, brothels and opium dens.
Historical records show the Chinese in Salem worked in construction, helping build railroads, levees, and roads. They also worked in hotels and kitchens, and in the fields. Their population is reported to have peaked at 367 in 1890.
One newspaper declared the end of Chinatown in 1903 when buildings in that block were being condemned, razed and reclaimed by the city. By 1920, the U.S. Bureau of Labor reported the population had dwindled to 72.
While living and working quarters were temporary for some Chinese residents, in many cases so were their resting places.
Pioneer Cemetery records show 52 Chinese burials — much of that information gathered during an Eagle Scout project — although some remains are known to have been disinterred.
Local newspapers reported on multiple occasions the disinterment of Chinese remains from what was previously called Rural cemetery and then the I.O.O.F, or Odd Fellows, cemetery.
Burials and disinterments routinely were described as having taken place on the northern edge. In 1893, the area was referred to as “a little forsaken spot overgrown with brambles.” The same report noted there were “a few mounds with simple headboards of wood and marble, bearing the cabalistic signs of the Mongolian language …”
PLOT NO. 645
No such grave markers exist today in that section, which was used predominantly for indigents and people who couldn’t afford a proper burial.
A few simple, flat headstones can be found in the vicinity but not in plot No. 645, where the remnant of the shrine is located.
Each of the 960 plots at Pioneer Cemetery measures 16 feet by 24 feet, sometimes 16 by 26, and has space for two rows of eight burials. There are an estimated 8,000 burials overall.
Plot No. 645, according to records provided by Friends of Pioneer co-founder Elisabeth Potter, was purchased by the county for indigent burials and contains 13 burials from the 1930s. Those burials were recorded through surveys done decades ago by Daughters of the American Revolution and other volunteers.
“It’s not completely infallible,” Potter told the advisory group. “There are oddities from time to time.”
HANDLE WITH CARE
Fitzgerald, her collaborators, and the advisory group are proceeding cautiously as they investigate the shrine.
“Our goal is to be as noninvasive and nonobstructive as possible but uncover what remains of the shrine,” Fitzgerald said. “We certainly don’t want to disturb any burials.”
The advisory committee was formed not just to involve the community but to make sure the project is done respectfully. It plans to meet every other month, with the next meeting scheduled for Nov. 29.
By that time, they are sure to have a much-anticipated report from Dr. Scott Pike and his upper-level archaeology class at Willamette.
A group of 20 students was deployed to Pioneer Cemetery the past couple of weeks to do a detailed grid survey of the area using ground-penetrating radar.
With guidance from Pike, an associate professor who oversees Willamette’s summer field school program at a dig site in Scotland, the students collected data in four sections using a 400-megahertz machine that looks like an orange lawnmower with a computer screen perched on the push bar.
The GPR unit, which Pike purchased with a grant several years ago, emits, receives and measures signals up to several feet deep. In this case, the focus will be on anomalies around 6 feet deep, which might include coffins.
His students will analyze the data, although Pike glanced at results from the first set of data ahead of time. Naturally, I asked if there are any possible burials in the area.
“There are a few I can identify,” he told me. “This will be fun to process.”
AN UNTOLD STORY
Fitzgerald is managing the project on behalf of the city, which took over ownership of the cemetery in 1986. The parks agency tends the grounds.
She became interested in this subject after reading the National Register of Historic Places nominations for both downtown and Pioneer Cemetery.
“It was clear that the story of Salem’s Chinese-American community has yet to be fully researched and told,” said Fitzgerald, who is working on a master’s degree in public archaeology at Portland State University.
The Oregon State Historic Preservation Office will provide support on the project. One of its archaeologists, Jamie French, has submitted an archaeological excavation permit to the state.
The permit, once issued, will allow one year to excavate and an additional year to report findings. French is particularly interested in the project because of her background. She did her Master’s on the findings at a Chinese dig site on private property in The Dalles.
Evidence of the shrine at Pioneer Cemetery has been found in newspaper archives, including photographs published in the spring of 1953 and again in the spring of 1963.
In April 1953, crews discovered the shrine while removing debris to make way for construction of a fence along the north side of what was then called Odd Fellows cemetery. The remnant is roughly 8 feet from the fence that separates the edge of the cemetery from the fence and backyards of residential homes.
The Daily Capital Journal described it as a pagan altar with inscriptions on a marble plaque inserted in the concrete form. A number of funeral relics were reportedly found at that time and “promptly disposed of with finality.”
In March 1963, the shrine once again was uncovered while cleanup crews tangled brush at what was then called Pioneer Cemetery.
The Oregon Statesman reported at that time that the shrine could possibly be linked to a flu epidemic in 1916. The accompanying photo showed more detail, including what appears to be a dark-colored hole in front of the marble inset.
Although no clues were given as to what that aspect of the shrine was, some traditional Chinese funerary rituals are known to have included “burners” built near burial sites. Documents and objects would be burned for the deceased to access in the afterlife.
A 1968 article mentioned the inscription being translated into something like “the tomb of an unknown friend.”
The group hopes to begin excavating in the area immediately around the shrine as early as November, presuming the permit is granted and barring the presence of remains that would preclude it from happening.
Fitzgerald reminds anyone who visits the cemetery to be respectful of its contents and the investigation site.
Please do not disturb or remove the orange flags that mark the grid search area, or the orange tape wrapped around one of the small trees nearby. The tree is the datum, which is the fixed point of reference for all measurements.
The advisory committee also requests your help in answering any of these questions:
When was the shrine built?
What exactly was the shrine used for?
What was on the marble engraving?
What happened to the shrine after 1963?
What would be an appropriate way to memorialize the shrine?
Information from: Statesman Journal, http://www.statesmanjournal.com