Seattle Cemetery

  • By Laura Angotti
  • Posted 3/16/1999
  • Essay 969
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The Seattle Cemetery, located at the present (1999) site of Denny Park north of downtown, was Seattle's first official municipal cemetery. The first burials in 1861(?) were bodies removed from other informal cemetery sites to make room for buildings. The Seattle Cemetery served the municipality from about 1861 until 1884. In 1884, some 223 burials were removed to other cemeteries, a process which produced some curious results.

The Seattle pioneer David Denny (1832-1903) donated the land, about five acres from his claim, originally intending it for use as the first Seattle city park. Today the land remains Denny Park, named for the man who donated it. Denny Park was lowered about 60 feet during the Denny regrade around 1930.

The Seattle Cemetery was founded to consolidate burials from smaller, informal cemeteries in the city (thus freeing building space), and to serve the growing population. Because of the need, David Denny allowed the land he had intended for a park to be used as a cemetery instead. Burials were probably begun here in 1861 -- but perhaps as late as 1864 -- with removals from the other cemeteries. The use of the land as a cemetery predated its donation to the city: The land remained in the name of David & his wife Louisa Boren Denny (1827-1916) until mid-1865.

The Seattle Cemetery was situated on Depot Street, now (1999) Denny Way, and could be reached only on a wagon trail that stretched out past the northern limits of the town.

An Infant and a Patriarch

In her book Pig-Tail Days in Old Seattle, Sophie Frye Bass describes a funeral she saw at the cemetery:

"I dimly remember a funeral at the little cemetery - a darling baby had died. I remember the sweet, tiny face and the filmy handkerchief placed over it, and I remember the sound of the screws as they were bored into the lid, and the little coffin borne on the shoulders of kind-hearted neighbors - and I remember I was told that the baby had gone to heaven, but when I saw the tears and heard the sobbing I thought if heaven were so beautiful why then was every one crying?"

In 1875, John Denny (1793-1875), the patriarch of the Seattle Dennys (father of Arthur and David) and the motivation behind the move from Illinois, died. He was buried in The Seattle Cemetery.

In February 1884, a proposition was brought before the city council to abandon the Seattle Cemetery and remove the bodies buried there to other locations. The motivation behind this move is not entirely clear. In July, Ordinance Number 571, "For the purpose of Converting Seattle Cemetery Into a Public Park" was passed. The land in question was condemned as a cemetery and dedicated as the Seattle Park.

The boundaries of the park were not identical to those of the cemetery. The city had returned the land to Louisa and David Denny, and they had re-donated it to the city with slightly different boundaries. This second deed is dated March 28, 1884. In this way the first park in Seattle was created, and only 20 years late.

A Little Problem

A problem still remained. There were 223 graves in the Seattle Cemetery, all of which had to be removed to other locations, an unpleasant and difficult job. The remainder of ordinance 571 provided for the creation of the Seattle Cemetery Commission, which would supervise the conversion of Seattle Cemetery to a park. These men had the difficult job of finding all the lot owners and arranging with them both the removals and reimbursement for the lots. The owners would have to deed their lots back to the city, or if no owner could be found there were provisions for the lots to be condemned and attached by the city. In addition, lot owners in the Seattle Cemetery were to be compensated by having lots purchased for them in the cemetery of their choice. The acts of the Commission would be approved through monthly reports to the City Council. In return for their services, the commissioners would be paid $2.50 a day.

The problem was, very few of the deeds given for lots in the cemetery were ever recorded and no other record was kept. In many cases, the only indication that anyone owned a lot was the fact that they had buried family members in it, or they knew they owned it. There were cases in which no representative of the lot owner could be found. J.B. Metcalfe, the clerk of the Commission, prepared his own record, recording each lot owner and to where the removal was made. In the end, the cemetery was deeded to the city of Seattle through 17 quit-claim deeds, each in the consideration of one dollar.

The Seattle Cemetery Commission was not a party in the contract for the removals from the cemetery, but they were directly responsible for overseeing these removals. In July 1884, a contract was drawn up between the city and O. C. Shorey "to perform the entire work of exhuming and re-interment of all bodies buried in Seattle Cemetery, and the removal and replacing of all monuments, stone work and fencing to such other cemeteries as should be selected by the owners of the lots in said cemetery." In addition, Shorey was to make new cedar boxes for each of the bodies he removed. The contract was entered into for the amount of $3000. The Seattle Cemetery Commission at first opposed this contract, saying it superseded their job, but later came to applaud Shorey's work.

O. C. Shorey began to work on the removals at the beginning of August, and after about three weeks on the job managed to finish about half of the necessary work. Because of the problems with unidentified graves and unknown property owners he was worried that he would not be able to find and remove all of the burials. This problem was exacerbated by the fact that a fire had burned over the cemetery a few years earlier, during which many of the wooden markers (which were still commonly used) had been destroyed. Many graves were unmarked.

Madame Damnable Not Gone and Not Forgotten

Journalist reports of the removals include several intersting occurences. When it came time to remove the coffin of Mary Conklin (ca. 1802-1873), former manager of a local bordello, who was known as Madame Damnable for her colorful language, it took about a half a dozen men to raise the coffin. When the lid was removed, it was found that her body had somehow "turned to stone" with all features intact.

For the most part, the burials were removed to the Masonic Cemetery which, with the disestablishment of the Seattle Cemetery, became the largest operating cemetery in Seattle. Other burials were removed to the new Catholic burial ground, though they were delayed slightly so the grounds could be properly prepared. The new municipal cemetery, Washelli also received a number of the removals, and a few went to other grounds such as Oak Lake and Mount Pleasant.

When he was doing the removals, Mr. Shorey told the newspaper he "shall not interfere with the Chinese graves, as the Chinamen desire to take up the bones of their dead and Ship them to the Flowery Kingdom." Nevertheless, the 29 Chinese burials at Seattle Cemetery ended up at the Masonic Cemetery, so it must be assumed that plans to ship them back to their native land did not work out. Records indicate that the Chong Wa Benevolent Association removed the bodies to the Masonic Cemetery.

Graveyard Shift

Given the conditions under which Shorey was striving to make the removals, it would not be surprising if he had missed a few burials, and so he did. During the final regrading of Denny Hill, in which the land on which the Seattle Cemetery had stood was lowered about 60 feet, several bodies were purportedly found, probably Indian graves, as the regraders washed away the hill.

Because it would have disturbed people and possibly caused a scandal, it is said that these bodies were removed to some unspecified place during the middle of the night, when supposedly no one would notice. Local legend has it that this incident is the origin of the term "graveyard shift" for work done during the middle of the night.

Downward Mobility

In the report made by the Cemetery Commission in November 1884, it is noted that all the removals have been completed with no complaints, and that on the average, the bodies were moved a little more than three miles. The money for the removals was in the process of being raised by a tax levied for that purpose.

When the Seattle Cemetery was removed, the land was renamed Seattle Park and basically left alone for its first decade. During the 1890s, it was renamed Denny Park and began to be developed.

The first regrading of Denny Hill began in 1908. It was an immense task and it was not until 1910 that the shovels threatened Denny Park. Pioneers fought to keep the park from being destroyed: For many years Denny Park stood far above the surrounding regrade. But in 1930, with the final regrade, it was decided that the park must also be leveled. The shovels went to work.


Gordon Newell, Westward To Alki (Seattle: Superior Publishing Co. ), 95; Seattle Post-Intelligencer, February 12, 1884; Ibid., August 7 and 22, 1884; Reports of the Seattle Cemetery Commission, 1884. History of Denny Park (Seattle: Seattle Parks Department ); Sophie Frye Bass, Pig-Tail Days in Old Seattle (Portland, Or: Metropolitan Press Publishers, 1937).
Note: This essay was corrected on July 10, 2014, and on September 25, 2017.

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