Thursday, May 6, 2010

Salem Pioneer Cemetery, Salem, Oregon

The Salem Pioneer Cemetery in Salem, Oregon is the final resting place of many of Salem’s early and prominent citizens. Many of the names one finds on the headstones here are also the names of town streets, parks and schools. One of the missionaries to arrive in Salem in the 1830’s was David Leslie. When the mission to the Kalapuya tribes ended David Leslie stayed in Salem to settle the 640 acres, in what is now South Salem, which he acquired through the Donation Land Act of 1850. As was customary, an acre or so was set aside to bury family members. At the center of this cemetery is the Leslie family plot that began with the burial of one young daughter in 1853 and another in 1854. Sometime in the late 1850’s the Independent Order of Odd Fellows purchased surrounding acreage for community burials and the cemetery grew to over 16 acres. Today the city parks department is the legal steward of the cemetery and it is maintained by the volunteer organization Friends of Salem Pioneer Cemetery. In 1974 the cemetery was brutally vandalized and many headstones were crumbled. Some still lay on the ground today as a result. The cemetery is thought by some to be haunted by several entities, one being a woman who, towards the end of the 19th century, poisoned all four of her children and then drowned herself in a nearby creek. They are all buried in unmarked graves in the northwest corner of the cemetery.

As with most American cemeteries established prior to the 20th century, this one has many old stately trees such as oaks, madrones and Douglas Firs. Over the centuries these trees have witnessed the changes time measures. Where once the dead were brought to the hill on a dirt road by horse and cart, the trees now observe processions of cars that pass by them along the paved street and stop farther up the hill at the new city cemetery. In the new cemetery there is little to no shade, or mystery to match, and the headstones cast no shadows because they are all set flat in the ground. The trees of old cemeteries remind us that life goes on after death. They stand guard, spreading their branches protectively over family plots and the rows of the smaller forgotten stones whose names are no longer legible. One gets the sense that the trees in the Salem Pioneer Cemetery understand their duty as sentinels.

    At the east end of the cemetery is the gravesite of Eugenia Thayer who died in 1918 at the age of 21, one of the early victims of the Spanish Influenza pandemic. At the time of her death she was a junior at the University of California, Berkley and had only been ill three days.

She was the granddaughter of one of Salem’s most prominent and wealthy citizens, Asahel Bush II, who published the town newspaper and later opened a bank. Her body was brought back to Salem, likely in the Bush family’s own private train car, to be buried near other family members. Wealth, prestige and beauty could not buy Eugenia Thayer a long life. Just to the north of her stone is the Bush family plot and the tall elegant headstones that mark the graves of Asahel II and his wife, who was also named Eugenia. They look almost like thrones; fitting, since this plot seems to hold court among all the others.

 The Salem Pioneer Cemetery is redolent with stories like Eugenia’s. The trees there know this because they saw it all.

Photo of Eugenia Thayer from the Bush House Museum, Salem Art Association, photo I.D. #bh0423.