Haunting Heritage: Tragic Stories from Southern Oregon Graves
A walk through one of southern Oregon’s historic pioneer cemeteries is like touring an outdoor museum. Before electricity, airplanes or internet there were trading posts, steam boats and covered wagons enabling early settlers to trek westward where some lived, died and were buried under Oregon soil.
The Linkville Pioneer Cemetery on Upton Street in Klamath Falls is a beautifully maintained plot of land rich with local history engraved in its near 6000 markers. Epitaphs mark the deaths of feuding cattlemen, betrayed women, and sheep land dispute victims. But some individuals’ final moments stand out on the brochure given to visitors who stroll through the cemetery’s serene, rolling hills.
It was May 5, 1945, when Reverend Archie Mitchell and his pregnant wife took five Sunday school children out for a day of fishing and picnicking on a river near Bly. Unbeknownst to them, a Japanese balloon bomb drifted in and the large, hydrogen-filled paper balloon exploded, killing all but the reverend. They were the only civilian casualties of war killed on the U.S. mainland and a marker honors three of the children’s deaths.
Labor Day weekend 1920 marks the date of Klamath Falls’ deadliest and most devastating fire. As holiday visitors converged on the town the Houston Hotel filled to capacity, and while guests slept a trash receptacle with oily rags combusted, quickly igniting everything nearby. Flames whipped through the structure engulfing it within minutes. The fire rapidly spread to nearby buildings incinerating the Houston Opera House, and several other businesses and residences before the overwhelmed firemen could contain it. Bodies in the hotel ashes, scorched beyond recognition, tallied to at least 14 identified as human and were buried in unmarked graves, but a special marker was placed in their honor in 2012.
In recent years, Jacksonville has traded in its popularity as a gold rush days during the mid 1800’s, for tourism and tickets to the internationally renowned Britt Festival performances—and there are plenty of stories in the adjacent cemetery. Nestled high on a hill overlooking this busy tourist town is the Jacksonville Historic Cemetery off N. Oregon Street, and 2019 marks its 160th year in business.
“It’s still an active cemetery, still having burials and selling plots,” shares Friends of Jacksonville Historic Cemetery president, Dirk Siedlecki.
The long-time volunteer, together with other concerned members, has helped restore, preserve and maintain this favored visitor’s location. Throughout summer months they lead history tours amongst the seven different religious and fraternal sections making sure the historical importance of Jacksonville’s earliest pioneers and famous citizens never fades.
Recalling his first visit to the cemetery years ago, Siedlecki was disheartened by the appearance of the unkempt grounds. He quickly helped rally clean-up support which eventually led to the organizing of the non-profit organization that now cares for the historical landscape and its many ornate stone markers.
“I feel very strongly that we should be taking care of the gravesites and cemeteries of those that came before us,” says Siedlecki. “It’s the history of most of our communities that rests within those grounds.”
Though famed citizens like Peter Britt, Cornelius Beekman and Jeremiah Nunan are popular gravestone stories, it’s the Plymale family incident that haunts Siedlecki.
“They’d just arrived after making the crossing on the Oregon Trail, the husband, wife and several children,” he describes. “They hadn’t even settled in when the father and the eldest son suddenly became very ill and died; the result of drinking bad water from Goose Lake in Lake County.”
Saddest though perhaps, are the hundreds of souls who will forever remain unnamed. Retired land surveyor and “dowser for bodies,” Roger Roberts, has helped the Rogue Valley Genealogical Society map over 30 burial sites of hundreds of Oregonians and possibly many souls just passing through.
Roberts uses a handmade pair of cut and shaped wire coat hangers and walks a plot waiting for the wires to cross, signaling a grave. When he received a call in 2015 to go out to the Dunkard Cemetery off Colvard Road near Talent, Roberts was unprepared for what he discovered.
“A friend was doing maintenance there and he kept finding little metal mortuary markers and thought there must be more graves,” shares Roberts. The old Church of the Brethren cemetery had 42 recognized headstones already, so when Roberts stepped out of his truck, dowsing rods in hand, he quickly became excited.
“The wires crossed immediately and I discovered I was already standing on a grave,” he says. “We started finding bodies everywhere and when we finally got done with the cemetery five days later we had found 220 unmarked graves.”
The distinguished and the destitute alike toiled beneath an Oregon sun and their legacies live on thanks to the caretakers who maintain, and even locate, their final resting places.
Where To Go:
Dunkard Cemetery, Colver Road, Talent
Jacksonville Historic Cemetery, Cemetery Road, Jacksonville
Linkville Pioneer Cemetery, Corner of Lexington Ave and Upham Street, Klamath Falls