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Forgotten Past

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Photos by Kathleen Huntley Photos by Kathleen Huntley

Hope's Chinese Cemetery lingers in weeds

Since childhood I’ve been attracted to cemeteries, both from curiosity and because of their historical place in our culture. I’ve viewed the fresh roses left for Marilyn Monroe by Joe DiMaggio at Forest Lawn in California and stood before Lincoln’s tomb in Springfield, Illinois. One of the main highlights attracting me to England was to visit Westminster Abbey in London and pay homage to Mary Queen of Scots. I practically had to walk over Charles Dickens to find her under an ornate canopy commissioned by her son.

The tombs, grave sites and memorials across our world are history and culture preserved with dates in stone. They have always seemed important to me and obviously are of significance to the people who established them in the first place. Consider the pyramids, for instance.

The first tombstone I remember clearly at about age seven had the unraveled ropes from a circus trapeze cemented forever above the name of the artist who fell. It isn’t the acknowledgement of death that I have been attracted to, but rather that of the living who immortalized the lives of the people they loved and, on a few occasions, hated.

So, when my friend asked me at the end of a beautiful fall day on Lake Pend Oreille if I ever had been to the Chinese Cemetery, I was immediately intrigued and wanted to go. He had no idea I was a bona fide cemetery wanderer and even collected a few books on epitaphs. I still haven’t told him.

He aimed his little truck up the hills of Hope, Idaho and maneuvered with expertise the meandering wildlife trails that they call roads. After a "Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride" at an eclectic variety of possible vehicle angles, we pulled off the side of the pavement where maybe a bicycle could pass. He said, "Here it is!" I looked about the southern exposure view snuggled against the mountains, and realized I was looking toward the site of the Kullyspell house that David Thompson built. The hillside precariously cascaded toward the highway and I saw nothing but wildly growing colored underbrush and our Northwest collection of trees. Was this guy nuts? I thought. I didn’t see a cemetery.

I watched as he bounded down the slope of the hill on a barely visible mountain goat trail;. certainly not one humans often traveled. There were no markers, no posts and most definitely, no fence. He began to explain, as I was attempting to catch up, how many of the headstones had been stolen. I was following as fast as I could and at the same time looking down to make sure I wouldn’t roll like a ball on one of the rocks and end up spinning toward the highway. "Did I hear correctly? Stolen headstones? Who in the world would do this?" My thoughts were racing while all along I was gripping my new camera and still thinking I might catapult onto Highway 200 at any moment.

Finally he came to a stop, somewhat grinning that we had reached the destination of our descent. I had to carefully look around at the terrain to determine exactly what kind of place we had stopped at.

I think the next emotion I felt could best be identified as disconcerted. I was ruffled and perplexed at what was being exposed along this definitely unkempt area and raggedy trail. Graves! Grave sites in decaying repose. Uneven ground, rocks and ancient, broken, wooden fencing. I found two, widely separated headstones. The underbrush could hide anything in between the remaining stones. The tragedy compounded itself as I ran my fingers over the carefully etched dates trying to determine their age. Mercifully my friend took his water bottle and poured it down the granite to reveal the date of death. 1890! The cemetery was clearly at least 118 years old. We both got quiet then and continued to creep along and through the low-growing and brightly golden-leaved shrubbery. It was undeniably hallowed ground. But the tiny, hand-hewn fences marking children’s graves lay quietly on their sides, speaking silently to the testament of life. Bases of what at one time held headstone, names, dates and contributions to our society were stranding as grim reminders of a stolen past. The graves quietly revealed themselves, gently cradled now in autumn’s colorfully dyed hands.

It was obvious that in less than a decade this monument and the history of settlement in the Northwest would be erased forever from our ground. The footprints of those left behind, along with their precious past, would be gone eternally with only the slim possibility that future cultural archeologists might discover them to wonder how they got here.

When was it that this place became dispensed with? When was it no one cared or was left to care? Did the owner of the tiny embroidered Chinese shoe which shrouded a bound foot lay here? The Bonner County Museum displays her shoe. But where is her final resting place? Are the people here that smoked the long, skinny pipes now cloistered behind glass? Is Hope’s famous Chinese vegetable farmer here? Are these tiny graves children or small Chinese laborers brought here to build the Northern Pacific Railroad? Will we ever know? The two remaining stones are carved with Anglo names. Bonner County records show there are over thirty burial sites here. Only half appear to be of Chinese descent, the other half showing Anglo names. Knowing a little bit of history, I would bet there are more graves than the Bonner County records show.

I photographed the graves I could identify. Artistically they are lovely photos. My lighting was good and the compositions well done in my opinion, but ethically I was in a real quandary. Shouldn’t this sacred place be maintained? Or should it be left to nature to quietly and privately decompose and become as it was in the beginning? If the site were lovingly restored, would other shallow individuals void of a moral sense remove the headstones? I flashed to the lovely young couple living in Noxon, Montana who clearly had a headstone by their front door with oriental inscriptions on it. Was it from Hope? I was, and still am, understandably confounded with mixed emotions. Just whose responsibility is it? How should it be handled? Who takes care of these things?

I don’t know. I’m perplexed. I guess the best word to explain my feelings would be a bit disconcerted. At what point did our society turn to no longer care about our past and the grand souls who enriched our history? Look on the Internet and it states that the "Old Hope Cemetery" or the "Chinese Cemetery" has been abandoned.

Somewhere, someone turned their back and walked away.

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Kathleen Huntley

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