GRAVES DESECRATED

Logging at historic cemetery upsets family, community

Laura Jean Schneider ljschneider@ptleader.com
Posted 9/24/21

 

 

Her family wouldn’t have chosen to rest in peace next to a sawmill, Helen Gunn is sure of that.

Five generations of her ancestors are buried in the Redmen Cemetery off of …

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GRAVES DESECRATED

Logging at historic cemetery upsets family, community

Posted

 

 

Her family wouldn’t have chosen to rest in peace next to a sawmill, Helen Gunn is sure of that.

Five generations of her ancestors are buried in the Redmen Cemetery off of Discovery Road, and the looming fir tree next to the family plot was likely planted by her great-grandfather more than a century earlier.

Gunn couldn’t believe her eyes the morning of Sept. 14 when she saw sawdust next to a newly-felled tree, and realized a piece of her family history was gone.

When she approached workers on the scene, they informed her that they’d been directed to build a fence between the Redmen Cemetery and County Cemetery behind it. Gunn said the crew had been informed that the proposed fence was to keep out vandals, dogs, and deer.

That didn’t ring true for her.

“It’s not a bunch of vandals,” she said of the folks that traffic the cemetery. “I go up there all the time.”

Gunn would know. She was born and raised in Port Townsend, and visits the 3-acre parcel often.

“I’ve been crying for days,” she said. “I’m still in shock.”

“There used to be a very nice, quiet green sacred space behind there,” Gunn said of the area that had been aggressively cleared in a wide swath between the cemeteries. “It’s sacred ground.”

Seeing the tree hacked into pieces angered her, especially the seeming greed behind the act.

“They’ve wasted $5,000,” she said, because the woodcutters lopped off the top and butt of the massive fir, selecting only the center section. Worse yet, it appeared that the tree was felled illegally; no one on the site had a permit.

Gunn called the police department and explained what was going on; she was directed to talk to the city about code compliance.

A GRIM SIGHT

The city was already aware of the logging. A city employee had passed the site earlier that morning, and observed that there was heavy equipment on site, and no permit.

Meanwhile, Gunn’s friend and semi-retired landscape architect Mary Pearsall was on the ground at cemetery with her phone, documenting everything.

“I certainly know about landscapes,” Pearsall said, “I’ve lived in Port Townsend for 30 years.”

As soon as Gunn told her about the alleged fencing project and tree removal, she had to see for herself.

Early last week, she said, work was well underway. There was a mountain of wood chips. She observed a tractor scraping on a headstone, and hitting smaller stones.

“The disrespect,” she said.

Pearsall brought her photos to city hall, where a meeting with the alleged fence contractor was taking place with the city. She emailed the city photos to use for the meeting; it is unknown at this time if they were presented at the meeting.

Soon, city code compliance officer KT LaBadie taped a red “Stop Work” order to a nearby tree. The reason for the order is stated as “Tree removal and grading with a permit.”

The “actions required” line reads: “Stop removing trees and using heavy equipment.”

Photos from Pearsall document at least a full-sized pickup truck, a portable sawmill, and a backhoe on the site.

By Tuesday afternoon Sept. 14, workers had returned. A crew ran a line to mark the area for new metal T posts, and it appeared that they were following the new restrictions.

BLATANT ACTION

By last Wednesday, it seemed apparent to Pearsall that the work crew had no intention of following the “Stop Work” order.

She was appalled to discover that what had been a log the night before, had been milled into a huge rectangle, the slabs of bark sliced off by a portable sawmill that was still on the premises. There was a notable amount of sawdust, and wood chips from what she believed was a stump grinder.

As she walked the grounds, she tried to evoke some empathy for the situation.

“It’s just another tree,” one worker told her. When she approached a man who had been napping on the graves of Gunn’s ancestors, he didn’t say a word.

Pearsall kept snapping photos. Branches cut into firewood were placed on headstones. Tire tracks ran over graves. Metal marker placards cards for graves, some with handwritten identification dating from the 1930s, were plucked from the ground and tossed aside, or clustered around existing stones.

As she left for the day, the crew was raking up branches and chips and hauling them around in wheelbarrows. It seemed the operation was finally shutting down.

Surely, it couldn’t get worse.

DISRESPECTING THE DEAD

But it did.

Early Thursday afternoon, it was clear that the tree had been sawn into lumber sometime in the previous 24 hours.

No equipment remained, but a stack of thick-cut fir planks sat amongst bright white sawdust in the afternoon light. Half of the pile seemed to have already been taken.

During a walk through of the cemetery, Pearsall wasn’t able to pinpoint the original location of the tree. Piles of debris littered the ground.

Gunn had decorated her family plot with fresh-cut dahlias and ribbons. A red flower wilted in the dust, trampled.

Pearsall wondered who had given the order to build a new fence, and why, if the crew had been authorized to “clean up shrubs.” The tree, seemingly nowhere near the proposed fence line, was the first thing that fell.

She and Gunn had counted the growth rings on the felled tree, and they’d reached 120.

Both women said that a worker had told them he wanted to make tabletops from that specific tree.

Pearsall knew the cemetery was privately owned. She just wasn’t sure what that would mean in this situation.

WHO WHAT WHERE

Lance Bailey, director of Port Townsend’s Development Services Department, said that he’s dealt with issues surrounding several other private cemeteries over the years, but this was a unique situation, given that County Cemetery was adjacent to the fence-line project. The county has had ownership of the approximately 4-acre parcel since 1872; no one has been buried on the land since 1945.

The Redmen Cemetery was established in 1902  by the local lodge of the Improved Order of Redmen. When the lodge closed in 1933, locals took over maintaining the cemetery.

Somewhere through the years, it was gifted to private owners by the lodge.

The County Genealogical Society lists the sextons of the Redmen cemetery as Patrick “Pat” McLarney of Colorado  and Felix “Jack” J. McLarney of Portland.

Earlier this week, Felix McLarney said he had hired a man from Sequim to stop the encroachment of plants obscuring the cemetery boundary.

He contacted the man based on family records that showed he’d been hired in the past.

“I honestly didn’t know,” McLarney said when asked about permits needed for the work.

He said the worker he hired was a former contractor and that he had assumed the man would know the proper procedure to follow. When asked what the plans for the felled tree involved, he stated that there was “no arrangement whatsoever.”

McLarney said he had been contacted by the city code compliance officer, and was awaiting an email containing photographs of the site.

Port Townsend Police Chief Thomas Olson said that while he has received calls concerning the activity at the cemetery, he must wait until an official complaint is filed to pursue further action.

Comments

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Mark Rose

Sad story with a lot of drama. I hope we get a follow-up. It's disturbing. Respect. Kindness. Empathy. Please.

Sunday, September 26