Rehabilitating Historic Kennecott Cemetery

Kay Y. Sakagami Japanese
Buddhist plot at Kennecott
During our stay in Wrangell-St. Elias National Park and Preserve, we are being guided by the National Park Service around the Kennecott Mill Town and some of its surroundings.  One site we were focusing on in particular was the Kennecott Cemetery.
Kennecott, Alaska was a mill town established for the people working in the copper mines owned by the Kennecott Mines Company.  The town and cemetery now reside within the Wrangell-St. Elias National Park and Preserve and are managed and protected by the National Park Service.  The town and mine ran from 1908 until 1938, with the first and last burials in the same years.  Even though the cemetery is within the boundary of the National Park, its exact definition or placement within the Park is still disputed.  For the most part, the mines and town shut down in 1940 and by the 1960’s it was officially a ghost town.

Part of what the National Park Service does is inventory everything inside their boundaries. According to the 2010 Cultural Landscape Inventory by the National Park Service there are exactly 50 graves on the site, with the earliest recorded date 1908 until the last in 1938.  Within the thirty years of burials at this site the highest number of burials in a year was in 1924 with six.  Those buried were residents of the mill town and include one child.  There is also more than one religion within the cemetery, most were represented by wooden Latin crosses, with a few others.  There are a few concrete cast grave markers, some with a copper plate and another with Japanses inscriptions and there is only one granite marker in the cemetery.  All of these different grave plots help give insight into the people living in the community and are useful in discovering the biographical histories of the people buried there.  One of the more unique graves at the cemetery is a wooden box tomb belonging to Kay Y. Sakagami.  The tomb has a semicircle headstone and a small wood ledger "that is semi-traditional to Japanese Buddhist burial customs."  One grave in particular stands out because it is the only one that faces east instead of west; it belongs to Oscar Pyrtz and with his name and the dates on his grave historians can do research to discover who he was and gather his life story and biographical information (all of which are documented in the inventory if found.)
One of the really intriguing things about the site is the dispute over its place as a historic site. In the 2010 Inventory the National Register Landscape Documentation is “Inadequately Documented.”  The land where the cemetery rests has been passed down and sold to differing companies in the area regarding Kennecott.  When Kennecott was nominated in 1978 to the National Register of Historic Places it was referencing a 1957 map to illustrate the boundaries, but did not resemble the boundaries of the map and did not include the cemetery.  In 1986 the site was nominated as a National Historic Landmark, whose boundary once again did not include the cemetery, but was listed as a contributing factor.  Finally in 1993 the boundaries were revised and then included the cemetery as well as other sites.  Since the revisions were so late and not entirely recognized, in 1998 the site was donated by the Kennecott Mills Company, the current “owners” of the site.
By 1990 the National Trust for Historic Preservation listed Kennecott as one of the “Ten Most Endangered Sites” of the United States.  For now the goal is to maintain the integrity of the site with no attempts at renovating the site; however some efforts have begun to stabilize important structures so they do not collapse.  It is being left to age as intended with little human interference.  It is the National Park Service’s job to document what is there and to protect it, but not to invest resources in its renovation. 
During our time in Kennecott we were split into two groups, each day one group was sent to work on the Historic Kennecott Cemetery.  We were working with two people from the National Park Service.  We were there to help clear bushes and weed, more accurately perform vegetation management, and remove “undesireables”—plants that are unwelcome in the environment (i.e. invading plants such as willow trees, soapberries, and hawkweed.)  On our last day in Kennecott we stopped by one last time to take a look at the work we had done and remember those who are placed there.

We were so happy to be able to lend our support and time to make such a difference in the community.  We made a huge difference and it didn't take much effort. All it takes is time and passion.

                                                                                                         --Kay Manuel


Wendy Alcott said...

It’s good to see that they’re breathing life into old cemeteries, although old headstones do bring a macabre feel to a cemetery. Odd curiosities aside, most moderators of cemeteries are stepping up their game in giving their locations a makeover.

eudaimon said...

A little time and lots of passion I'd say. Thank you all for your energy and enthusiasm, we never would have gotten the job done so quickly without you!

S.L. Ferreira