Today, the southwest corner of Lone Fir Cemetery looks like an empty field, a strange contrast to the rest of the tree-dotted expanse of headstones and memorials. But at one time, what is called “Block 14” on cemetery maps was crowded with headstones bearing Chinese writing. At the easternmost end, a shrine and funerary burner allowed mourners to make offerings to the deceased in accordance with Chinese traditions for honoring the dead.
To understand how a site that once held the remains of more than a thousand people could become a bare and unmarked field, it is important to understand the history of Chinese immigration to the United States – a history that has seen many attempts by white American society to erase Chinese people from the landscape.
The 19th century: Arrival … and exclusion
The first Chinese in Oregon arrived between 1850 and 1853, recruited by both American and Chinese labor recruiters who promised quick riches through gold mining and railroad work. It is likely that most of these first visitors planned on returning home to China after earning their fortune.
The heart of Chinese immigration began in 1860 and ran until 1885, when thousands would immigrate to the United States, many looking for economic opportunities outside of mining, like logging, agriculture, construction, small-business ownership and domestic labor. According to census numbers, 22 Chinese people lived in Portland in 1860. By 1880, nearly 2,500 called the city home – 14 percent of the city’s total population. By the end of the 19th century, Portland had the second-largest Chinese community on the West Coast.
These immigrants shaped Oregon into the land we know today. They built jetties along the Pacific Coast. Canneries throughout the Gorge. Railroads that crisscrossed states over and beneath mountain passes. Seawalls that held back surges along the Willamette River. Tunnels that bored through impossibly solid cliff faces. Paid far less than their white counterparts by employers, their cheap labor made Oregon’s development possible—even as it turned them into targets for labor unions’ anger.
As the number of Chinese in Oregon grew, so did white violence and discrimination against them. Armed mobs burned Chinatowns to the ground. White racists massacred Chinese people in mining camps and lynched them in cities. Politicians leveraged anti-Chinese sentiment to gain favor with white voters, enacting laws to block Chinese immigration. In 1882, the U.S. Congress passed the Chinese Exclusion Act, which barred Chinese laborers from entering the country and prevented Chinese immigrants from ever becoming naturalized citizens -- the first nationality to be outright banned from citizenship by the U.S. Over the next six decades, additional laws restricted Chinese immigration even further. This time period, which lasted until 1943, became known as the Exclusion Era or the Silent Years.
The 20th century: A community evolves … and history is erased
Yet despite violence, discrimination, and exploitation, Chinese immigrants still found ways to enter the U.S. and thrive here. Helped by their Consolidated Chinese Benevolent Association and other mutual aid organizations, they created livelihoods and community. Here in Portland, they sent their children to learn Cantonese at the Benevolent Association headquarters on N.W. Davis Street – a building that still stands today. Even for those who worked and lived outside the city, Portland’s Chinatown became a hub of Chinese American life.
In death, this community still took care of its members. The CCBA organized burials in what had become known as “the Chinese cemetery”: Block 14 of Lone Fir. They also oversaw and funded the return of these bodies to family gravesites in their ancestral villages, in accordance with southern Chinese cultural practices. This often occurred years after the individual’s death, when their bones were dug up, cleaned, and shipped home to be laid to rest with their ancestors and have their graves tended to by their surviving family.
The full story of how many people of Chinese descent were buried in Block 14 – and how many still remain – may never be known. Even once cemetery sextons began keeping detailed records in the late 1800s, they excluded Chinese burials, which were often marked in ledgers (when they were recorded at all) with a single racist slur in place of their name. This racist pattern persisted into the 20th century.
Recent research commissioned by Metro has revealed that almost 2900 people of Chinese descent were buried in Lone Fir Cemetery—possibly more. Many of those bodies were disinterred and sent back to China for reburial, either individually or in large-scale disinterments that occurred from the 1880s onward. At this time, it is unknown where more than half the people of Chinese descent were buried in Lone Fir Cemetery, but of those where records have been found, more than 90 percent were buried in Block 14. That space continued to be the Chinese section of Lone Fir through the 1940s.
Lone Fir Cemetery had begun as privately owned land, but in 1928, Multnomah County took over ownership. In 1947, Multnomah County Cemeteries Superintendent H. J. Syverson proposed exhuming the remaining Chinese burials from Block 14 and repurposing the parcel for other uses. In July of 1948, Multnomah County workers exhumed the remains of 265 individuals from Block 14. Most were shipped to China; those that were not repatriated were to be reburied elsewhere in Lone Fir Cemetery, as part of the agreement made with the Benevolent Association.
In 1953, Multnomah County constructed the Morrison Building upon Block 14 and paved over the remainder of the block for use as a parking lot. The building and parking lot would cover the footprint of Block 14 for the next 50 years.
The 21st century: Reclaiming history
When the county transferred ownership of the cemetery to Metro in 1997, it retained the southwest corner of the cemetery. It planned to demolish the Morrison Building and sell the land for development. In 2004 the Buckman Neighborhood Association, Friends of Lone Fir Cemetery and the Oregon Chinese Consolidated Benevolent Association informed the county that they believed the site still contained human remains.
The building was demolished and the property was deeded to Metro in 2007, reconnecting it to the cemetery. Work began on a design for a garden to honor the memories of the Chinese and Chinese Americans who had been buried in Block 14.
A 2008 design included a portion on the eastern side to honor another aspect of Lone Fir’s untold history: patients of the Oregon Hospital for the Insane, the state’s first psychiatric hospital. At least 185 patients were laid to rest in various areas of Lone Fir Cemetery – some in unmarked graves – during the late 1800s. At the time, it was believed that some of those burials might have been located on the eastern edge of Block 14.
In 2019, voters approved bond funding for improvements to Metro’s parks, nature areas, and cemeteries, $4 million of which was allocated for a memorial at the Block 14 space. As part of that work, in 2021 Metro hired an archeological research firm to examine the history of burials of both OHI patients and people of Chinese descent.
That research is ongoing, but already it has fundamentally changed our understanding of that history. The findings have dispelled some long-held myths and misunderstandings. It is unlikely that OHI patients were buried in Block 14 (they were buried in other parts of the cemetery, with their own painful history of erasure). The land in Block 14 was never owned by a railroad company, as was commonly believed – rather, its ownership passed from private landowner to cemetery board to county to Metro.
The research has also led to discoveries: That more than twice as many burials of Chinese and Chinese Americans took place in Lone Fir than were previously thought, that some of those bodies may never have been removed from Block 14 … and that, of those that remain, some may be of children, who might have been kept in Portland so that their families could care for their graves.
These findings have prompted Metro to rethink its original memorial plan, which could face obstacles due to the possibility of building over buried human remains. Metro is reaching out to affected communities to share its new knowledge and find out how it might change the future of what was once called Block 14.
Correction: This article was updated to reflect the correct number of patients with known graves in Lone Fir Cemetery. We regret the error.