Sedro-Woolley, volunteers to restore historic hospital cemetery

July 28, 2018

No names, dates or ages appear on the recently exposed grave markers dotting what looks like a grassy field.

But each person buried at the historic Northern State Hospital Cemetery near Sedro-Woolley had a life and family, and Brenda Kinzer has made it her mission to honor them.

“I came up here one day and saw that you really couldn’t see anything ... It just seemed so wrong for so many people to be buried here and not be recognized,” said Kinzer, a Sedro-Woolley city councilwoman and founder of the volunteer Northern State Preservation Group.

Since the cemetery captured Kinzer’s interest in June 2016, she said many community members have approached her and joined the group as volunteers.

The city of Sedro-Woolley has also taken interest in restoring the cemetery, which is separate from the main former hospital campus that the city, Port of Skagit and Skagit County are working to redevelop as the Sedro-Woolley Innovation for Tomorrow (SWIFT) Center.

When the state transferred ownership of that campus to the port at the end of June, the city took ownership of the nearby cemetery on Helmick Road.

The city has 25 years during which it can decide — while working to improve and maintain the cemetery — whether to keep local ownership or hand the cemetery back to the state Department of Enterprise Services if it proves too expensive to maintain, according to city documents.

The state provided the city with $55,000 to cover initial maintenance costs.

The city has already planned work to improve fencing, parking and security of the cemetery grounds, according to an application for the state’s first-time Historic Cemetery Preservation Capital Grant Program.

The city has applied for a $50,000 grant toward the work.

Julianne Patterson of the Washington Historic Trust Preservation said the grants awarded will be announced in August.

During the time the state hospital for the mentally ill was in operation, an estimated 1,487 patients were buried at the cemetery, according to a plaque near the cemetery entrance.

Those who were Catholic were buried with grave markers, and those who were Protestant were cremated and buried between the caskets without markers, according to a 2009 report by Artifacts Consulting.

Today, one vertical headstone is visible at the cemetery. Flat grave markers with patient initials can still be found but are heavily overgrown and sunken into the often soft, damp ground.

“These people were pretty much put out here and forgotten. It’s just not right,” Kinzer said while standing among the worn grave markers she and other volunteers have recently uncovered.

She said the group has located and cleaned off 195 of what hospital records show should be 700 such grave markers. She’s excited to now have the city’s support to continue the effort.

“With the city working on this and our group working on this, hopefully we will find all the markers that can be found,” she said.

Restoration of the cemetery beyond the city’s initial plans will be an expensive, long-term project, but is important to the Sedro-Woolley community, according to the city’s grant application.

“The Northern State Hospital was a significant and vital part of Sedro-Woolley for generations and there is a clear upwelling of support from the community to see this cemetery maintained and improved, to provide a respectful resting place for the patients,” the application states.

Kinzer said the group will work to locate and restore the many missing grave markers and eventually have a list of names of all the deceased — whether in caskets or remains — on display.

“We’re hoping this is the first of many projects to come,” she said. “As long as we’re able to continue honoring the people here I think that’s the most important thing, because they’ve been forgotten.”

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