Seward’s historic “Woodlawn Cemetery” is modest. On a small corner of an outlying neighborhood, it sits nestled among spruce, fern and moss. The simple, wooden crosses are surrounded by white, picket fences. The paint is peeling and the wood is rotting as Nature tries to reclaim it all. In another part of the country, the name “Woodlawn Cemetery” might conjure up an image of something expansive and grand. But this is Alaska, a land of nature’s extremes and the home to mere handfuls of non-native, early, settlers.
The cemetery is a portal to another time.
Interred there are veterans of the Spanish American War and those who “arrived by steamer.” There are mothers, infants, lumberjacks, fishermen, railroad workers, prominent citizens, and ladies who “worked at home.”
The obituaries in the local papers were peppered with adverts for Stetson hats, for “cheap lots”, for Sears, Roebuck & Co., and for hotel rooms “out of the fire zone.” They ran headlines about WW I (“French Retake a Town”), and there were articles about scandalous local crime (“White Slave Dealer Caught…selling girls for immoral purposes.”).
So many died so young.
Little Anna Marie lived just 5 days. The paper quoted the coroner: “undertimed child and inability to assimilate food.”
Some died in the line of duty. The year 1917 was a particularly bad one for Seward’s law enforcement.
Night Marshall, Grey Dority, was “shot through the heart…in the performance of duty and self-defense.” The obit described police officer and Fire Chief Charles Wiley’s death as “homicidal by desperado.”
Some died of natural causes. Death by childbirth, pneumonia, tuberculosis, and heart exhaustion, appear again and again.
“Well known man-about-town passes away while sitting in a saloon chair.”
Some died of unnatural causes. In 1917, a barber died of “poisoning.” There were suicides and even a drug overdose.
And so many died in work accidents.
“Fatally hurt by pile driver.” “A rock fell from the bluff and killed him.” “Accidental fracture of skull.”
And famously in 1919, Seward bid goodbye to “one-armed Sullivan,” a celebrated railroad worker who it was said could out-shovel any two-armed man. One-armed Sullivan literally lost his head to the train.
Woodlawn Cemetery has found its guardian angel in Marie Gage. Well known locally for her extensive charitable work, she is perhaps less well known as a retired corrections officer and sergeant at Spring Creek Correctional Center. Ms. Gage knowns how to combine those two personas to her best advantage. “Since 1999, prisoners from Spring Creek have worked on the restoration of the Woodlawn cemetery,” she explains. That year, they replaced the wooden crosses, which are again succumbing to time and to the elements. “This year, with the help of Superintendent Bill Lapinskas, the prisoners are making permanent grave markers.”
“I was approached last summer by Ms. Gage,” Bill Lapinskas explained. “She had used the prison industries program years ago to make the markers and those markers are now at a point that repair is not really an option. Anything short of replacement was just a band aid and would be pushing the problem down the road. After some conversation with the men in Voc-ed (the vocational part of the prison’s education department), it was decided that we would try our hand as casting our own headstones out of cement. After a few less than favorable results—and a lot of YouTube videos—we are creating some pretty nice pieces that should last a very long time. My hope is to create two or more replacements a month, as time and as resources allow.” Donations are coming in from individuals and, just recently, Seward Resurrection Bay Lions donated 18 bags of Quickcrete.
Too bad that one-armed Sullivan isn’t here to lend a hand.
— By Iva Cooney, Institutional Parole Officer