No bones about it, some of Nanaimo’s history is engraved in stone at Pioneer Cemetery Park.
Old cemeteries where tombstones bear names of pioneering families, birth and death dates and sometimes even snippets of how they lived and died, are windows to a community’s past.
At Pioneer Cemetery Park, at Comox Road and Wallace Street, a few headstones have survived from when the graveyard was active between 1852-76. Nobody knows for sure how many souls were interred there, but Christine Meutzner, manager at Nanaimo Community Archives, dug through old records and found at least 154 bodies lay in the park, far more than expected given the number of headstones inscribed with names, like Bates and Haslam, that are synonymous with Nanaimo’s historic foundations. But the posh headstones of prominent pioneers don’t mention the burials of stillborns, infants and children taken by disease or misfortune – often the price of living on the frontier.
Kin who were responsible to care for the plots either moved on or passed on themselves, leaving that hallowed ground to its silent decay after Nanaimo Cemetery on Bowen Road opened in 1876.
Decades of neglect took a toll. Appalled at the sight of skulls laying on the ground and dogs pulling at the bones, a provincial cemetery inspector in the 1950s proclaimed the site the worst cemetery he’d ever seen. Archived photographs show broken iron fencing, tilted headstones and a skull laying among overgrown ivy.
“That sort of long-term neglect might also reflect the historical demography of Nanaimo, in that there was an awful lot of single transient men,” Meutzner said. “So it’s actually in that way kind of an authentic outcome of the actual demographics of this community and I would guess that would be true of any resource-extraction, boom-and-bust community across North America.”
The city cleaned up the site in 1960 and Kiwanis Club volunteers embedded the headstones into the stone and mortar wall now crumbling under 55 years of weather.
The park remains in city care and, though not under protection as a historic site, it is protected as a decommissioned cemetery, said Chris Sholberg, city culture and heritage planner.
Volunteers will soon scrub clean the moss and lichen gnawing at the stones’ inscriptions in the park. Saving Our Stones, a partnership between the city, archives and Nanaimo Museum, will call on volunteers to come out with water and toothbrushes to clean the stones in summer 2016.
People interested in volunteering can contact the museum’s volunteer coordinator Jamie Franzmann at 250-753-1821 or e-mail at Jamie@nanaimomuseum.ca.
TIMELESS TALES is a regular feature on Nanaimo’s history, which is published on the third Tuesday of each month. Last month’s story was about the ship’s anchor on the waterfront.
August’s story was about Vancouver Island’s flag.