Tacoma native from the North End, Christopher Engh is a fund of knowledge of spellbinding, local history. A magnificent storyteller and equally great listener, he is the resident Tacoma Cemetery Advisor and historian since 2000. He lives on-site at the serene memorial park nestled into a terraced hillside just off South Tacoma Way near South 48th Street.
“This was the boonies in the 1800s,” says Christopher. “This was the land that was set aside for cemeteries.”
While interviewing Christopher, a gentleman from Bainbridge Island dropped by to ask for assistance locating the grave of his great-grandmother, an immigrant from Finland. He had never been to Tacoma Cemetery. Checking the computer database, Christopher noted there were four additional family members, whose graves were also nearby. The man had no idea they were all buried there. Christopher provided him with a paper map of the cemetery, marked each family member’s gravesite with a yellow highlighter and traced the route for him to easily follow. He returned later to express his profound gratitude.
Tacoma Cemetery, founded in 1875, is what some refer to as “Old Tacoma Cemetery” to differentiate it from “New Tacoma Cemetery” in University Place founded in 1932. Both are part of the same not-for-profit corporation.
Christopher shares a smattering of historic tidbits:
- John Buck, Buffalo Soldier, who went up San Juan Hill, for which his actions resulted in an application and re-application filed to award him the Congressional Medal of Honor. However, to date, Congress has still not made the award, something Christopher would love to have a ceremony for. In the meantime, visit 9th & 10th Horse Cavalry Buffalo Soldiers Museum in Tacoma. It’s one of only two in the entire country. The other is in Houston.
- Lieutenant Colonel John Sprague for whom Sprague Avenue is named, served with General Sherman and single-handedly held off the Confederate attack in 1864 and earned him the Congressional Medal of Honor, which was not awarded until 1894, but he passed in 1893. Congress was as slow then as it is today.
- Bertha Snell was the first female attorney in Washington State. She couldn’t vote but could practice law.
- Hugh Wallace, was the U.S. Ambassador to France, in World War I. He signed the Treaty of Versailles.
- Rockin’ Robin Roberts & The Wailers 1961 hit Louie, Louie became a classic. His headstone has the first few measures of the hit song etched into it. He was a member of the ‘27 Club’, i.e. musicians who have died at the age of 27. Roberts was killed in a car accident in 1967. Rockin’ Robin and former Tacoma Mayor Bill Baarsma were classmates.
- Stan Orchard was from Tacoma, formerly with The Tacoma News Tribune’s KTNT-AM & KNBQ-FM before KOMO in Seattle where he became News Director. His great-grandfather Henderson Orchard is buried at Tacoma Cemetery beneath a ledger-style headstone, a massive concrete slab. The rationale for the ‘ledger’ was to prevent body-snatching, a grisly issue in the 1800s. Other headstone styles are the pillow, flush or flat, slant marker, uprights, obelisk, serpentine and a myriad of designs through the ages.
“The cemetery was originally a land grant from Northern Pacific Railroad,” Christopher explains. “The Northern Pacific was coming this way and they wanted a western terminus with deep water portage and we have some of the best in the world with Commencement Bay. There was a wounded Civil War veteran by the name of Job Carr from Pennsylvania. He was a Quaker, but his hatred of slavery overrode his Pacifistic beliefs. In his late 40s, he enlisted in the Union Army and was wounded twice. The second time so grievously, the Army discharged him. Not wanting to deal with the shambles of war in the East, he came out West. He was staying in Steilacoom, which predates Tacoma. Rumor was he was taking a canoe trip and they went around Point Defiance and came to this little area called ‘shebalah’ by the locals, meaning a sheltered place. It’s where Old Town dock is now. Legend has it, Carr stood up in the canoe and shouted, ‘Eureka! I’ve found it!’ So, he started his township there.
Carr was a heck of a handyman, but he didn’t have any connections. He wasn’t a promoter. Enter Martin Matthew McCarver, professional town-builder. McCarver was a Commissary General (Quartermaster today). For a time, there were actually three Tacomas: Old Town, New Tacoma and Tacoma on The Wharf. There’s a great book by his son-in-law at the Tacoma Public Library called McCarver in Tacoma. In 1884, the city got out of the cemetery business and the Tacoma Cemetery Association began.”
Tacoma Historical Society partners with Tacoma Cemetery each year for Living History Cemetery Tours, generally the third weekend in June for a two-night ticketed event. “We take groups of 25-30 on a pre-determined course through the cemetery,” says Christopher. “We will go visit the graves of eight, nine, ten residents here. We will go visit Fort Nisqually and we will have a reenactor stationed at that gravesite dressed as that person. They will give a short speech as that person on how they contributed to Tacoma. More and more young people are showing up. You know you’ve got a hit on your hands when they put the cell phone down and pay attention.”
Next year the tickets will be about $15. Reservations are required through the Historical Society. Order early and wear a good pair of walking shoes. “Proceeds are split between the Tacoma Cemetery, the Historical Society and the Northwest Room at the Tacoma Public Library because they are invaluable in our research,” says Christopher. “The cemetery does not profit. The money that we get, we turn around and re-donate to the historical society and the library.”
Embrace the remarkable and colorful history of our region with a walk through the meticulously landscaped grounds at Tacoma Cemetery this summer and say ‘hello’ to Christopher Engh.