All Over The Map: Beacon Hill’s spooky Comet Lodge Cemetery

Nov 1, 2019, 4:24 PM | Updated: Nov 4, 2019, 6:45 am

If MOHAI and the Underground Seattle Tour represent the height of “packaged” or even “Disney-fied” local history, Comet Lodge Cemetery on Beacon Hill is local history in its most raw and unmediated form. There’s also no admission charge, which is another great reason to visit.

Comet Lodge Cemetery is just north of South Graham Street not far from I-5 and the Swift-Albro exit, and it’s very easy to drive right by and miss completely. To navigate there, type “2100 South Graham Street” into your mapping software. For old-school Boy Scout Orienteering merit badge types, dig out your Thomas Guide and look between South 21st Avenue and South 23rd Ave on South Graham Street.

The Rainier Valley Historical Society is giving tours on Saturday, November 2 for All Soul’s Day, but the tours sold out very quickly. However, the cemetery is open to the public and easy to visit during daylight hours year-round.

The first recorded burial at the wooded hillside spot above the Duwamish Valley was Samuel Maple in 1880, though there reportedly were Native burials taking place for a long time before that.

The Maples, Collins, and Van Asselts were farmers who arrived in what’s now Seattle in 1851 either weeks or months (depending on the source) before the better-known Denny Party.  The Maples, who were from Iowa, settled along the Duwamish right about where Boeing Field is now.  Samuel’s son Jacob Maple was eventually buried near his father; their neighbor Henry Van Asselt was interred there, too.

In 1895, Comet Lodge No.139 of the International Organization of Odd Fellows or “IOOF” – which is one of those 19th century fraternal organizations that functioned as a sort of insurance company and safety net for its members – became owner of the cemetery when it was deeded to them, perhaps by Luther Collins’ widow. It was around that time that it became known as I.O.O.F. Cemetery-Georgetown.

According to a Seattle Times article from 1984, a genealogy researcher named Carolyn Farnum conducted a title search that showed that “Comet Lodge sold the cemetery in 1908 for $1 to Georgetown undertaker H.F. Noice, who deeded it four years later to former Soldiers’ Home physician Dr. Hiram Corson.”

Other sources say that in 1927, there was some kind of shenanigans and Dr. Corson and his wife sold off part of the cemetery to someone looking to build houses. Unfortunately, the land they sold was where a number of children had been buried, and it’s not clear what happened to those remains.

In the late 1930s, Comet Lodge – or whoever the owner was at that point – went bankrupt and stopped paying their property taxes.

“This property became ours via the tax title process, which basically means when somebody doesn’t pay their taxes on a property and it goes to auction and nobody buys it,” said Bryan Hague, Real Estate Service Manager for King County’s Property Services Division.

“We basically inherited the property back when whoever was running it at the time or owned it at the time stopped paying their taxes,” Hague said.

Once that happened, several families disinterred their relatives and moved those remains to other more secure resting places.

“In 1939, Samuel Maple and his son Jacob Maple were moved to the King County International Airport, there’s a memorial spot there and that’s where their ashes are,” said Katharine Anthony. Anthony works for the Rainier Valley Historical Society and did significant research herself in preparation for leading Saturday’s tours (and who generously shared her research with KIRO Radio).

“Van Asselt was [also] moved, I don’t have an exact date, but he was moved to Lakeview [Cemetery on Capitol Hill],” Anthony said.

King County was a pretty hands-off landlord from the 1940s through the 1970s, and those decades were hard on the old cemetery, on the tombstones and probably even on some of the remains from nearly 500 recorded burials that took place there between 1880 and 1936.

Katharine Anthony says that in the 1970s, there was something of a community effort to clean it up. Then, in 1987, a man named Don Kipper began a purported restoration project but ultimately bulldozed a number of headstones. In 1999, a man named John Dickinson attempted a restoration effort that also failed. Finally, in 2002, Cleveland High School students cleaned up Comet Lodge Cemetery and collected oral histories from neighbors and others with memories of the place.

Bryan Hague says the county would love to sell the two-and-a-half-acre property. But, as you can imagine, Hague says, it’s pretty hard to find a buyer, given the fact the current tenants are unlikely to move on their own. Hague says that the ideal solution would be creation of a non-profit or some kind of trust that would fund perpetual upkeep of the grounds, but that may be wishful thinking.

Property Services Division Deputy Director Cristina Gonzalez sees an opportunity for the right buyer, and acknowledges her agency isn’t equipped to manage a pioneer cemetery that might also contain Native American graves.

“If we’re not taking care of it in a way that can be most effectively used by the community, we’d be happy to have that conversation about that piece of property being purchased by a group that can do something with it,” Gonzalez said.

Hague says that the plan now is for King County to keep maintaining it; King County Parks maintenance crews mow the grass and do other basic work to keep the property tidy and accessible to the public.

Until a buyer steps forward, Comet Lodge Cemetery might just be the best place to get a sense of 19th century Seattle without buying a ticket for a guided tour or paying admission to walk through a building and look through glass at artifacts and old photos.

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All Over The Map: Beacon Hill’s spooky Comet Lodge Cemetery