Tuesday, July 8, 2014

Clay Street Cemetery helps preserve Fairbanks history



 
Alexander Barrack's grave at Clay Street Cemetery

The monument shown in the drawing marks the grave of Alexander Barrack at the Clay Street Cemetery in Fairbanks (Barrack died in 1916). The cemetery, located on a 3½ acre parcel at the end of Fourth and Fifth avenues, is bounded on the north and south by Third and Seventh avenues and to the east by the Steese Expressway. (Clay Street used to be the eastern boundary.)

It is a peaceful location, with an arched gateway at the east entrance, and a large open grassy field dotted by grave markers. The expanse is essentially treeless in its southern portion (abutting Seventh Avenue), but tall spruce and birch trees dot the older, northern half of the cemetery.

There are actually relatively few grave markers visible, but that belies the fact there are more than 1,600 graves in the cemetery. In addition to several general sections, there are nine fraternal and religious burial areas. There are two religious sections: one large Catholic area and a small Jewish one. Fraternal organizations, which were popular in early Fairbanks, are represented by sections for the American Legion, Arctic Brotherhood, Eagles, Elks, Moose, Odd Fellows and Pioneers of Alaska.

According to the National Register of Historic Places Nomination Form for Clay Street Cemetery, it wasn’t long after the city’s inception that the cemetery was established. The death of Al Foster in October 1903 prompted city fathers to set aside the tract on the eastern edge of town. Between then and 1938 it was the primary burial site for the area. Some of the mining camps around Fairbanks had their own cemeteries, but most burials were at the Clay Street Cemetery. Residents from communities as far away as Flat, Iditarod and Wiseman are buried there.

Burials at the cemetery represent a diverse cross-section of pioneer society, including common miners, store keeps, “ladies of the evening,” riverboat captains, lawyers and newspaper publishers. Countries represented are just as diverse, since the gold rushes at the beginning of the 20th century lured adventurers from across the globe.

By 1938 the cemetery was nearing capacity and Birch Hill Cemetery was opened. Burials at Clay Street gradually tapered off, and the last regular interment there was in 1978. 

Early photos of the cemetery show the area filled with wooden crosses and monuments, as well as numerous wooden grave fences. Over the years however, harsh weather conditions and vandals destroyed most of the wooden grave markers. Coupled with a lack of maintenance by the city, the cemetery was in poor condition by 1982, when it was listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

Although the cemetery was officially closed to new burials by the 1980s, an exception was made in 1995. Irene Sherman (the self-proclaimed “Queen of Fairbanks) was born in Fairbanks in 1911. She was a well-known figure around town, and when she died in February of 1995, the City allowed her to be buried at Clay Street Cemetery.

There have been periodic efforts to revitalize the cemetery. A two-year restoration effort spearheaded by The Rotary Club of Fairbanks resulted in the 2010 dedication of a new stone and wrought-iron gateway at the east entrance to the cemetery. That same year the Clay Street Cemetery Commission was established by the city of Fairbanks to advise the city on matters relating to the “restoration, maintenance and improvement of the ... cemetery."

The city and other groups have undertaken several improvements. Bill Robertson, who is chairman of the cemetery commission, told me that new markers, funded by grants from the City Bed Tax fund, and from Fort Knox and Pogo mines, have been placed on 100 graves, and the city hopes to erect another 300 to 400 grave markers in the near future. The Pioneers of Alaska have also placed 121 new markers on the graves of pioneers. In 2012 the city installed an underground water system at the cemetery, and a new information kiosk, built from lumber donated by Spenard Builders, was installed in 2014.


Sources:

  •  “Clay Street Cemetery National Register of Historic Places Nomination Form.” Karen Armstrong. National Park Service. 1982
  • “Clay Street cemetery to get new granite markers for 35 graves.” Dermot Cole. in Fairbanks Daily News-Miner. 8-4-2012
  • Conversation with Erica Miller, Pioneers of Alaska
  • Conversation with Bill Robertson, chairman of Clay Street Cemetery Commission
  • “Rotary Club funds renovation of historic Clay Street Cemetery.” Reba Lean. in Fairbanks Daily News-Miner. 12-26-2012

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