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Tuesday, August 5, 1997 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Roadside Attraction

Glimpse Into The Past -- Newcastle Cemetery Unlocks The Doors To A Historic Time Kept Alive Through The Rich Memories And Stories Held Within

Seattle Times Eastside Bureau

NEWCASTLE

The way the story goes, a little boy who had two fingers chopped off in an accident had those fingers buried in the Newcastle Cemetery.

There's no marker for the fingers, no rocks or flowers to show where they were buried. But Mary Jo Rouse is convinced they're there.

"The story was from a lady who remembered it," Rouse said.

Rouse stumbled upon this grandmother one day as she was cleaning at the Newcastle Cemetery, where several members of her husband Oliver's family were buried a century ago.

The cemetery, also known as the Newcastle Odd Fellows Cemetery, is one of 18 in King County included in the county's registry of historic landmarks.

Vandals and a fire in 1921 destroyed all the wooden grave markers. But several chipped and broken headstones that dot the hillside just west of Lake Boren are lasting vestiges of a once vibrant coal-mining town and its people long gone.

In a small fir grove, behind a fence locked to deter vandals, historian Milt Swanson shuffles past a group of marble headstones and leans low to read eroded inscriptions.

"Baby Fee 1909." Just a few days old when she died, she was Swanson's half-sister.

"I never remember hearing mom say what she died of," Swanson said, removing moss that clung to the stone.

Many of the dead in the Newcastle Cemetery were children.

Thomas J. Lewis. Age 15.

Anna Laura Fournier. Age 2.

John Tosh. Age 11.

Many were likely victims of infant mortality and childhood diseases, Swanson said.

"Lilly Danielson Died At Age 4 From Measles," one headstone reads. A miniature plastic Christmas tree with decorations leans to one side in front of the grave.

There are other stories that the cemetery tells. Many men buried in the cemetery died in coal-mining accidents, victims of a once-bustling industry on the Eastside.

Mining was once the top industry in the county, and Newcastle and Renton were known for the amount of coal blasted out of the mountains.

It's uncertain how many people are buried in the cemetery because the property owner kept only vague records, said Rouse, who has helped keep up the cemetery grounds over the past several years. Rouse estimates about 160 people are buried in the 2.2 acre lot. Some of the graves are outlined by a bed of rocks, while several family graves are fenced off.

Various family names, and inscriptions in several languages, point to the eclectic mix of people in Newcastle in the 1800s and early 1900s. They include families from Finland, Russia, Scotland and Poland.

The only well-known family buried in Newcastle Cemetery are members of the McKnight family, for whom McKnight Junior High School in Renton was named. The McKnights were among the first settlers in King County, according to the Renton Historical Museum.

African Americans first migrated to King County in large numbers in the late 1800s to replace striking coal miners. A few broken headstones in the southwest corner of the cemetery - separated from white families - serve as a reminder of segregation in the early 1900s.

The earliest grave is from 1879, and the last was just six years ago. Since the cemetery received a historical-landmark designation in 1982, it has been closed to public burials, with the exception of a longtime Newcastle resident who, before dying in 1991, requested to be buried next to his pioneer family.

There are many other stories to be found in the Newcastle Cemetery and little by little, folks like Rouse and Swanson, who have volunteered to give tours of the cemetery, hope more tales will surface. Although maintenance responsibilities recently have been turned over to the city of Newcastle, Rouse and Swanson say they'll continue to help people trace their roots through the decaying headstones.

"Every once in awhile, somebody will show up looking for their grandparent," Swanson said. "We depend on those people to fill us in."

Roadside Attractions is an occasional feature of The Times Eastside edition. If you spot something on the Eastside you'd like to know more about, contact us via the addresses at the top of this page. ----------------------------------------------------------------- Putsata Reang's phone message number is 206-515-5629. The e-mail address is: prea-new@seatimes.com

Copyright (c) 1997 Seattle Times Company, All Rights Reserved.

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