Final resting place of pioneers

At nearly 160 years old, Fisher Cemetery is county’s oldest public burial site

By Sue Vorenberg, Columbian features reporter

Published:

 

Fisher Cemetery

• The Clark County cemetery is the final resting spot of some of its early pioneers.

• 16509 S.E. Evergreen Highway, near S.E. 164th Avenue.

• Information: 360-693-1562; grave archive, http://files.usgwarchives.net/wa/clark/cemeteries/fisher.txt; obituaries, http://www.rootsweb.ancestry.com~waclacem/Fisher/obits.pdf.

It wasn’t easy for the dozen or so family members to pack up a wagon train in 1850 and bump, thump and roll their way from Missouri to what would eventually become east Vancouver.

When they staked their claims for free land around the Columbia River and Government Island, the small band probably didn’t consider that one day they’d end up as founding members of a county that would grow to more than 425,000 people.

They also probably didn’t realize that they’d still be here, more than 160 years later, almost all buried together in plots at Fisher Cemetery, Clark County’s oldest public burial ground — a site that was part of one of their original land claims.

The graveyard was built in the early 1850s through a small land donation from William Simmons.

Simmons came here with his wife, Ann Jemima Fisher Simmons — yes, that really was her name — and their five kids. Ann Jemima’s four brothers — Solomon, John, Adam and Job Fisher — and her sister, Rachel Fisher, also came along for the ride.

Simmons named the cemetery in honor of his wife, Ann Jemima, who died and was buried there in 1867.

But her brother, Solomon Fisher, gets the naming credits for much of the area sometimes called Fisher’s Landing.

He’s buried there, too. As are William Simmons; Job Fisher; Rachel Fisher; and Rachel Fisher’s husband, another east Vancouver pioneer, H.M. Knapp.

So are many of their descendants, and probably others from that early wagon train, although many of the cemetery’s first wooden markers have worn away and left no trace of who was buried beneath them.

“The extreme western section of the cemetery, the oldest part, it had all wood markers with written names. We know there are people buried there because there are dips in the ground, but we don’t know who they are,” said Bob McKechnie, cemetery manager for the city of Vancouver. “They didn’t have a log book from 1852 to 1911, and there were no maps.”

Still, you can get a sense of what the area was like and who might be in those graves by looking at some of the older stone markers that have survived.

When the wagon train arrived, the area had a few cultivated spots, but was mostly rivers and grass, lakes and trees — without a paved highway or a Big Al’s bowling in sight.

“It was farm country,” McKechnie said. “A lot of the graves, if you look the people up, they were farmers. They were homesteaders.”

Building a community

Solomon Fisher came into that slowly growing agricultural community as an agent of change. He had a lot more businessman in him than farmer.

When he arrived, he built a commercial dock on his 320 acres of land, about half of which was at the riverbank at the end of what is now 164th Avenue.

He turned his dock into a refueling station for steamships on the Columbia River. He also founded a post office and expanded his property with a livery stable, blacksmith shop, general store and even a one-room schoolhouse on the site he called Fisher’s Landing.

“Below the cemetery on the left side, the river boat landing was there, and there was that little community that he wanted to turn into the center of town,” McKechnie said.

Nearby landowners, and possibly relatives, added to the development after Fisher improved his plot, founding fruit canning, beer brewing and transportation operations.

Rock quarries also broke ground as the need for building supplies grew.

And down a piece in Camas, the town’s paper mill was constructed to meet growing demand for newspapers in the 1880s.

The area was so lively at one point that it was once considered for the county seat, although it wasn’t chosen.

Dangerous days

The graves at Fisher Cemetery tell the tale of a growing community during the much less safety-conscious days in the late 1800s and early 1900s.

“You can see the different jobs around the turn of the century,” McKechnie said. “As the 20th century started, you see more people from east Camas buried there — a few died horrible deaths at that paper mill. I know one died of acid burns, another man was ripped in half. Paralleling that, at least three or four of the burials were from men killed mining rock in the quarries.”

Solomon Fisher survived into the early 1900s and would have witnessed some of those burials. He was born Dec. 1, 1821, and died on April 10, 1903.

He would have known quite a few members of that growing community, especially since he set himself up as the postmaster on more than one occasion.

Fisher built the post office in 1852, but it wasn’t officially recognized by the postal service until 1858. He became its first designated postmaster from 1858 until 1870, when the post office closed. It reopened in 1881, with him once again as postmaster, and remained open after his death until eventually closing in 1917.

Post offices were very different in Fisher’s day than they are now.

For one thing, they didn’t deliver mail.

The post office would collect mail and hang on to it, and farmers or merchants would travel there when they could, perhaps once a week or once a month. They’d usually combine the trip with a supply run to save time, so the post office might well have been part of Fisher’s business-savvy way to draw members of the community to his growing commercial center.

The first experimental postal delivery route to appear anywhere in the United States didn’t crop up until 1896 in West Virginia, and by the time one reached Vancouver, Fisher was long gone.

History and mystery

Stroll around Fisher Cemetery and you’ll see hundreds of other stories among the thousand or so marked graves.

There’s even evidence of what appears to be a tragic event that happened on July 27, 1905. On that day 19-year-old Edna E. Fisher, likely a descendant of the original wagon train clan, drowned while wading in the Columbia River.

Two other young women also drowned while wading in the river that day — 18-year-old Lillian Ziegler and 22-year-old May Ziegler. They’re all buried in Fisher Cemetery, though their graves don’t include information on what exactly happened to them.

William Blair DuBois, a lumber mill pioneer in Clark County, also died on that day, although he’s buried elsewhere.

Did they know each other? You’d have to go spelunking through historical archives to find out.

Families continue to bury people in Fisher Cemetery today, although the lumpy grass landscape isn’t one of the city’s most active grave sites. Burials there tapered off after 1915, when the Park Hill Cemetery was built, McKechnie said.

“There were a lot of little rural cemeteries before that, but they sort of condensed into the bigger ones,” McKechnie said.

From 1911 to 2004, the cemetery was operated by a private group. The city of Vancouver took over operations in 2005 and manages it through a small trust.

The site’s historical significance is unquestionable, but there’s not enough money to tout that or do much more than keep the grounds mowed, McKechnie said.

At the entrance, a plaque added by the Fishers Cemetery Association in 1988 reads: “This memorial is dedicated to the memory of the early pioneers who lie here in unmarked graves.”

Visitors are welcome to pay them a visit — and they can also volunteer to help maintain the site if they want, McKechnie added.

Editor’s note: This is the second in an occasional series on the graveyards of Clark County. If you’d like to suggest a cemetery, email Sue Vorenberg at sue.vorenberg@columbian.com.