Student receives calling from the graveyard

Heritage High School junior devises project to clean up, maintain historical Old City Cemetery

By Paris Achen, Columbian courts reporter



If you go

What: Project YOUTH Old City Cemetery cleanup.

When: 9 a.m. to 11 a.m. Saturdays, Jan. 19, Feb. 2 and Feb. 16.

Where: Old City Cemetery, at Mill Plain and Grand boulevards, Vancouver.

Information: 360-440-8638.

One Heritage High School junior takes her city's heritage to heart.

Zoe Hall, 17, recently "adopted" Vancouver's Old City Cemetery in the Central Park neighborhood after her father read an Aug. 15 article in The Columbian that neglect had enabled dandelions and weeds to outshine the headstones of the city's founders buried there.

"We talked about what we could do about it," Hall said.

They came up with the concept of Project You Offering Unpaid Time in Honor, Project YOUTH for short. Under the plan, Hall would organize Saturday work groups of young people to regularly clean up and maintain the cemetery.

"It would be an honorable thing to do this for any cemetery, but the fact that this is a pioneer cemetery — our founders are buried there — it's even more honorable," Hall said.

Hall had been on the hunt for a volunteer project to round out her college-admissions résumé for the U.S. Military Academy at West Point. When she heard about the overgrown cemetery from her dad, John Hall, she said she found her calling.

Meanwhile, the city of Vancouver had been pining for volunteers to help give some TLC to the historical cemetery, founded in 1867, said Hailey Heath, city volunteer coordinator.

The graveyard is a target of vandals. Some of the headstones have been moved as a result of vandalism. The cemetery also is challenging for the city to maintain. It has no irrigation system to efficiently water the grass and has erect headstones, which create an obstacle course for mowers.

About 8,000 people are buried there.

Before committing to the project, she volunteered at Park Hill Cemetery to find out what she was getting into.

Then, she brought up the idea of Project YOUTH to her peers at Heritage and received positive feedback, she said. Junior Breana Reeves agreed to share some of the responsibilities of organizing the work crew.

On Dec. 29, the pair held a volunteer work crew orientation. About seven students showed up to hear about the project and the historical significance of the cemetery.

"A lot of them had no idea where the cemetery was," Hall said. "It's a shame we have such significant sites, and there are people who don't know their importance."

For example, Esther Short, who died in 1862, is buried in the cemetery. Short, the namesake for a downtown Vancouver park at Sixth and Esther streets, and her husband, Amos, were homesteaders who stood up to the British when they challenged their land claim in what is now downtown Vancouver.

A couple of years ago, the Central Park Neighborhood Association used a $5,000 grant to do a first-ever topographic survey of the cemetery, in an effort to improve it, but there was no organized group to perform routine cleanup and maintenance. Archaeology students have studied, photographed and provided information to the city, the Clark County Genealogical Society and the Washington Department of Archaeology and Historic Preservation about the condition of hundreds of grave markers.

Work crews will use some of that information and old records to help put displaced markers in their appropriate places. They'll also weed, pick up brush and litter, rake and do other improvement projects.

Halls said she hopes to pass Project YOUTH on to another junior when she heads to college.

Paris Achen: 360-735-4551;;;