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Oct. 15, 2021

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Clark Asks: Death of a Mausoleum in Vancouver

Plans for a grand resting place turn into a tale of financial woes, missing bodies

7 Photos
An artist’s depiction of what the Columbia Memorial Mausoleum would have looked like had it been completed.
An artist’s depiction of what the Columbia Memorial Mausoleum would have looked like had it been completed. (Mariel Abbene/The Columbian) Photo Gallery

“Are the caves used as a mausoleum on the hillside behind Harney School still accessible?”

— Jeff Guard

Dense underbrush and mysterious ivy-covered lumps dot the modern hillside near Harney Elementary School, but underneath that landscape lies a creepy tale of bad financing, poor management and missing bodies.

Vancouver’s Columbia Memorial Mausoleum, which was demolished in 1959, was a partially constructed concrete monstrosity that loomed over the Columbia River for more than 25 years. Its story is a winding tale of high hopes, ballooning costs and lost records.

But it didn’t start out that way.

Originally the project was announced with a splashy artist’s rendering and a Columbian headline that read, “Magnificent Structure To Be Erected here.”

The mausoleum, once located behind Edgewood Drive where it turns toward Eighth Street, was the original brainchild of Arthur G. Berry, a top salesman for New York Life Insurance.

Berry was impressed by the trend of lavish mausoleums that spread across California in the 1920s, and Vancouver had nothing like it.

So in the early 1930s, Berry recruited then Mayor John P. Kiggins as vice president to help spearhead fundraising for the project. The two leased the land from Edwards Investment Co. for their newly minted business, Columbia Memorial Inc.

Berry used his insurance clients list as a base for the fundraising, and in December 1932 he announced in The Columbian that the $150,000 mausoleum and crematorium would be built in early 1933.

By April 1933, some preliminary construction allowed the first temporary interments to begin. As part of the construction, 380 feet of three-foot square tunnels were dug beneath the basement floor, possibly for body storage. Those tunnels were most likely the “caves” mentioned in Jeff Guard’s question to The Columbian’s Clark Asks feature.

The happy launch didn’t last long, though. By March 1934 construction costs had ballooned to $200,000. But still the project was still moving along, actually a bit ahead of schedule, and the partners were taking in bodies for temporary interment.

That year, Day Hilborn, a local architect who also designed the Clark County Courthouse, was commissioned to design two chapels for the site, which was to also have 1,008 steel crypts and a similar amount of spaces for urns inside.

After that, the story starts to take a darker turn.

Construction problems

As 1934 rolled along, finances for the project became tighter and tighter and investors became harder to find, which eventually stalled construction. By 1937, plans were abandoned for the half-finished project, leaving the ugly incomplete monolith to loom over the neighborhood.

That year, R. W. Cary, a Portland man who had purchased the land from Edwards Investment Co., halted construction and foreclosed, saying Berry was bankrupt.

In 1940, Berry died of a heart attack at age 60. All records of the mausoleum and the people who were temporarily interred there vanished with him.

And yet, several bodies remained in the half-finished mausoleum’s temporary storage, mostly forgotten.

At least until the abandoned site became a bit of a macabre playground for local school kids.

Denny Kiggins, born in 1938 and the grandson of Mayor John P. Kiggins, said he still remembers playing on the grounds when he was little.

“As a kid it was a spooky playground for us,” Kiggins said. “It was always ugly. It looked like something out of a horror film. But I don’t remember us kids going inside it. It was mostly the open area around it where we played.”

He also wasn’t aware his grandfather had a part in building it.

“I had no idea he was either involved or knew about it,” Kiggins said, adding that his grandfather died when he was about 5 years old.

Mostly, the kids stayed outside the building on the grass, playing and running around, he said.

“It was so spooky,” he said. “During the day we would play hide and seek. We used to play kick the can there, too.”

In 1945, Ken Ellertson, a mortician at the Vancouver Funeral Chapel for 71 years, said he moved many of the bodies from the mausoleum to Park Hill Cemetery as part of an early effort to clean the site up.

“I remember it being built there when I was a kid and lived in Hockinson,” said Ellertson, who’s 90. “I started the Vancouver Funeral Chapel in 1944, and I think the last body we moved from (the mausoleum) was in 1945 up to Park Hill Cemetery.”

But wait, there’s more

Ellertson was surprised to learn that 13 bodies were still entombed in temporary crypts at the site in 1951, when Vancouver police found that the vault had been broken into, according to Columbian reports.

“My recollection would be that by that time they’d all be out of there, but apparently not,” Ellertson said. “The temporary interment area was on the hillside, it wasn’t in the mausoleum proper. It was temporarily against the hill. That’s where we removed the last ones from.”

He also still recalls some of the old scuttlebutt about Berry.

“He was a very successful insurance person, and he served his clients very well,” Ellertson said. “But he branched out into this mausoleum and went broke. It was like most business ventures. It was a matter of timing. I think it was too big for the market at that time.”

Juanita Rogers, 93, who lives in the neighborhood, said she also remembers rumors about fundraising going awry at the site — and the ugly remnant it left dotting the hillside for many years.

“It was not a good looking edifice,” Rogers said. “It was kind of boxy. It wasn’t pretty. But I remember thinking, ‘This is a mausoleum, what do you expect?’ ”

From 1951 to 1953, relatives claimed six of the remaining bodies, leaving seven that were still unidentified, according to reports in The Columbian.

But even the bodies claimed by relatives weren’t always what they had expected. John Stewart McDonald Smith Jr., who died at age 19 in 1936, was one of those. In 1953, his mother, Ethyl Smith, arranged to have her son’s body removed to a cemetery burial, but when she got the body and opened the casket, she found an older balding man in her son’s place.

There’s no report on whether she ever found her son’s actual remains.

In March 1958, The Columbian came out with a story about problems with openings into the never-completed building. Al Thomas, the city building inspector at the time, had found 10 openings, 14 windows and two doors leading to the unfinished mausoleum’s basement. He ordered Irene S. Cary of Portland, who had inherited the land, to shut all openings and raze the site.

And, perhaps tempting fate, the news story also noted “openings present a danger to youngsters who have been playing in the building.”

By that time, there were 600 crypts in the basement, with four bodies left in temporary storage that couldn’t be identified because there were no records. Nobody knows if relatives claimed the three others that remained after 1953 or what happened to those bodies. Al Thomas gave Cary 10 days to comply with the order, but there’s no record of whether she did or not.

Then, on April 28, 1959, the inevitable happened — a group of teenagers broke into the site and snatched a body.

Teen ghouls, missing bodies

The Columbian story on May 1, 1959, “Teen Age Ghouls Raid Mausoleum,” reported that eight Evergreen High School boys broke into the crypt, stole a body, stuffed it into the trunk of their car to show it to someone, and then got scared and dumped it in the Columbia River.

Vancouver police recovered the body a few days later and returned it to the crypt, only to find that yet another body was missing — leaving only three remaining. There is no record or report of what happened to that fourth missing body.

The high school boys, ages 16 to 18, were arrested in connection with the crime, though not all were ultimately prosecuted.

During the week of the break-in, in response, a Vancouver judge also ordered the remaining bodies to be moved to Park Hill Cemetery for reinterment.

Dave Fuller, owner of Hamilton Mylan Funeral Home, said his company likely moved the remaining three bodies, although he has no record of it.

“It was probably just a request for a transfer of the bodies, and they just did it,” he said.

“The circumstances surrounding it, removing everybody and taking everybody out, probably a lot of people over there don’t even realize they’re living by an old mausoleum.”

Bob McKechnie, supervisor at Park Hill Cemetery, knows where the final three bodies ended up though. They’ve been in section K of his facility since May 19, 1959.

They are: Jack Evison, 14, who died in 1933; Ira Scales, who was born in 1889 and died in 1933; and an unidentified red-headed male in a metal casket, McKechnie said.

“He had red hair, so something was preserved there,” McKechnie said. “Only one of the bodies has a marker. That’s Ira Scales.”

According to census records, Scales was a World War I veteran who worked for the Spokane, Portland & Seattle Railway as a mechanic.

In August 1959, Karl K. Kindler bought the land where the mausoleum had stood. He demolished it and turned it into the Edgewood Court subdivision. At the time he opted to not build any residential lots where the old mausoleum had stood, and those lots still appear to be vacant.

The property has passed through a handful of other developers since then.

Nothing identifiable remains on the old hillside now. It’s a tangle of dense undergrowth dotted with mysterious ivy-covered lumps that look almost grave-like, although stepping on one only revealed a pile of rotten wood.

But some other evidence remains. Neighbors in the area reported hitting concrete patches when they built their homes, likely part of the old hillside monstrosity. And another neighbor said he’d heard rumors that workers had found bones in the area — although he suspected those bones were animal, and not human.

Some small parts of the site’s original landscaping also remain, Ellertson said.

“Some of the shrubs along Evergreen Boulevard in that area? They were planted for the mausoleum and are actually still there.”