Park Hill Cemetery

This stone marks the grave of five men who drowned in Duluth on August 10, 1907. (Image: Ava Francesca Battocchio)

Many people assume that Park Hill Cemetery is just an extension of Forest Hill, but it stands on its own, probably descended from the Scandia Cemetery on London Road just west of Glensheen. That first Scandinavian Cemetery was targeted with scurrilous rumors right around the time of Park Hill’s establishment in 1888—some thought the site was poisoning Duluth’s water supply. One newspaper reporter claimed he saw “green slime” leaking from the bank into Lake Superior below, leading to controversy and disgust. In any case, that cemetery was too small to accommodate Duluth’s growing Scandinavian immigrant population, so Duluth’s Lutherans established a cemetery at 2500 Vermilion Road.

On the hillside facing the current cemetery office and crematorium is a small white gravestone that imparts a clue of just how chaotic a time these Scandinavian immigrants faced in Duluth.

The stone, in Section B, is engraved simply with the names of five men: Charles Hansen, Nils Sleeper, John Solberg, Walter Lundeen, and Ole Stafne, “Drowned in Duluth Bay Aug. 10, 1907.” These working men lost their lives after a day of labor at the Northern Pacific freight house on the slip at the foot of 12th Avenue West. Eleven men overloaded a rowboat in effort to avoid a longer walk after their shifts; in the busy waters their boat was accidentally run over by a mud scow pulled by a tug.  Seven were drowned while their coworkers watched in anguish. It took days to recover all the bodies, at least one of which was never located. During the search, many of the Scandinavian laborers at the slip refused to work, and gathered anxiously awaiting their compatriots’ recovery from the depths. As they waited, they also gathered donations to fund the men’s burial. The drowned were all between the ages of 18 and 30, aside from one older man who was never identified in the press. As the Duluth News Tribune article describing the scene noted, “The old man, who made such a desperate but unsuccessful fight for his life, was a Finlander, but no one could recall his name.” More than 700 people attended the men’s funerals. The burial site of the unknown Finn is unclear.

The grave marker of Yep Kia Yick in Duluth’s Park Hill Cemetery. (Image: Ava Francesca Battocchio)

Against the far eastern fence in Section E, a careful search reveals a handful of Chinese graves from the 1930s. (On the way are a couple excellent examples of the distinctive sandstone stumps sold to members of the Woodmen of the World; to learn more about these and other unique grave markers from 100 years ago, click here.) Originally, it appears that Duluth’s early Chinese immigrants were buried in Forest Hill, but in 1914, all of these graves—perhaps a dozen—were removed by the Chinese Combined Benefit Association, which sought to return the remains to their families in China. The only one of these Park Hill graves bearing English characters is that of Yep Kia Yick—or alternatively interpreted, that of a female relative named Wen Yan which Yep paid for. The deceased was a native of Dudong village in Taishan. Just in front of the Yep-labeled grave is that of Liu Kongjiao, of Taishan province, Haiyan district, and Haiting village. Another nearby is the grave of Yang Zhen, of Hui county, Xiandong village.

The grave marker of Albert Woolsen in Duluth’s Park Hill Cemetery. (Image: Ava Francesca Battocchio)

Back up the hill in Section S is the grave of Albert Woolson, who at his death in 1956 was the last surviving member of the Union Army, which made him commander in chief (and sole enlistee) of the Grand Army of the Republic, the Union Army’s veteran’s group. During the Civil War Woolson served as a drummer boy in Company C of the First Minnesota Heavy Artillery Regiment. The company never saw action, and Woolson was discharged on September 7, 1865. He died at the age of 106 (though he claimed to be 109). His grave is marked with a bronze plaque describing his service, and a bronze statue of the man can be found in front of the Depot. It is a duplicate of one at the Gettysburg Battlefield National Historical Park.

The marker for the grave of lynching victim Olli Kinkonnen. (Image: Zenith City Press)

In Section G are the graves of Duluth’s four lynching victims. Many graves in this section are unmarked, due to the poverty of the buried. Olli Kinkkonen, an anti-war Finnish immigrant, was abducted by a secretive terrorist organization calling themselves the Knights of Liberty. He was tarred, feathered, and lynched in Lester Park in September, 1918. His understated footstone was placed in 1993 by the Tyomies Society, and reads, “Olli Kinkonnen, 1881 to 1918, Victim of Warmongers.”

Isaac McGhie, Elias Clayton, and Elmer Jackson are buried in the same section, closer to the fence. Their three footstones were placed by the First Lutheran Church in 1991 and along with their supposed birth and death dates and the phrase “Deterred but Not Defeated.” (McGhie’s and Clayton’s dates are only estimates, as nothing is known of their lives—even their names may be in error.)

The final resting place of Elmer Jackson, Elias Clayton, and Isaac McGhie, forgotten no longer. (Image: Heidi Bakk-Hansen)

Recently, a black oak tree was planted in honor of Elmer Jackson, grown from an acorn collected in his ancestral home of Pennytown, Missouri. It was planted by Warren Read, a descendant of one of the lynching’s instigators, Louis Dondino, and Virginia Huston, a relative of Elmer Jackson. The large downtown memorial at the corner of First Street and Second Avenue East is dedicated to these three laborers, who came to Duluth in the employ of the John Robinson Circus and were falsely accused of raping a West Duluth girl. Their murders were witnessed by a mob of 10,000 Duluthians.

Duluth’s cemeteries stand as representatives of the changes Duluth went through, from a pioneer boom town to a full-fledged city. Within them rest the human remains of Duluth’s citizens—from the struggling workers to the millionaires who employed them. There are pioneers of all stripes, criminals and their victims. Their gravestones and memorial monuments bear witness to their passing, and give the seeker of Duluth’s departed history a place to mourn them and bear witness their common fate, one we all share.

Ava Francesca Battocchio contributed to this article.

Story by Tony Dierckins. Originally published on Zenith City Online (2012–2017). Click here for more stories by Tony Dierckins.