Muskegon's Evergreen Cemetery
A Brief History
Muskegon's Evergreen Cemetery shouldn't be missed by those traveling either to or through the small west Michigan city. Featuring tombstones up to 150 years old, the cemetery is a beautiful feature in a struggling neighborhood.
The land for the cemetery was donated to the City of Muskegon in 1865. A 10 acre parcel was purchased for internment after city leadership determined that household wells dug near the old cemetery weren't going to provide safe drinking water. The cemetery, formerly at First Street and Muskegon Avenue (on the plot of land now occupied by Mount Zion Church of God in Christ and a portion of Muskegon Avenue, since widened), was closed and it's burials disinterred. The pine coffins were carried to Evergreen, once considered to be on the far reaches of the city, at least a hour's ride from downtown, for reburial.
The cemetery was considered such a barren piece of land that there is a story of a family placing an infant's grave in their own yard, rather than in the piece of desolate, formerly fallow farmland that served as the city cemetery. It was because of this that several local women, led by Maria Piper and Laura Smith, decided to form the Ladies Cemetery Association. Their aim was to make the cemetery a more comfortable place for grieving families to visit. They planted trees, including many of the oaks that now tower over the cemetery, and flowers, installed a fence, put in benches and a small park at the entrance, and had a well dug so they could be sure their landscaping survived. Eventually, they even put a fountain in the center of the cemetery.
The plots became so highly desired that the space around the fountain was auctioned off to prominent families in the city and the fountain eventually removed (it still exists and is in the yard of a house elsewhere in the city). The first mausoleum, that of the Moon family, stands to this day, though the lovely brass doors have since disappeared.
Many of the City of Muskegon's founding families purchased plots in this auctioned piece of cemetery land, their names gracing city streets, buildings, and institutions. The largest monument in the cemetery, save for the large mausoleum on the south end, is that of the Hackley family. It sits outside the auctioned portion of the cemetery and is built of Vermont granite brought in by ship.
Charles Hackley was a lumber baron who rose to prominence during the short years of Michigan's lumber boom just after the Civil War. He began his time in Muskegon as a laborer working with his father on the plank road across the river to North Muskegon and worked later in a mill owned by Mr Truesdell. He was sent to learn bookkeeping in Kenosha, Wisconsin, and returned to work in the office in the same mill. Having an aptitude for the business end of lumbering, Mr Hackley, along with his father, purchased mills of their own in the financial crisis that shortly followed. In doing so and assuming the debt of the mills, they made their first impression on the city that would be known as the Lumber Queen. His business was so successful that he was able to fund several city institutions and foundations that exist yet today.
Mr Hackley had the monument built before his death, believing that something so beautiful ought also be something he had a chance to enjoy in his lifetime. Hackley's name is featured on many civic projects throughout the city. He purchased land and funded the construction of the public library, the school athletic field, the formerly public hospital (now a satellite of Mercy Hospital), the school administration building (formerly the manual training school, among other uses), the park at the heart of downtown Muskegon, and multiple monuments throughout the city. He was also at the heart of the movement to bring industry to Muskegon after the fall of the lumber industry, an endeavor that resulted in the foundation of Muskegon Heights. Mr Hackley, however, did not like to be the center of attention nor to speak at civic events, so though he may have dedicated his wealth to civic engagement, he preferred to have his attorney, business partners, or other associates speak for him, even at the dedication of monuments (this author, in her seven years researching the cemetery, has found one instance in which Hackley himself dedicated a statue).
Other city founders are buried in Evergreen Cemetery. Mr Hackley's business partner, Thomas Hume, is interred not far from his monument in a far simpler plot. The Hume family rests under a large Celtic cross adorned with elaborate knot work carved in relief. Thomas Hume, like Charles Hackley, was a lumber baron, though Hume was of even humbler roots.
Thomas Hume was an indentured servant in Ireland before he immigrated to the United States. His trade, it appears, was as a grocer. He came to the United States with little, his trip sponsored by distant family in Marshall, Michigan. After setting foot in the country, he traveled to that small community not far from Battle Creek. While there, he met his wife. They traveled to Muskegon when he learned of work in the lumber mills and he became Hackley's bookkeeper. Eventually, Thomas Hume became the junior partner in Hackley's business. The Hume and Hackley families were close and built their grand mansions beside one another with a shared "barn"- an elaborate carriage house built for the horses, carriages, and the carriage drivers that sits between the two houses. These structures are now owned by the Lakeshore Museum Center and visitors to the city can tour them May through October.
Hume's fortune also led to improvements in the region. Hume, along with Hackley and others, was one of the founding members of the Muskegon Bonus Fund, a group of philanthropists, most of them having earned their wealth from lumber, who saw the end of the era as also bringing the end of the cities of West Michigan. Instead of allowing this to happen, the Bonus Fund proposed land, financial incentives, and housing subdivisions for industries who moved to Muskegon or Muskegon Heights. (As an aside, the building constructed by the first of these attracted businesses, the Chase-Hackley Piano Company, was torn down this past year as it was the final building remaining on what had become the Sappi Paper mill site.)
Captain Jonathan Walker
Jonathan Walker was a captain because he owned a boat, not because of a military rank. His fame wasn't due to a war or leadership of a battalion. Captain Walker earned his reputation because of what, or rather, who, he agreed to take on his boat.
In 1844, Walker was living in Pensacola, Florida. He was asked by seven escaped slaves to sail for the Bahamas. He agreed, but after they set sail, Walker fell ill and the boat was adrift for days. When it was rescued, Walker's actions were discovered and he was sent to Pensacola to stand trial. After he was convicted, his federal sentence was to be branded with SS on his right hand, a mark which stood for "slave stealer," though others also said it ought mean "slave savior." It is worth noting that he is the only person recorded branded as a punishment under federal law. His fines were paid for by Northern abolition groups and after his release, he went on a lecture circuit to preach on the evils of slavery, using his own branded hand as a way to rally the audience into the realization that slavery wasn't a benevolent institution, but rather one that was destructive to not only the enslaved, but to the nation that treated it as acceptable.
Walker and his wife, Jane Gage Walker, settled in what is now Norton Shores, Michigan in 1850. He settled in to a quiet life as a farmer. At his death in 1878, he was buried in Evergreen Cemetery. His monument at the front of the cemetery was dedicated in front of 5,000 witnesses. The obelisk still stands, though it was replaced with an identical monument when it was damaged.
There is a lovely photograph of what the cemetery looked like closer to the time of his death here.
The cemetery's residents do not only include the prominent members of the community and those who could afford a burial. Evergreen Cemetery also features a large, unmarked Potter's Field. It rests on the left hand (east) side of the cemetery mausoleum. Little is known about those buried in this plot, nor how many are buried there. An article that ran in the Muskegon Chronicle in 1899 lists 75 burials in the Potter's Field in the preceding year and notes that this is about what had been buried there each year before. Three stones were once in the field. William Wintall's gravestone, a Civil War military headstone, broke at some point and was removed. Mrs Buckingham's survey of the cemetery in the late 80s, notes that this stone was then stored in the basement of the mausoleum. Still marked are the graves of CGF MqQuesten and Freddie Fifield. Neither stone is standing, both are flat to the ground. They are often swallowed by the grass unless this author cuts it back away from the edges of the markers. Nothing is known of these two individuals other than their ages- Mr McQuesten lived into his 30s while Freddie died at age 9.
From lowly to grand, there are many remarkable grave markers in Evergreen Cemetery. The stories of the individuals buried there are sometimes easy to research or well known, be that locally or nationally, while others are completely lost to time and obscurity. The cemetery is well worth a visit on any trip to Muskegon.
It is best to visit spring-fall, as only the center drive is plowed during the winter and the aisles among the stones are inaccessible during snowy weather. The aisles aren't paved, so be prepared for soggy grass if you come in wet weather. The cemetery rules state that no one is allowed on the premises after dark.
© 2017 A Lorena