Project preserves Washington State Penitentiary graves

A cemetery at the Washington State Penitentiary is the final resting place for hundreds who died between the late 1880s and 1950.



A set of question marks designates one of the six graves at the Washington State Penitentiary holding the remains of an inmate for whom no record exists. (Aug. 2, 2010)


Grave number 71 hold the remains of Whis Tum a Lah, the first inmate to be buried in the Washington State Penitentiary cemetery. According to prison records, Whis Tum a Lah died on June 25, 1887 about one month after arriving at the prison. (Aug. 2, 2010)

WALLA WALLA -- In this graveyard, the dead have no names.

Only numbers mark the headstones set flush in the earth. They reveal nothing else. No birth dates, no death dates, no epitaphs.

And six don't even have a number, just question marks.

Welcome to the Washington State Penitentiary cemetery.

In use from the late 1880s to 1950, the burial ground is the resting place for 341 inmates who died at the prison, but whose bodies were not claimed by family members. There are also six unknown graves discovered during construction of the new West Complex. Although once well outside the walls, due to the expansion project the graveyard is now entirely within the high fences and razor wire of the prison perimeter.

The West Complex construction has also led to a recently-completed restoration project of the historic site, a project carried out almost entirely at night by construction workers aided by inmate volunteers.

As recounted by Eric Heinitz, Department of Corrections environmental specialist, the project became necessary after the work on the West Complex expansion raised the ground surrounding the cemetery, leaving the site below the level of the surrounding terrain.

This created two problems. Water collected at the low end of the cemetery, creating a pond several feet deep, and it created a security threat because there were spots where inmates could not be seen by the guard towers.

The solution was to first precisely map the location of each of the headstones on known graves with a GPS unit and remove the markers. The next step was to truck in dirt, 427 truckloads in all, to make the site level with the surrounding ground. The final steps were to replace the old headstones in the exact spots they had been at, install a new sprinkler system and reseed the area with grass. In places where age and erosion had made the headstones illegible, new ones were put alongside the originals.

The survey and mapping were started in the summer of 2009 and the backfill and restoration work completed this spring, said Richard Howerton, construction project coordinator.

"We GPS'd every headstone and after we got the grading done, we came back in with an archeologist and replaced each one," Howerton said during a tour of the restored cemetery earlier this month. Accompanying him were Mark Marion, construction project supervisor and two visiting DOC officials, Rowlanda Cawthon and Belinda Stewart.

Because of security concerns, all of the work had to be done at night, Howerton said. "We started at 8 p.m. and worked 10 hours."

In his report on the project, Heinitz said unexpected problems included the GPS unit not working correctly on two occasions, equipment breakdowns, scheduling conflicts with other projects, prison lockdowns and the "unanticipated time it (took) to replace a headstone in its exact original location.

"We scheduled three days, but as it turns out, it took 14 days," Heinitz wrote.

Heinitz also said that as he walked out one night to the cemetery with the inmate volunteers, "I discovered some of the offenders weren't completely briefed on what they would be doing."

"One actually thought we were going to dig up the bodies and was concerned we were doing the work at night (and) one told me he wasn't real comfortable digging around in a cemetery in the middle of the night," Heinitz said.

"And, I must say, digging in a cemetery at midnight on a very cold, foggy winter night does add a touch of reality to the term 'graveyard shift.'"

Facts and figures

Although 341 headstones are marked only with the inmates' prison number, the names of the dead and their dates of death are known through prison records.

Although the records from when the state took over the cemetery are fairly accurate with all known burial sites accounted for, prison officials say the six gravesites discovered during the West Complex expansion remain a mystery. All that is known is the graves are "extremely old and used square nails in the coffins."

At least two women are buried in the cemetery and there could be two more in the unidentified graves. (At one time Walla Walla was the site of a women's prison.)

There are 17 inmates buried in the cemetery who were executed at the prison. No one claimed the remains after they were put to death.

Construction of the penitentiary began in 1886 and the first group of inmates arrived around May of 1887 from Seatco. Four of the inmates buried in the cemetery are from that first group.

The first inmate buried in the cemetery was Whis Tum a Lah, who died June 25, 1887, about one month after arriving. The last burial in the cemetery was an inmate who died on Sept. 10, 1950.

(Sources: Washington state Department of Corrections, Washington State Penitentiary and Richard Howerton, construction project coordinator)


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