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Seattle’s Oldest (and Forgotten) Cemetery

Posted by Johnine Larsen on October 30, 2019
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You can’t be buried in the Denny Hotel Cemetery. Not anymore. No one’s gone into the ground there since 1860, when those already buried were dug up and moved. Most of them anyway.

Seattle’s first (white) cemetery began in 1853 on a piece of land near today’s Second and Stewart intersection. The Denny Party and other early settlers used it for just seven years. “We buried there for several years,” recalled Arthur Denny in 1898, “and also during the Indian War. Burials there were commenced as early as 1853 and continued as late as 1860.” Twenty people, roughly, ended up resting there.

If the cemetery had a name, no one wrote it down. Although we know it today as the “Denny Hotel Cemetery,” it didn’t actually have anything to do with the Denny Hotel—the graveyard came first by about 50 years.

After the last burial in 1960, that early cemetery fell out of early Seattle’s memory. More settlers moved in. Seattle became a real city, with shops and streets and commerce—and the grand Denny Hotel. The hotel was built between 1888 and 1903, and during the excavations, the builders uncovered some bodies they didn’t expect to find. That’s never a comfortable feeling.

The Seattle Post-Intelligencer ran an article asking about the bodies, and the Seattle expert, original pioneer Arthur Denny himself, stepped in to explain things. When they abandoned the graveyard back in 1860, he said, they removed the bodies and the graves, but only the ones the could find. The pioneers didn’t have solid slabs for tombstones; their grave markers were fragile things that rotted and disappeared in the soggy wilderness of western Washington. So a few bodies… stayed.

Adding to the eeriness, those pioneer bodies weren’t the ones the builders dug up. They had found Native American bodies, evident by the things they had been buried with. That prompted local “treasure hunters” to sneak into the site and do some more exploring of their own, desecrating what might have been a sacred Native American burial site. Did those plunderers find anything? We don’t know. But the Denny Hotel continued construction, graves be damned, and eventually opened in 1903.

Just three years later, during the Denny Regrade, the hotel caught fire and was demolished. The next buildings to stand on the former pioneer graveyard and a potential Native American burial site still stand today: including The Moore Theater. I’ve seen shows in that building, but when I think about it now, I get chills.

Spooked in Seattle writes about another building built atop the old cemetery: “Many residents refuse to wander in the basement area alone for there is a very unwelcoming feeling down there. You can hear people talking, even when you know you are alone. Some have described smells of death like those in a funeral home. Many feel that what seems to lurk in the basement is left behind from the ground’s time as a cemetery.”

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