State pen's cemetery restored

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 also are six unknown graves discovered during construction of the new West Complex. Although once well outside the walls, due to the expansion project, the graveyard now is entirely within the high fences and razor wire of the prison perimeter.

The West Complex construction also has 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 where they had been, install a new sprinkler system and reseed 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 archaeologist and replaced each one," Howerton said during a tour of the restored cemetery earlier this month.

Heinitz said the work added "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.

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 Sept. 10, 1950.

Sources: Washington state Department of Corrections,

Washington State Penitentiary and Richard Howerton,

construction project coordinator