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River View Cemetery

River View Cemetery 1901, Riverside Road entrance

River View Cemetery 1901,
Riverside Road entrance

River View Cemetery is a 300+ acre wooded and landscaped enclave located at the southwest corner of the intersection of Macadam Avenue and Taylor’s Ferry Road, near the Sellwood Bridge, in Portland, Oregon. River View was established on land purchased by Henry W. Corbett and then sold to the River View Cemetery Association, an organization formed by Corbett in association with Henry Failing, William S. Ladd and others. The Association adopted its initial bylaws on December 4, 1882 and remains a non-profit endowment care facility.

From its beginnings, River View Cemetery was seen as a major milestone in Portland’s development; a beautiful, serene, well-designed and maintained final resting place for the city’s dead. Its graceful, almost park-like, natural setting quickly became a popular recreational destination for Portlanders, complimenting the project’s primary purpose. River View’s design was a response to what is called the pastoral or “rural” cemetery movement. Often pre-dating public parks, rural cemeteries like River View frequently became popular destinations for family picnics, Sunday strolls and other leisure activities (Ward, 2010).

Prior to the construction of River View the citizens in Portland relied upon the Lone Fir Cemetery, in East Portland, for burials. East Portland, a separate city until 1891, was located across the Willamette River and the difficulties associated with transporting the dead and the grieving by ferry boat, coupled with new opinions on the proper setting for interments, led to Portland’s growing interest in establishing a more attractive, and more convenient, burial ground of its own. As such, River View was an important step in Portland’s maturing self-view of itself as the primary metropolis of the region.

River View's three major founders not only brought the venture instant respectability and financial security, but considerable other benefits through their many interconnecting business ventures. By late-1888/early 1889, River View Cemetery was a sufficiently popular destination for Portland that one of its earliest trolley lines, operated by the Metropolitan Railway Company, began electric streetcar service to the cemetery. Within a year, by 1890, an intrepid Portlander could travel all the way from St. Johns to River View on a single fare (Labbe, 1980:67). As River View Cemetery came to be seen as the most desired final resting place for many of Portland's most prominent families, as many as fifty earlier burials at Lone Fir were disinterred and moved to the new, natural, cemetery.

Landscape and Architecture

Cemetery, view to the northeast

Cemetery, view to the northeast

After Corbett, Ladd and Failing had secured "a proper location" for the cemetery, as described in the River View Cemetery Association bylaws as being "...sufficiently removed from the limits of town to prevent any apprehension of interference by the encroachments of increasing population," they needed to design the site for its intended purpose.

Edward Otto Schwagerl (1842-1910) was born in Germany and came to the United States in 1854. His prior success designing rural cemeteries in the East brought him to the attention of Henry Failing and in 1879 led to his commission for the design of River View (Culbertson, 2005).

As the construction of River View was underway, The Oregonian ran a lengthy piece on what it termed "God's Acre," claiming that the new cemetery would be "...beautiful for situation and convenient of access, it will be the pride of the metropolis."

"The cemeteries of cities should be one the most noticeable features....if this be so, what world of gratification must the citizens of Portland feel in its possession of one of the finest situations for a cemetery in the United States" (The Oregonian, April 8, 1883).

A decade later, claiming that River View was “the most beautiful cemetery on the Pacific Coast,” The Oregonian stated “The loveliness of the spot well might cause the most ardent advocate of cremation to waiver in his convictions” (The Oregonian, October 22, 1899).

Schwagerl designed several structures for the River View project that were never built, as well as a stone "Gothic Revival" structure, which was built, but eventually razed to allow for construction of a new two story Georgian brick caretaker’s cottage (Bosker and Lenek, 1985:170). The cottage, now better known as the Superintendent’s House, was designed by Ellis Fuller Lawrence, of the firm Lawrence & Holford and was completed in November 1913 (Shellenbarger, 1987). Ellis Fuller Lawrence, an established Portland architect, is chiefly of note as the founder and long-time dean of the School of Architecture at the University of Oregon, as housed in Lawrence Hall, named in his honor. The Superintendent’s House at River View is the only one of several buildings that Lawrence & Holford built for the River View Cemetery Association that survives.

Superintendant's house

Superintendant's house

Located facing Macadam Avenue, the two-story brick building is topped by a truncated hipped roof with a heavily detailed box soffit highlighted by regular dentils. Multi-light windows, with shutters, pierce the symmetrical facade, flanking a fine entry below a half-round shell detail. The wooden widow’s walk, originally highlighting the building’s roof, was removed sometime after 1987. The Superintendent’s House was Determined Eligible for listing on the National Register of Historic Places as an exemplar of the Georgian style, in April 2010 (Feldman/CH2M-Hill, 2010).


As Portland's premier cemetery for more than a century, River View today has many notable interments, beginning with its founders, Messrs. Corbett, Ladd and Failing. The odd story of William S. Ladd’s interment at River View is among the more repeated. Shortly after his death, Ladd’s grave site was robbed and his body held for ransom. "To ensure that no such incident could occur again, Ladd’s coffin was encased in concrete after being returned to its rightful resting place" (Klooster, 1987).

Numerous pioneers are buried at River View, men and women who built much of early Portland and whose names are familiar to anyone reading a city map or studying early Oregon. These include Benson, Flanders, Glisan, Burnside, Ankeny, Hoyt, Kamm, Skidmore, Pittock, Weinhard and Terwilliger.

Pittock gravesite

Pittock gravesite

Former Oregon Governors include George Abernethy, Oregon’s governor under the provisional government prior to statehood (and for whom Abernethy Island, in Oregon City, is named, as well as the I-205 bridge between Oregon City and West Linn), A. C. Gibbs, La Fayette Grover, Charles Martin, Sylvester Pennoyer, George Woods and Paul Patterson.

US Senators and Members of Congress buried at River View, in addition to Henry Corbett, include Joseph N. Dolph, Rufus Holman, Nan Wood Honeyman, John Mitchell, Fredrick Mulkey and Richard Williams.

Other notables include Harvey Scott, the longtime editor of The Oregonian who so fought against women’s suffrage and Scott’s sister, Abigail Scott Duniway, who fought so hard to secure it. Frances Fuller Victor, a 19th century Oregon historian who wrote widely on the state’s formative period on her own and with Herbert Howe Bancroft is buried at River View, as is Dorothy McCullough Lee, Portland’s first woman mayor. Colonel Isaac William Smith, the man behind the locks at Willamette Falls and the Bull Run Reservoir, that still provides Portland’s municipal drinking water, is buried here. So is Joseph N. Teal, another merchant who also played an important role in the construction of the locks and the steamboat business that helped build Portland. Lyle Alzado, a former NFL football standout is buried at River View, as is Carl Mays, a major league baseball pitcher for 15 seasons from 1915 to 1929.

Perhaps most notorious among people buried at River View is Virgil Earp, the brother of Wyatt and a participant in the famed shootout at the OK Corral. When Virgil died in Arizona in 1899, his daughter, Nellie Law, who lived in Portland, arranged for the body to be shipped here. "Which is how one of the greatest gunslingers of the Old West came to be buried in Portland" (The Oregonian, September 2, 1991).

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