River erosion exposes graves near Dillingham Hospital

Posted: Tuesday, December 31, 2002

ANCHORAGE (AP) -- Erosion of a steep riverbank below Dillingham's Kanakanak Hospital has exposed an increasing number of coffins and bones from unmarked graves in recent years.

Now, the Alaska Area Native Health Service, which manages the hospital property, has started a project that will identify graves in danger of exposure and move them if necessary.

Many people were buried in unmarked graves around Kanakanak Hospital during the past 90 years said University of Alaska Anchorage archaeologist Roger Harritt. In September remains were removed from a steep bluff overlooking the Nushagak River.

The person may have been an Alaska Native who survived the smallpox and measles epidemics of 1900 only to be cut down by Spanish influenza in 1918. It might have been a cannery worker from Mexico or China, a visitor from a distant village or maybe a Dillingham orphan with no family left to claim the body and bury it.

Disturbing the dead is a sensitive issue but something has to be done, said project coordinator Tom Coolidge.

''My druthers is to move as few (graves) as possible. We shouldn't be out there digging people up because it seems like the thing to do now,'' he said. However, he added, ''we don't want graves washing out.''

Dillingham's multicultural past could make it difficult to identify the remains or even their ethnic background, Harritt said.

The area has been a commercial hub since Russian traders established a post there nearly 200 years ago, drawing Natives from Western Alaska, the Kuskokwim River drainage and Cook Inlet. A Russian Orthodox mission followed, as did a U.S. Signal Corps meteorological station, and one of the first salmon canneries in Alaska was built there in 1884.

The federal Bureau of Education established a small hospital near Dillingham in the late 1800s. In 1913 it was moved to the site of the present-day Kanakanak, six miles south of Dillingham on the western shore of the Nushagak River, according to medical historian Dr. Robert Fortuine. The facility was expanded around 1918, then became an orphanage to take in children whose parents died in the Spanish influenza pandemic of 1918-19.

''Burials have gone on since the hospital was established,'' Harritt said. ''If there weren't any relatives to claim the bodies after a death occurred, something had to be done. The solution early on was to bury the remains at the hospital,'' he said. ''It just got to be standard practice.''

No one knows how many bodies are buried around Kanakanak, but some people believe it could be hundreds. Former hospital maintenance man Paul Brannon, who now lives in Anchorage, said he remembers burying eight or 10 people in the years he worked there, 1948-50.

''Tuberculosis was really rampant,'' he said, and the hospital had devoted one wing to TB patients. ''They come from all over, from the Kuskokwim, down the Aleutians, everything. When those people would die, their relatives had no funds to take 'em home. So they would just sort of leave 'em there.''

His job was to build simple coffins and bury the remains on a grassy knoll overlooking Kanakanak Creek.

''There had been a lot buried before I was there,'' Brannon said. ''There was crosses with nothing on 'em, but there was quite a substantial amount. Any person that was not picked up by the family, the hospital buried 'em out on that hill.''

Brannon, 72, said he doesn't remember any record keeping. ''They'd just tell me that so-and-so had died, go build a box and bury 'em.''

After the Spanish influenza pandemic, ''they couldn't dig the graves fast enough,'' said George Shade, a former Dillingham resident who believes many of the remains are Alaska Natives'. ''They were buried two and three deep, on permafrost,'' he said, with some mass graves holding 40 to 50 people.

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