Skagway: Graves restored in Native cemetery

Posted: Sunday, July 21, 2002

Among the headboards in the Native Cemetery in Dyea are those of Sophia, Mabel and Julia Matthews. The white wooden markers and crib (small fence around the grave) stand crooked while grass and bush creep around and almost cover the structures.

The graves have had little maintenance since Bill Matthews, husband to Sophia and father to the girls, died in 1976. Matthews personally tended and preserved the graves following their deaths in 1920 and 1921.

"He was the unofficial caretaker of the cemetery," said Carl Smith, nephew of Bill Matthews. "He took a personal interest in maintaining these grave sites."

Carl, of Juneau, and his father Norman Lewis Smith Sr., are personally restoring their family's headboards and cribs in the Dyea and Skagway cemeteries.

"Carl is the one member of the family that was very interested in his heritage, so he began to dig," Norman said.

Carl said he became interested in his family history in the early 1970s after hearing stories from his uncle. He then started his search by pulling a dozen-and-a half death certificates from state archives.

"It's been quite a puzzle to put it all together," Carl said.

Carl looked at the graves and came up with marriage certificates of his grandparents and the death certificates of Sophia and Mabel, he said.

"This project is the brainchild of my father," said Carl, who has replaced six headstones of family members in Sitka, Juneau and Haines, and completed two in Dyea and two in Skagway.

A couple of years ago Carl and Norman approached the National Park Service about restoring the graves and volunteered to do the restoration, Reed McClusky of the park service said. The cemetery is on park service property.

"The families identified a desire and need to have some work done," he said.

Headboards were replaced in the Skagway cemetery for Mrs. W.E. Matthews, Carl's great-grandmother, and Ms. Marion Matthews, W.E. Matthews' sister-in-law.

In Dyea, headboards for Sophia, Mabel and Julia Matthews were replaced. Sophia was 27 and died in 1921. Mabel, 8, and Julia, 1, died in 1920 and share a grave and headboard.

"There was always speculation on how many people were buried in that grave," Norman said.

"I've got hundreds of hours into this," said Ralph Lopez, who constructed part of the crib at his home in Port Angeles, Wash., and completed the project in Skagway's park service woodshop. He said he has been working on the project for more than a year.

"It's kind of fun," he said. "You sort of develop a kinship with the Matthews' spirit."

Lopez, who has known Lewis for 15 years, said Lewis paid to have him and his son David, 13, come to Skagway to work on the project.

"He gave me an offer I couldn't refuse," Lopez said. "I wanted to show David Alaska."

Lopez, who has been a drywall finisher for the past 30 years, said, "This is a nice change, working on (the crib)."

The Matthews' graves were among seven moved from the original Dyea Native Cemetery to its present site outside the Slide Cemetery by the park service in 1978. The Native Cemetery had been in danger of being eroded by the meandering Taiya River.

"The crib was in poor condition and fell apart when they moved it over there," Norman said.

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