As the days grow shorter and the darkness closes in earlier and earlier, it is easy for our minds to wander toward spooky thoughts and locations. The crisp October breeze makes the hairs on your arms stand, and the thought of the departed, who didn’t get the fond farewell that they deserve, makes the hairs on the back of your neck stand. The Soo is Michigan’s oldest city, which means that over the past 350-plus years, there has been plenty of need for cemeteries.
Over the years, people have done their best to properly lay the dearly departed to rest, but it is inevitable that decisions had to made when it came to burying the deceased. A city as old as the Soo certainly has unmarked graves throughout city limits and into the surrounding forests, but eventually, there were cemeteries established so that loved ones had an official place to lay their deceased to rest. Keep reading to learn about four historical cemeteries in the Sault Ste. Marie area and their seemingly sordid past.
Maple Ridge Cemetery
It’s hard to miss Maple Ridge Cemetery. Located on Ashmun Street, hundreds of cars zoom past this landmark without a second thought to why it’s there or even who is buried there. This cemetery was established in 1874, reached capacity in 1901 and provides a home to around 200-300 bodies. This high death rate signifies just how rough it was to survive in the Eastern Upper Peninsula back then.
Some descriptions of the deceased in the official record are unique, such as the description for this poor chap in 1896, “Grave paid for on December 4, 1896. Proprietor of the Eureka billiard parlors. Early last summer he came to the Soo from Brainard, Minn. Shortly after his arrival here he discovered that he possessed hypnotic powers. He gained considerable notoriety through his amateur performances. He was to have given an entertainment at Bay Mills on the evening of the day on which he died. After the inquest, the body was taken to Vanderhook’s undertaking parlor and according to a request, of the deceased made some time before his death it was kept until there was no doubt of his death.”
All burial documents were handwritten, and have recently been digitally preserved online for you to read at your leisure. Maple Ridge is also now registered as a local historical site in the Soo. Learn more here, come experience the history of this site for yourself when you visit the Soo!
Mission Hill Cemetery
Continue your cemetery tour with a 20 minute drive west of the Soo, and find historic Mission Hill Cemetery tucked away on a ridge overlooking Lake Superior. This beautiful and tranquil place is primarily a home for Native Americans, but there are also shipwreck victims of Lake Superior here too. They were laid to rest when their lives were claimed during one of the lake’s infamous temper tantrums.
Seventeen sailors aboard the SS Myron steamship lost their fight with Lake Superior in November of 1919. Eight of those men eventually washed up on shore several months later, encased in ice. After being chipped out of their icy tombs, these nameless men were put to rest on Mission Hill where a plaque sits in their memory.
Riverside Cemetery sits on Riverside Drive across from the St. Marys River. Established in 1890, due to high death rates it expanded to add the Catholic section in 1901 after Maple Ridge reached capacity. Many names on the headstones are still prominent families in the Soo today. It is truly a place of peace for those laid to rest. There is also a large section dedicated to military veterans. But, venture just beyond the headstones there is a section of overgrown woodland that tugs at the heart strings…a field full of the forgotten, lost underneath a tangle of brush and gnarled trees. You would never guess that behind the peace and quiet of Riverside, lies a place that was meant to be forgotten…
Potter’s Field at Riverside Cemetery
The Riverside Cemetery potter’s field is located just beyond the manicured plots in Riverside Cemetery, but there are no headstones to mark those who rest there. A “potter’s field” was a term from the Bible that meant a place to bury the destitute, a deceased stranger, or vagrant. These poor souls either did not have a penny to their name or was an outsider to the community who didn’t have a loved one to properly lay them to rest. Over 280 people rest here now, with only a plaque listing those who are known to be there. So many of these people share a similar fate, and it was one of despair, as was reported in the Detroit Free Press,
“Some of the dead wanted to escape the hard life of the north one way or another, like Alexander Jeston, a laborer found hanging at his home; Riley Johnson, a window cleaner who climbed to the top of the town’s wireless telegraph tower and jumped; Erick Kailenen, who cut his own throat with a razor; and Charles Edwards, a lumber camp cook who gruesomely drank carbolic acid.”
Thanks to effortless research, some of the people buried here have been brought back into memory. Caroline Grabowski of the Chippewa County Historical Society spent hours researching public records to hopefully bring peace to some of the less fortunate who ended up here. All but 25 people have been identified as being buried at this site. The bodies of the potter’s field range from a heartbreaking number of babies to immigrants to laborers just trying to make a living in the harsh lands of the Upper Peninsula.
The Soo Locks are full of history, but so is every inch of Michigan’s oldest city. Don’t forget to pay your respects to those who helped build the Soo into what it is today! Visit us online here to plan your getaway to the U.P. Do you have any tidbits of history or experiences to share from any of these locations? Share your experiences on social media with #ILoveTheSoo. Follow us on Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest, and Instagram.