Its castellated Gothic gate standing silently a few blocks off of Montana Avenue south of downtown Helena, Forestvale Cemetery was established, at the end of a trolley line, in 1890. Montana has just become a state and Helena would soon enough become the permanent state capitol. The cemetery is the final resting place for town and state founders, pioneers, and the hundreds of workers, merchants, ranchers, and mechanics who shaped Helena’s history for over 100 years.
As the interpretive marker at the entrance cemetery notes, the cemetery came into public ownership in 1991 and has been listed in the National Register of Historic Places. It “was designated as a ‘Rural Park,’ a place to walk through Montana history.”
I would agree fully with that assertion. When I moved to Montana in 1981 my first abode was the Chessman Flats, a Victorian row house converted to apartments next to the Original Governor’s Mansion. I soon sought out Chessman’s final resting place, a sizable family plot shown above. I also discovered the graves of many famous late 19th century Montanans who I was just learning about. Samuel Hauser, the banker and early territorial governor, is buried here in another family plot.
The Fergus family was another name I recalled, especially with the proud designation of “Pioneers 1862”. Several markers, like that for the Ecler family below, note the final resting place of that first generation of settlers in the Big Sky Country. Nor is Hauser the
only governor to be buried here. Tim Babcock, a late 20th century governor, is buried with a marker that outlines the state of Montana, a fitting tribute.
The Nicolas family plot is one of the view, compared to the many at Benton Avenue Cemetery, to be outlined by a low metal fence. But Forestvale also has a handful of the distinctive hollowed press metal grave markers, like the flamboyant combination of classical and Victorian motifs of the Leslie family marker.
The pressed metal markers for the Leslies are just the beginning of the Victorian funerary art represented at Forestvale. As shown below there is the Richardsonian Romanesque grave house memorial for the Brown family and the cut-off limbs monument for Mary Love Stoakes, who died in 1889.
Beautiful statuary is reflected in the grave marker for Lillian Stoakes Cullen, who died in 1897.
But as is obvious in the background of the photographs above, the great majority of the grave markers at Forestvale are much more restrained, rectangular slabs of rock, respectful but minus the Victorian flourish.
At the rear of the cemetery markers are missing, or are small and unadorned. In the far corner is a later memorial to at least 22 children who died at the Montana Children’s Home and Hospital from 1917 to 1932.
The cemetery’s interpretive marker noted that at Forestvale “There was never any prejudice as to creed or color.” That is not true, outside the north fence of the cemetery is a grave yard for Chinese residents of Helena. This section is not well kept, and judging from the number of depressions, the number of people buried here could be sizable.
A summer 2018 story in the Helena Independent Record told of a new local effort to identify the number of graves in this section and to begin a process to right a wrong. Certainly the present condition is unacceptable, and hopefully steps will finally take place to place the “Chinese section” into the publicly owned and maintained cemetery.