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Forestvale Cemetery is significant as an accurate reflection of the social and economic stratification, familial behavior patterns, and design preferences of the people of the small, frontier City of Helena, Montana during the early statehood period. It is the burial place for many persons who achieved great eminence in the political and social history of Montana. Late nineteenth century principles of landscape design are evident in the layout of the cemetery plots, the curved-linear roads and walkways, and the construction of the large, sunken pond with a small island located at the center of the cemetery grounds. The cemetery is also important due to the many distinctive examples of funerary art depicted in the headstones. Finally, the Forestvale Cemetery is significant as the burial place of at least one-hundred-fifty Chinese people, an ethnic group that had a notable impact on the history of the region.

Sky, Architecture, Arch, Photograph

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Text, Plant community, Font, Nature reserve

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In 1888, there were three public cemeteries in Helena, Montana, all of which were owned and operated by religious organizations: a Catholic cemetery, a Jewish cemetery, and the Benton Avenue Cemetery, which was generally populated by Protestants. As the City of Helena was expanding rapidly, growing from a population of three-thousand residents in 1880 to over thirteen thousand in one decade, the city government recognized the need for additional burial space outside of the city limits. During the summer of 1889, a group of Helena investors began to investigate suitable sites for the establishment of a new cemetery, and purchased one-hundred-forty acres, located about two and a half miles outside of town, from Charles C. Colber and his wife. Although the local newspaper described the new cemetery site in less than enthusiastic terms, stating that “the ground is bleak and unattractive and too remote” from town, the city nevertheless purchased the land and turned it over to the newly formed Helena Cemetery Association.  

The Helena Cemetery Association was organized on August 4, 1890 as a private corporation to manage the cemetery. Shares in this corporation were purchased by many of the most prominent citizens of Helena at $20/share. Numerous lots were sold immediately, and burials started at once. Peter Winne, one of the original major stockholders of the corporation, appealed to the association to loan him $21,000 for the purpose of constructing an electric railroad from downtown Helena to the cemetery property. Winna claimed to have expended $61,000 on this project by December 1892, but the railroad was never completed. 

Lots sold during the 1890s could be entered into the “perpetual care” plan for an additional assessment of $100. Assessments for maintenance on an annual basis cost $8 each year, with special charges for the upkeep of fencing, stone coping, raised graves, and sodding. By 1892, there were over three hundred burials at the new cemetery. The name was changed from the Helena Cemetery to Forestvale Cemetery in 1901, about the same time the Independent Order of Oddfellows (IOOP) cemetery was established across the street. 

The landscaping plan for Forestvale Cemetery was designed by Harry V. Wheeler, a civil engineer who lived in Helena from the late 1880s until the mid-1890s. Although may not have had formal training in landscaping design, his long and wide-ranging engineering experienced likely exposed him to some of the more contemporary trends in suburban design, which he adapted his 1890 plan for Forestvale. In 1882, Wheeler came to Montana to work for the Northern Pacific Railroad and was appointed deputy U.S. mineral surveyor in 1883. Wheeler’s “paisleyed” layout for the roads and paths of Forestvale Cemetery and the placement of a small, circular lake with a tiny island at the center of the grounds managed to create both interesting perspective and a sense of discovery of an unfolding landscape. The park-like atmosphere of Forestvale Cemetery was completely intentional.  

In 1917, the cemetery Board of Trustees donated a large parcel of land in the Glendale section to the county for burials for indigent persons. The Montana Children’s Home, a local orphanage, also buried approximately sixty children from 1917 to 1966 in this section, most of which were babies or small infants. Many of the graves in this section are unmarked or the metal markers have deteriorated to the point of ineligibility.  

At the northwest corner of the cemetery grounds, a small burial ground for Chinese persons was set aside during the nineteenth century. Within “China Row”, at least one-hundred-thirty burials occurred between 1890 and 1929. After 1930, and additional twenty-three burials occurred in “China Row”, and seven Chinese persons were buried in other parts of the cemetery, including six members of the prominent Wong family who were buried in the Mountain View and Davidson sections of the cemetery during the late 1940s and 1980s. The last burial recorded in “China Row” took place in 1955. Only nine marble headstones remain in the “China Row” section, although several deteriorated and illegible wooden and metal markers may be found in the vicinity amidst the overgrowth. The remains of a brick oven are found amidst a heavy scatter of glass, metal clasps, buttons, and other distinctively Chinese artifacts such as bits of opium pipes and celadon porcelain in the “China Row” section.  

The Forestvale Cemetery contains the remains of many persons who were of exceptional significance in determining the course of Montana’s political history and commercial development. The list of the more notable early citizens of Montana who are interred at Forestvale Cemetery is extensive. Some of these figures include the Honorable James Fergus, John H. Ming, Samuel T. Hauser, Colonel Charles A. Broadwater, Cornelius Hedges, and J. Scott Harrison.  

Forestvale Cemetery, National Register of Historic Places. Accessed January 14th 2021.

Forestvale Cemetery, Helena as She Was. Accessed January 14th 2021.

Forestvale Cemetery, Lewis and Clark County, Montana. Accessed January 14th 2021.