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Mrs. Gafney – 1554 Avenue East – Lake View Cemetery – Seattle, WA

In 1872 the Seattle Masonic Cemetery was plated by some of the early Seattle settlers. Later, in 1890, when Seattle’s population had grown to 42,000 from the original head count of around 25 in 1851, the name was changed to Lake View Cemetery.

Located on the north end of Capitol Hill, the cemetery is situated on an eastern facing parcel of land that has expansive views of Lake Washington and the Cascade Mountains in the distance. The very best views are at the top of the gently sloping hillside.

Many of the family names that are today still synonymous with the region’s place and institutional names are buried here. Apparently this group had such a grand time running the place in life that they decided to spend eternity together and on the way out engage in one grand final eye gouging competition to see who could erect the biggest and baddest pile of rocks that proved, with absolute finality, that this or that family’s first outhouse after landing in Seattle had no flies. Not even once.

Every time I go to that part of the cemetery I am almost immediately struck deaf by how these monuments shout at you and that beneath them lay important people who had first, middle, and last names, that lived from this time to that time, and apparently did great things with their lives. Of course, this last conclusion is solely based on the size and complexity the monument even though what these bones actually accomplished is not clear.

However what I do hear, quite clearly, are whispers that gossip about an insecurity that they will be forgotten and even worse, a fear, that nobody will care. Still, I admire how these graves are a self-contained perfected expression of these deads’ final last comment about who they were in life even as they utterly fail to tell me anything useful about the humanity of these people.

Surprisingly I have never had similar thoughts about monuments erected by people to honor a particular person or class of persons. From those monuments, I hear the collective voices of people discussing how the person, honored in stone, pushed the river of history into different channels.

On the other hand, I have never had issues with monuments erected by a particular person to honor himself or herself provided it is over the top awesome. Think of the pyramids. The deal here, literally for me, is the social compact needed to accomplish the work. The Pharaohs, without the support an entire the society would, at best, be remembered as some dudes that wore some silly looking caps and had lots of gold or, in the case of Cleopatra, went on to become a Hollywood legend.

On the fringes of this cacophony and extravagant arm failing is found one of those famous family names that caught my eye for a very odd reason.

Captain William Renton (b. November 2, 1818) was born into a sea-going family and then used that ingrained talent to take risks, lead, and in the process make a fortune. He arrived at Alki in 1853 and promptly erected a sawmill. With him came Sarah Martha Bevans Renton (b. 1816), his wife who he married in 1841, and her two young daughters from a previous marriage, Elizabeth and Mary.

The Alki mill failed because of its exposure to the elements, as did a second one a few years later, at Enetai, near Bremerton, because it was difficult for the sailing ships to reach it. Much like Goldilocks, in the Three Bears story, he persevered and eventually found that just right location on Bainbridge Island where he founded, in 1864, the Port Blakely Mill Company.

With San Francisco as a major market, the Port Blakely Mill and the supporting logging operations were wildly successful even through the economic recession of 1873. During this time he began to branch out by investing other business such as some coal mines and a railroad near the southern end of Lake Washington, a venture that directly resulted in the city that grew up there being named for him.

During the 1880s he reached his pinnacle and nadir as a capitalist. In the early 1880’s the Port Blakely Mill was the largest one on the entire Pacific Coast and to keep the logs flowing to the saws he invested in a railroad that allowed him to harvest trees in the Shelton area and then transport them to southern Puget. From there the logs were assembled into rafts and floated to the mill.

In his spare time during this period, he got involved in building ships at Port Ludlow and investing in Seattle real estate. The most notable of these tracts is known as Renton Hill or Second Hill. I call it that spot right below the big orange broadcasting towers at the intersection 18th Avenue and East Madison Street.

Then disaster struck in 1888 when the Port Blakely mill caught fire and after spending a few hours lighting up the night sky ceased to exist. Ever the pragmatist, even in his old age, Renton rebuilt the mill and this time he put in a sprinkler system. Good thinking there Smokey.

The end came soon after this.

On May 12, 1890, after 49 years of marriage, Sarah died, age 74, intestate or for us non legal eagle types, without a will. I find this oversight highly reminiscent of lack of a sprinkler system at the mill and in these two details a reckless cheapness at play.

On July 18, 1891, Captain Renton passed away, age 73, with his legacy summed up in the Seattle Press-Times as “the strong man was gone, but the stern philosophy of his life had put life into the commerce of Puget Sound.”

Today at the Renton family grave site is found a tall four-sided monument that is ornate and at the same time quite severe in its execution. What I find quite striking is how devoid of any reference it is to Renton’s accomplishments. Additionally only two of the panels reference family members: William and Sarah. The other two are blank. Overall one gets the sense that William Renton, a vibrant business man, ultimately appears to have lived a lonely life.

On the most prominent panel, the eastern panel, the one that faces the entrance to the grave is not a found a memorial to William, but surprisingly, one to Sarah:

SACRED
TO THE MEMORY OF
SARAH M. RENTON
DIED
MAY 2, 1890
AGED
74 YEARS
ERECTED
BY HER DAUGHTER

On southern panel is found a rather stern and impersonal reference to William that is not all that different from headstones that mark an infant’s death, minus the you were loved part. The man who built an empire in and around Seattle is memorialized on his grave as follows:

WILLAM RENTON
BORN
NOV. 2, 1818;
DIED
JULY 18, 1891

On the eastern side are three grave markers that lay flush with the ground and are arranged from left to right as follows:

WM. RENTON          SARAH RENTON          MRS. GAFNEY

I may not know much but I can recognize a can of worms when it is the size of a water tank intended for a mill size sprinkler system and it is leaking all over the place right in front of me.

Some questions…

Who in the hell is Mrs. Gafney? Why she is buried as a Mrs.? Why is her first name omitted? Why is she buried here but not listed on the monument? Why is she not buried with her husband? Did she have children? When was she born? When did she die?

Why did William and Sarah get married? Why did William and Sarah never have children of their own? Did William and Sarah have a close relationship? What was the family like? What was William and Sarah’s daughters relationship like? Was Sarah closer to her daughters than to William?

Which daughter erected the monument to her Mother? Why is this not listed as daughters? Was the monument erected before or after William died? Why did nobody erect a more personal tribute on William’s panel?

A revelation…

To spice this mystery up a bit I will tell you I found an appellate court opinion discussing Sarah’s estate and in that opinion is listed the three heirs to her estate: William Renton, and Sarah’s daughters, Elizabeth W. Sackman and Mary A. Gaffney.

In my poking around I also discovered that Pier 62, on the Seattle Waterfront, was completed in 1902 was once named the Gaffney Dock for its apparently absentee owner, Mary Gaffney. With that reference Mary seemingly vanishes until she is buried next to her Mother.

Wow. That clears up very little for me.

More questions…

Why was Mary buried as Mrs. Gafney instead of Mary Gafney? Why does Mary not make reference that she is Sarah’s daughter (that is an inkblot for sure). Why is Gafney spelled Gaffney everywhere that I found reference to her including the appellate court opinion except on her headstone (did somebody screw up and give Mary the equivalent of a misspelled tattoo)?

I ask once again…

Who Is Mrs. Gafney?

Copyright 2013 By Katherine Johnson – All Rights Reserved

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