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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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News >  Spokane

Coffin hits bump in road to reburial

A pioneer-era coffin discovered Friday near a road construction site in Spokane will remain uncovered a bit longer.

The coffin was found a few days after bones were discovered near Third Avenue and Division Street.

Sarah Keller, head of Eastern Washington University’s department of geography and anthropology, identified two bones as human upper arms and said she could see more remains inside the coffin.

But identifying the bones or pinpointing their origin will be impossible, so she recommended Sunday that the bones be reburied and everything – including the coffin – be covered with concrete.

But the Washington state Office of Archaeology and Preservation asked the city on Monday to hold off on sealing up the artifacts, said Public Works Director Roger Flint.

“They wanted verification from EWU as to what they found,” Flint said.

The state preservation employee handling the issue didn’t return a call for comment Monday, but Flint said he will comply with the office’s request.

“I don’t want to have to dig it back up again,” he said.

Spokane City Council President Dennis Hession also called for careful consideration of the situation at a meeting Monday.

Nancy Compau, retired director of the Northwest Room historical collection in the downtown Spokane library, said it would be “sort of sad” to just recover the coffin.

Several of Spokane’s first settlers, aside from Native Americans, are buried in Greenwood Cemetery, she said.

“It seems like they could have moved (the coffin) there and at least said ‘Unknown,’ ” Compau said.

She worked through several theories of whose bones could be buried near the busy intersection on Monday afternoon.

Perhaps it was a patient from the original Sacred Heart Hospital, she said, but then realized the burial site was too far from the hospital’s first location near the Spokane River. It might have been a squatter because a colony of transient people lived in that area toward the end of the 19th century, she said. But the wooden coffin and its square nails indicate that it was built earlier, in the 1880s, and a squatter might not have had the luxury of a coffin anyway.

Finally, Compau found a map of Spokane from 1884. It shows a lone house in the area near what is now Third and Division. The location was so far from the heart of Spokane at that time that the streets there weren’t even named.

Compau guessed that either a family member from that home or someone passing through the area was buried there.

“I bet it was an isolated thing,” she said. “Probably some poor soul was there and died and either a friend or somebody just buried them.”

Keller said finding a coffin isn’t common. She felt leaving it alone best respects the remains.

“To our way of thinking it would be more disruptive if you moved it,” Keller said, referring to the anthropology community. She said her stance would be different if she knew construction work was going to destroy it, though.

Flint hopes to write an article for a trade journal on all the items unearthed during reconstruction of Third Avenue, which was widened in the 1950s and has undergone other work since then.

“They had different standards and dealt with things differently” in the past, Flint said. “In that time, they just went over the top.”

Workers have also found railroad tracks, bricks, and a storage tank filled with fuel under Third. Compau predicted that even if the coffin is covered with concrete, it won’t be the last time Spokane sees it.

“A hundred years from now they’ll find it again and everyone will be saying this again,” she said.

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