Cracked and water-stained gravestones across the Missoula Municipal Cemetery's oldest sections tell of lives cut short by insanity, alcoholism and hard work. Thousands of the mossy markers include just the most basic details—name, year of birth, year of death—but the dusty records housed in the cemetery's office paint a picture of what it was to live in a Missoula where saloons outnumbered churches and a railroad man could pay to spend the night under the care of madam Mary Gleim.
Gleim operated a "boarding house" in what was then the city's red light district on West Front Street until she died in 1914. Her gravestone is a massive granite monument that towers over the significantly smaller marker belonging to her husband.
Gleim's is the only stone at the Missoula burial grounds that doesn't face east to west, says cemetery record keeper Mary Ellen Stubb.
"Legend has it that she put that in her will to have it that way so she could wave to her boys, her railroad boys, as they went by," Stubb explains.
Stubb likely knows more than anyone else about the lives and deaths of those who lie in the cemetery's soil. Since hired as the sexton in 2003, she's dedicated herself to bringing the burial grounds into the modern age. The act of uploading information into a city database has led her to become enamored with the endless stories documented in frayed red ledgers and yellowed burial permits collected throughout the decades.
"It was during that process, when you're actually looking at each individual person's records, that things started jumping out at us—the histories, the idea that, wow, everyone has a story, everyone has a history," Stubb says. "Some of them are good. Some of them are not so good. Some of them are warm and fuzzy. And some of them are kind of creepy."
This flat patch of land northwest of downtown Missoula serves as the final resting place for 21,000 people. Each of them surely faced some level of struggle, triumph and loss—universal flavors of the human experience—and those stories have converged at the 80-acre municipal cemetery for more than 12 decades. As Stubb and her colleagues tell it, the bits of information mined from those frayed ledgers provide as much insight into what Missoula was, is and could be as anything.
More recently, cemetery staffers are willing to tell that full story. In the past, they mostly focused on sharing the accomplishments of Missoula's founders and the uplifting side of Missoula's history. But Stubb and Doug Waters, the cemetery director since 1999, now say the complete picture deserves attention—"whether it's comfortable," Stubb says, "or whether it's not comfortable."
"Every stone has a story," Waters adds. "The more you get into understanding the stories, the more you understand the history of Missoula."
Prior to the turn of the 20th century, landowners usually buried their dead on private property. Travelers were simply buried alongside the wagon trial and laborers building the Northern Pacific Railroad frequently earned a grave trackside. But when the Missoula cemetery was established in 1884, things changed.
"As Missoula began growing, the effort was: Stop the individual home-grown burials, and let's make a regular public cemetery where everyone would be recorded and everyone would have a place to go," Stubb says. "And as Missoula kept expanding they needed that room."
And they certainly did need the room. Over the years, burial grounds had cropped up around Missoula. For instance, Prescott School at the base of Mount Jumbo was erected on top of a burial ground used by Chinese laborers.
Once all of those sites were dug up and moved to the cemetery, or simply built upon, Missoula's dead increasingly ended up at the plot of land near the railroad tracks. And then the records began to pile up. The information was often inconsistent or illegible—but it was there, and Stubb now has her hands full documenting who, exactly, is buried on the grounds.
"I have to tell you, when I first walked in the door I wondered what I had gotten myself into," she says looking around the cemetery office, once cluttered with burial permits, maps, deeds and ownership papers. "It was a bit overwhelming at first."
The third generation Montana native says once she started reading about who was buried where, she was hooked. Many of the biographies struck her as similar to that of her own grandfather, who emigrated from Sweden at age 17. Many other files simply held little discoveries about early Missoula, like the fact that "brain trouble" and alcoholism were the two primary causes of death in the cemetery's early years.
Specifically, Stubb spends her time cross-referencing a gravestone inventory conducted row-by-row with reams of paper unearthed in the old files. The work takes time. She's been at it for years, and says she's only halfway done. But it's worth it.
"That has led us to a number of people that we didn't even know were here," Stubb says. "As we stumble through, and, literally, stumble through these files we're learning more and more...It wasn't until last year that we realized that we had what the cemetery termed a 'colored lot.'"
Fewer than 30 people are buried in two sections used for African American interments between 1928 and 1937. The small patches sit near the center of the grounds.