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Old Boot Hill cemetery could receive new life

The City of New Westminster plans to resurrect a widely forgotten prison cemetery. Located at the old B.C.

The City of New Westminster plans to resurrect a widely forgotten prison cemetery.

Located at the old B.C. Penitentiary grounds (what is now Glenbrook Ravine Park), Boot Hill contains the remains of nearly 50 inmates who were never claimed by friends or family.

Little has been done with the site since the federal government ceded it to the city after the facility closed in 1980. Some graves are unmarked, while others are engraved with an inmate's prison number. Considering the grass is cut only two to three times a year, finding them can be tricky. 

Jon McDonald, the city's manager of engineering operations, hopes to change that. 

"It has lots of potential in terms of being a historical site for New West. What I would like to do is some kind of memorial for all the people that are in there," he said. "But I'm not sure what that's going to look like yet. We'd have to look at some designs." 

McDonald said access to the cemetery has been cut off for the time being due to nearby construction. 

"They're building a 22-storey residential building, so we're very limited on what we can do right now," he said. "We've made arrangements to have access to it once all the construction is finished."

McDonald admitted he personally didn't know Boot Hill existed until a few years ago when he got a call from Victoria saying someone was buried there.

"A native woman did some research and found (Johnny) Sook Sias (Hill). Apparently, he murdered somebody, and when he got out of B.C. Pen, he murdered the witness that put him in there. The woman found out from his name that he was part of their tribe," McDonald explained. "It turns out her husband was his nephew."

For now, McDonald said once the city receives the green light, he'd like to put a fence around Boot Hill, clean it up and level off all the concrete monuments. Once that's done, he'd like to present council with design ideas. 

"We would go to council and say, 'Are you interested enough in heading forward with something like that?' If they approve that, then we can put some staff time into it and put out a tender and see what we get back. We've done some work in our own cemeteries, so we have some experience with people who do this kind of work," he said.

Lots of interest has been shown in the project, according to McDonald, who added "anything's possible."

"I bet there are a lot of stories here," he said.

Trevor Trafton agrees. He moved to New West last year and had heard about the "secret" graveyard. 

"I couldn't find much on it online. There were a couple of videos, and it kind of looks like you have to go through some brush to just get to the place," he told the Record. "Although this area is home to some very violent and dangerous criminals from the past, would allowing access to it not open up an interesting tourism opportunity? Perhaps a ghost tour of some sort?" 

Boot Hill opened in 1913 and was maintained by the inmates. B.C. Pen, the first federal penal institution west of Manitoba at the time, operated for 102 years.