An urn that washed up on the north Oregon coast last month, sparking a genealogical mystery and minor media frenzy, contained the cremains of a former Nelson area man.
The Star has also learned the granddaughters of William George Kennedy, who died 87 years ago this month, still live in BC, and are expected to reclaim the ashes from the funeral home director who has been trying to locate next-of-kin.
The story began early last week as Alex Reed, 17, and a friend walked near a jetty in Warrenton, Oregon’s Fort Stevens State Park
“We were taking pictures,” he said in a phone interview Monday. “It was a really nice day. Nice waves and everything. We decided to crawl on the ocean side of the rocks. I walked up and over them, we took two pictures, and then I turned and saw the urn sitting right there.”
It lay on the rocks — wet, but not wedged — amid unremarkable wood and plastic debris. Reed had been in the same area only a couple of days earlier, but failed to notice the sealed urn. “I was in the same exact spot and didn’t see it,” he says.
The bronze-like container was beat up, and Reed didn’t know what it was exactly until he got back to his friend’s house. There they saw it was engraved “William George Kennedy 1870–1925.”
The next day, Reed’s father phoned Hughes-Ransom Mortuary in nearby Astoria, and talked to funeral director Tom Preston, who agreed to look at it.
“I’m thinking it’s going to be relatively new and we’d just take the top off and there’s going to be an identification tag with a number on it,” Preston says. “We’d track a death certificate, and voila. But when he walks in with this thing, I thought ‘Where do you even start?’”
It sat behind his desk for a couple of days as he mulled it over. He didn’t have time to call state registrars, so he turned to the media: the story of the mystery urn that washed up on the beach appeared on local TV and radio, and soon, genealogists took up the cause.
Despite only a name and dates of birth and death to work with, they quickly identified the late William G. Kennedy, thanks to a biographical entry in the History of Whatcom County, Vol. 2, published a year after his death.
CAME TO HARROP IN 1911
Kennedy was born in Canterbury, England in 1871 (the date on the urn is an error). He became an expert gardener in his hometown, and married Mary Windle, who bore him four sons before her death in 1903 at age 30.
In 1911, Kennedy came to Canada with his three surviving children and established a nursery at Harrop. He only stayed a few years before moving to Calgary, where he married Adelia Clohessy in 1919. Prior to the wedding, Adelia, an Irish lass, taught high school in Spokane, New York, Oregon, Calgary, and at BC’s Okanagan College.
After three years, they moved to the US, and following a brief stay in Eugene, Oregon, bought the Sehome Hotel in Bellingham, Washington, which they ran in partnership with Adelia’s sister, Honor, who boasted an impressive secretarial resume.
The Kennedys converted part of the building into an apartment block, described in the Whatcom book as “one of the most popular apartment houses and family hotels in the northwest, even as the hotel is one of the oldest in this section.”
William died there on April 9, 1925 at 53.
Genealogists located some of Adelia and Honor’s living relatives, but Preston, the funeral director, wanted to release the ashes to a direct descendent. Intrigued by Kennedy’s time around Nelson, he called someone in this area by that name, to no avail. They weren’t related.
Trying a different tact, he sent an email this week to the Star, and included some additional genealogical information that contained a critical clue: one of Kennedy’s sons, William Jr., married in Nelson in 1922. The bride was Jessica Dorothy Hopwood.
There’s only one phone listing in Nelson for that surname. John Hopwood confirmed Jessica was his aunt, and also revealed William’s three daughters are all alive.
URN WAS ON BEDROOM BUREAU
Iris Close, now of Oliver, was surprised to learn her grandfather’s ashes had been found — especially since she wasn’t aware they were missing.
He died the year after she was born, but the last she knew, his second wife had the urn on her bedroom bureau in Bellingham.
Close has a letter her uncle Harold sent to her father after the funeral. Edged in black, it confirms William Kennedy Sr. was cremated, and says Canon E. Schmidt of the Episcopal Church conducted the service.
Close doesn’t know too much about her grandfather, and what little she does is thanks to Harold, because her father said nothing.
“My dad never talked about his dad, England, or anything,” she told the Star. “I found out from other relatives years later.
“I know my grandfather met my grandmother picking hops in England somewhere. My dad picked [gardening] up too, because he could graft trees and knew how to look after roses.
“Apparently my grandfather used to bootleg liquor, and my dad had to bring it down the lake on the paddlewheelers and sell it.”
Her uncles fought in World War I, and after returning home, moved to Vancouver Island. Her father, however, stayed in the Kootenay.
“He worked in lumber mills, mines, and at the Kootenay Brewery in Nelson for 19 years,” Close says. “For quite a while, he lived at Ymir.”
He met a tragic end, however: 40 years almost to the day after his father’s passing, he drowned in a boating accident near Mirror Lake. He was 67.
Close and her sisters were born and raised in Nelson, but have long since moved away. Iris spent 50 years in the Lower Mainland. Elder sister June lives in Victoria, and younger sister Eleanor in Maple Ridge.
One cousin, Albert Kennedy, is on Vancouver Island.
Close’s parents and other relatives are buried in Nelson. But she has no idea how her grandfather’s remains found their way to an Oregon beach.
STORY CAUSES A STIR
Preston didn’t know either. But solving that mystery wasn’t his main goal.
“That has not been my primary concern,” he says. “Mine has been to find family. Now that we’ve found the grandchildren, it will spark more interest in how did it come to be where it was? The rest becomes pure amusement.”
The appeal for information through the media did turn up some clues about the urn’s journey: after William Sr.’s death, his widow Adelia married a man from Portland.
“[Genealogists] have talked to people who said the urn was in so-and-so’s possession until they died in a nursing home, and then it passed to so-and-so,” Preston says.
A TV station even received a call from a man who said “I had that urn stored in my shed for years. I can prove it because I accidentally shot it.”
“It’s battered, but I don’t see anything that looks like a bullet hole,” Preston chuckles.
KATU-TV Portland reported Hillsboro resident Larry Sherratt called them to say he found the urn when cleaning out a closet.
Kennedy was an uncle to his ex-mother-in-law. He didn’t want the urn in his house, and convinced her to find another place for it, the station reported.
“They went off in a boat about 50 miles off Astoria and then dropped him in,” Sherratt told KATU.
He estimated the burial at sea happened 30 to 35 years ago.
Preston, meanwhile, is astonished at both the attention the story has received — it’s been covered by news outlets across North America — and the fact he was able to locate the urn’s rightful heirs. “This is absolutely amazing,” he says. “It’s incredible.”
He also anticipates the genealogical angels who helped him will feel amply rewarded by the conclusion: “[So] many people across the country are just going to be thrilled over this.”
Reed, the teenager who found the urn, has done a steady stream of newspaper and TV interviews, including one with ABC News in New York.
“It’s kind of crazy,” he says. “I just happened to walk upon this.”
Although he’s combed beaches before, nothing remotely as interesting has ever washed up.
“I’ve tried to look for glass balls before, but this is a first.”
Arrangements are now being made to return the urn to Iris Close. She hopes to inter the ashes in her father’s grave in Nelson.
• Nelson’s funeral home, meanwhile, is dealing with 75 sets of unclaimed ashes, some dating back 60 years, as reported in the Star last week.