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Smith: Who’s got stolen Guerneville cemetery book with record of Titantic survivor’s gravesite?

I know what you were thinking as you read days ago of the Finnish immigrant who settled in Sonoma County after surviving the 1912 sinking of the Titanic and, who local history enthusiasts just discovered, is buried in Guerneville’s cemetery though no one can say just where.

You thought: Well, heck, are there not cemetery records that show where the grave of Juho “John” Niskanen is located?

Good question. It turns out there is a big book full of precise handwritten details of decades worth of interments at the historic Guerneville cemetery now called Redwood Memorial Gardens.

The entries date back to the original surveying of the cemetery by Guerneville pioneer John Washington Bagley in 1876.

But, as with Niskanen’s grave, nobody knows where the cemetery book is.

Wendell Joost was the lower Russian River’s mortician when, quite some time ago, he took the ledger with him to the Guerneville graveyard.

“That would have been probably around 1980,” recalls Joost, who’ll turn 78 this week.

He’d carried along the cemetery records book for reference when he drove to the cemetery off River and Armstrong Woods roads in his pickup.

“It was sitting on the seat and the door was open,” Joost said by phone from Guerneville. “I was mapping the old section of the cemetery.”

When he walked back to his pickup, he about lost his teeth. The book was gone.

“My heart sank to my shoes,” said the man who long ran the former Guerneville Redwood Chapel. “I spent the rest of my time in Guerneville trying to reconstruct that book.”

You might ask: Aren’t there other records of the burials that occurred at the old cemetery that was run by the Independent Order of Odd Fellows when Juho Niskanen was laid to rest Aug. 13, 1927?

There are.

The 14-volume funeral records of the Guerneville graveyard, separate and distinct from the stolen cemetery records, are in the care and custody of the owners of Sebastopol’s Pleasant Hills Memorial Park.

Kevin Doody, who manages both cemeteries, took hold of the appropriate volume of funeral records. He found the entry on Niskanen, who lived outside of Cazadero until his body was found inside his burning cabin on Aug. 13, 1927. He was deemed to have set the place ablaze and then shot himself.

The book “shows that the county took care of him,” Doody said.

By that he meant that because Niskanen died with no family and no money, the county took responsibility for his burial at what was then the Odd Fellows cemetery in Guerneville.

Any mention of where in the graveyard he was laid to rest?

“There’s no location,” Doody said. “No lot, no grave number.”

The thing that stands out most on Niskanen’s page in the Guerneville funeral book is a single letter.

Said Doody, “There is a big ‘P’, which doesn’t help us much.”

He assumes the “P” stands for pauper.

But 90 years after the former prospector died poor in west county and was forgotten after his burial who-knows-where in Guerneville’s graveyard, locals avid about such things value the discovery of his Titanic connection as dearly as gold.

You can reach Staff Writer Chris Smith at 707 477-6489 or chris.smith@pressdemocrat.com.

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