TILLAMOOK COAST HISTORY ALLIANCE: The Emma Zimmerman Headstone Mystery

EDITOR’S NOTE: A fitting story for Halloween – about a mysterious headstone uncovered 30 years ago in Gresham with connections to the Nehalem Valley. Watch for more updates about the headstone as the Nehalem Valley Historical Society learns more about it’s storied history.

By Thomas Campbell, Nehalem Valley Historical Society President
The Zimmerman family, headed by Wilhelm and Albertine, were one of the Nehalem Valley’s first homesteader families. They came from Bremen, Germany settled in Wisconsin and then came across the country to stake their claim in what is now Wheeler. The Zimmermans were a successful family. The Hotel Rector was located in the Zimmerman building in Wheeler and Wilhelm was a primary part of the marketing company, The Nehalem Company.

Wilhelm and Albertine had seven children but only three survived to adulthood. Of them, one was included as an incorporator of the City of Wheeler and served as an original alderman on the city council in 1913. The family burial plot is in the Nehalem Cemetery. Wilhelm and Albertine are both interred there and Emma, born in 1885, is next to Wilhelm. Some family plot headstones were designed with embedded tintype photos of the decedent. Over the years, the headstones have deteriorated. Emma’s plot has only the base remaining.

Recently, the Nehalem Valley Historical Society (NVHS) was contacted about Emma’s place in Nehalem by the Gresham Historical Society. In 1991, the Gresham Historical Society was contacted by a landscaper who had been clearing brush from a property and found Emma’s headstone leaning against a wall behind the blackberries. The Gresham Historical Society reached out to Multnomah and Clackamas counties to try to identify who Emma was. Neither had records of Emma Zimmerman so the stone remained in the Gresham Pioneer Museum’s protective custody.

The headstone caught the attention of the collections committee for Gresham. The renewed effort to identify Emma linked her to the Nehalem Cemetery and her plot with a base but no headstone. How did the stone get to Gresham? Gresham’s research never uncovered a clue. When NVHS was contacted about the headstone, we found more of a mystery than just its location. The measurements of the headstone’s attachments are different than the base. Nehalem’s records show Emma to have passed in 1898 but the headstone has 1893 as her date of death. A list of graves located on private family plots has an entry showing that Emma died in 1893. These discrepancies raised doubts about whether the stone was truly a match. Originally, NVHS was unsure about taking custody of this piece.

In October, the NVHS Board agreed that Emma Zimmerman’s headstone should come back to the Nehalem Valley.

Tom Campbell, NVHS president and Sylvie Andrews, Gresham Historical Society transfers Emma Zimmerman headstone to NVHS. (Provided photo)

On October 25, NVHS President Tom Campbell went to Gresham to secure possession of the headstone from Gresham Historical Society Director, Sylvie Andrews and the stone will be stored at the museum located on Laneda in Manzanita. More questions will come up. Should the stone remain inside and protected? Should the headstone be placed at the burial site? If you place the headstone at the burial site, how can you protect it? NVHS will be working with the cities of Nehalem and Wheeler to come up with a solution that respects Emma, the Zimmerman family and the interests of the cemetery itself.


Nehalem Valley Historical Society is at 225 Laneda Avenue in Manzanita – look for the sign!

The Nehalem Valley Historical Society is devoted to preserving the rich cultural heritage of Manzanita, Wheeler and Nehalem. From a pre-history visit by Sir Frances Drake to the modern towns of today, the area’s legacy is unique.
The Society maintains a public archive in Manzanita the historical Pine Grove Community House (225 Laneda Ave.) where you can also see rotating exhibits that bring the history of the area to life through tangible items.
The Society’s goal is to make history available to people through tangible items, and also through the online archive. It is a place where history will be protected. When we know where we came from we can step forward into the future with confidence.

Services of the Nehalem Valley Historical Society

  • Protect and preserve history
  • Generate original source material through oral-history interviews with locals
  • Offer exhibits
  • Maintain an online archive to make materials available to everyone
  • Act as a repository for family items that might otherwise be lost to history

If you have ties to the area, please consider making a donation of your family’s personal photos, journals, or other historic documents so they can be safely preserved for future generations. See the extensive online resources for NVHS at nehalemvalleyhistory.org

The mission of the Tillamook Coast History Alliance is to promote and support our history-based museums, societies and organizations in Tillamook County in order to better inform and educate the general public visiting or residing in the County. https://www.tchistoryalliance.org/