Rose Hill Cemetery
Black Diamond Mines Regional Preserve
5175 Somersville Road
Antioch, California 94509
Telephone: (510) 544-2750
Size: one acre
Number of interments: an estimated 300
Park/Gate Hours: Always opens at 8 a.m. Closing time varies with the season from 5 p.m. in November through January to 8 p.m. from mid-April to September. Check with the ranger as you come in.
Fee: $5 per vehicle, $2 per dog
Rose Hill Cemetery lies in the Black Diamond Mines Regional Preserve, near Mount Diablo in the eastern part of the San Francisco Bay Area. Rose Hill has seen a lot of change since its first burial—a teenaged girl named Elizabeth Richmond—in February 1865. Not so long ago, it was a sad patch of ground on a hill in the middle of nowhere. A county road used to run right by it, making it accessible to anyone from the inland towns of Antioch or Concord who wanted an isolated place to drink beer and smash up gravestones. The worst of the vandalism began in the 1950s, but before that, ranchers allowed cattle to graze amongst the old monuments. Occasionally Bessie might bump a fragile marble tablet and knock it over on the steep slope.
When the East Bay Regional Park District took control of the land in 1973, its well-meaning “preservation” tactics did as much harm as good. First, they used herbicides to sterilize the soil around the graves. The intention had been to ease maintenance by removing the need to mow. Unfortunately, once the native grasses died off, winter rains carved gullies into the bare dirt hillside. Volunteers collected the chunks of broken headstones and set them in concrete, level with the ground, where they could be walked on—or worse, stomped on—while collecting pools of water whenever winter came to California.
The graveyard suffered more abuse in the 1990s after Antoinette May featured it in Haunted Houses of California. Psychic Nick Nocerino reported that the desecration had caused the tolling bells, laughter, and crying often heard in the cemetery at night. Would-be ghost hunters often sneaked into the graveyard to hear for themselves. Some of them took more than photographs as souvenirs.
As one might guess from the Black Diamond moniker, former residents of the area mined coal, starting in the 1860s. Black Diamond became the largest coalmine in California. By the dawn of the 20th century, the best-quality coal had already been removed. All five towns that surrounded the graveyard gradually became abandoned. Little evidence of the boom time remains in the area, other than heaps of mine tailings and exotic trees like Italian cypress and pepper trees, planted by the townspeople. All the buildings are gone.
Back in the day, the population of Nortonville, the largest town, topped 1,000 people. It lay slightly west of the cemetery, over a ridge. Closer to the cemetery stood Somersville, whose population peaked at approximately 900. For many years, residents named the cemetery after the nearest town, although local newspapers referred to it as the Nortonville Cemetery. Later, after townsfolk abandoned the area, the graveyard was identified as the Old Welsh Cemetery because so many Welsh immigrants rested there. Eventually it came to be called Rose Hill, after Andrew Rose, who ranched the area. His widow Emma deeded the land to Contra Costa County in the 1940s. The East Bay Regional Park system took control in 1973.
The park spans 14,000 acres of hiking trails, picnic grounds, and campsites. The Hazel Atlas Mine is open for tours. A visitor center displays artifacts from the area and the rangers speak to tour groups, when they’re not busy rebuilding the broken gravestones.
Among those buried in the graveyard is Sarah Norton, a midwife who delivered more than 600 babies. She and her husband Noah founded the town of Nortonville. Rebecca Evans probably availed herself of Sarah’s assistance, since she bore 10 children for she died at age 33. In 1876, a methane explosion killed “many” men in one of Nortonville’s mines. They are buried together in one part of the cemetery.
The last known burial in the graveyard was William T. Davis, who was born in Somersville and died at age 79 in 1954. He was buried in his family’s plot, with his mother and two brothers. The brothers’ headstones are missing.
Restoration of the graveyard continues, as gravestones return to the park from wherever they’ve traveled.
Important to know: Make certain you carry water when you visit. The interior parts of the San Francisco Bay Area can be very hot and dry and there is nowhere to fill your water bottle. Also, in October, the native tarantulas roam in the daytime, looking for mates. They shouldn’t harass you if you don’t harass them.
Information about the park & the cemetery, including a .pdf list of who’s buried there.
A great blog post about the area
“Rose Hill is one freaky treat.”
GPS information from CemeteryRegistry.us
Books about Rose Hill and Black Diamond Mines:
These are available at the park or through Amazon.
Alternately, the Rose Hill book is available from the Contra Costa Historical Society here.