Cemetery of the Week #76: Rose Hill Cemetery

Rose Hill Cemetery, 2001

Rose Hill Cemetery
Black Diamond Mines Regional Preserve
5175 Somersville Road
Antioch, California 94509
Telephone: (510) 544-2750
Founded: circa 1865
Size: one acre
Number of interments: at least 235
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 oldest marked 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 unfenced graveyard. Occasionally Bessie might bump a fragile marble tablet and knock it over on the steep slope.

Rose Hill Cemetery from the Visitor’s Center

Even before the East Bay Regional Park District took control of the land in 1973, well-meaning “preservation” tactics did as much harm as good. First, 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. Then the Park District 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.

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 1850s. 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, Chinese tree of heaven, and pepper trees, planted by the townspeople. All the buildings are gone.

Sarah Norton’s gravestone, before it was repaired

Back in the day, the population of Nortonville, the largest town, topped 1,100 people. It lay slightly west of the cemetery, over a ridge. Closer to the cemetery stood Somersville, whose population peaked at approximately 800. 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 park spans 6096 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.

Rose Hill Cemetery from Amanda Dyer on Vimeo.

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 10 men in Nortonville’s Black Diamond Mine. They are buried together in the center part of the cemetery.  The monument that used to stand to their memory was looted away.

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 other headstones are missing.

Restoration of the graveyard continues, as gravestones return to the park from wherever they’ve traveled. If you have information on the whereabouts of missing headstones or grave fences, the Park District would like them back, no questions asked.  If you have photos or family stories about the graveyard prior to 1973, please called 1-888-EBPARKS, option 3, extension 4506.

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.

Useful links:

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.

Black Diamond Mines Regional Preserve, CA (IMG) (Images of America) (Images of America (Arcadia Publishing))

Rose Hill: A Comprehensive History of a Pioneer Cemetery in the Mount Diablo Coal Field, Contra Costa County, California

My book, Wish You Were Here: Adventures in Cemetery Travel, has a chapter on Rose Hill.

Alternately, the Rose Hill book is available from the Contra Costa Historical Society here.

4 responses to “Cemetery of the Week #76: Rose Hill Cemetery

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