My first Obscura Society cemetery tour

Yes, that's the cemetery, way up there on the hill beneath the cypress trees.

Yes, that’s the cemetery, way up there on the hill beneath the cypress trees.

Last month, Annetta Black asked if I’d be interested in arranging tours of local cemeteries for the San Francisco branch of the Obscura Society.  Anything that gets people into graveyards is a good thing, as far as I’m concerned.  I was glad to do my part.

We had our first cemetery excursion on Sunday.  Eleven of us went to the Rose Hill Cemetery in Black Diamond Mines Regional Preserve in Antioch, which is across the bay, beyond Walnut Creek, and around the back of Mount Diablo.  I’d forgotten what a hike it was to get there.

The mining car that became a cattle trough.

The mining car that became a cattle trough.

Our guide was Mickey, a ranger for the park.  Even though I’d been to Black Diamond twice before (once on a private tour with the park supervisor), Mickey pointed out all kinds of things I hadn’t seen before, from steel rods bent by a boiler explosion to a mining car cut in half and used as a cattle trough.  He knew where to find the bolts from which school kids hung a swing more than a century ago and where the old buildings used to stand.  Here I thought not a stick remained of the old ghost towns, but much more survives than I expected.

Mickey told us stories of the characters who’d lived in the towns and the bobcats and gray foxes who live there now.  He had a sheaf of laminated photos to help illustrate his points, which turned out to be very useful, especially as we stood in the old graveyard.  I always like to see whose grave I’m standing over.

Sarah Norton's gravestone, before it was repaired

Sarah Norton’s gravestone, before it was repaired.

Since I visited the graveyard last, the park staff has repaired even more headstones.  One of the ones I was most glad to see standing proud again belonged to Sarah Norton, the wife of the founder of Nortonville who had helped at the births of an estimated 600 babies.  When I visited in 2002, her stone lay in a bed of concrete.  Now it is upright once more, although someone had smeared mud or something worse across it.

Rhoads_RH_Norton_1038In general, the headstones were bright white in the spring sunshine, which made it tricky to photograph them.  I’m a little concerned that someone has been too energetic in their cleaning and will damage the delicate old stones.  They’ve already been through so much.

Clearly there’s a lot more outreach to be done, too, to get people to care about — and care for — old graveyards.  My goal is to set up a tour of a different historic Bay Area cemetery every month this year.

Next month’s tour will take us to the Mare Island Naval Shipyard in Vallejo, home of the oldest naval cemetery on the West Coast.  The tour, which will include the museum and the Admiral’s Mansion, is scheduled for Saturday, April 19, at 10 a.m. Tickets haven’t gone on sale yet, but when they do, they’ll be here:

Hope you can join us!


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