Monthly Archives: May 2014

Cemetery of the Week #138: Santa Rosa Rural Cemetery

View of the Santa Rosa Rural Cemetery

View of the Santa Rosa Rural Cemetery

Santa Rosa Rural Cemetery
aka Santa Rosa Pioneer Cemetery
1600 Franklin Avenue, Santa Rosa, California 95404
Telephone: (707) 543-3279 c/o Santa Rosa Recreation, Parks & Community Services
Founded: 1854
Size: 17 acres
Number of interments: approximately 5,500
Open: Daily from 6 AM TO 9 PM Pacific Daylight Time or 6 AM TO 6 PM Pacific Standard Time

The first burial in the Santa Rosa Rural Cemetery was Thompson Mize, who had recently come to town via wagon train. He drowned in a puddle in a drunken stupor. With his death, the incipient town of Santa Rosa realized they needed a graveyard. Oliver Beaulieu offered a hilly spot far from the edge of town.

Thus founded in 1854, the Santa Rosa Rural Cemetery is the final home of whalers, brewers, cattlemen, and the brother-in-law of General Mariano Vallejo who donated land for the city plaza downtown. 250 veterans from the War of 1812, the Mexican-American War, the Civil War, both World Wars, and the Korean War rest here.

Bill Montgomery leads a tour of the Santa Rosa Rural Cemetery

The cemetery grew organically for several years. In 1867, it was finally laid out formally, in the style of the “Rural Cemeteries” pioneered by Mount Auburn back east, and grave plots were sold by a cemetery board. Bill Montgomery, who served as docent of the tour I took last Saturday, believes Santa Rosa’s pioneer cemetery might be the first Rural Cemetery to bear the name in California. Antique rosebushes, Naked Lady iris, palm trees, and other plantings still survive from those early days.

The historic plaque just inside the cemetery’s Franklin Avenue gate says that the cemetery “holds the remains of over 5000 citizens hailing from all parts of the United States and various foreign countries.” That number may actually be closed to 5500, as many of the graves are now unmarked. At one point in the past, the city of Santa Rosa burned the brush on the hillside as a way to fight the overgrowth. The burning destroyed all but one of the old wooden grave markers.

Although the cemetery doesn’t boast any big names, it does contain some interesting stories:

Samuel West was a sharpshooter from Tennessee who marched down to New Orleans to fight for Andrew Jackson at Chalmette Plantation in the last major battle of the War of 1812. (In fact, the Battle of New Orleans was fought several weeks after the peace treaty had been signed in Belgium, but word hadn’t reached the combatants yet.) Armed with coon rifles, men from Tennessee caused 4,000 British casualties in the first day of fighting. West and his wife Phoebe came to Santa Rosa by wagon train in 1854 in their 50s.

The Civil War monument

The Civil War monument

A plot near the Franklin gate remembers veterans of the Civil War. It is ringed with cannonballs and sports a Spanish American War cannon, but these are replacements. The original war surplus pieces were melted down as scrap metal during World War II. 188 Civil War veterans are buried throughout the cemetery. Most of them moved to Santa Rosa after the war.

One of those Civil War veterans is Sergeant Thomas Morton Goodman, sole survivor of the Centralia, Missouri Massacre. He and his men had been sent home on leave to Missouri. When the train they were traveling on arrived in Centralia, they found the tracks had been blocked by Bloody Bill Anderson. Anderson ordered the Union soldiers from the train, demanded their uniforms, then insisted the commanding officer step forward. When no one else volunteered, Goodman – not the only sergeant in the group – stepped up, expecting death. As he was led away in his underwear, all 26 remaining men were shot down on the train platform. Eventually, Goodman escaped his captors and lived to write his memoir. After he moved to Santa Rosa, he and his sons worked as blacksmiths.

In 1906, the great San Francisco earthquake leveled the unreinforced masonry buildings of Santa Rosa’s downtown. Because eight square blocks were knocked down, the town has the distinction of being the city most destroyed by an earthquake in US history. 35 victims of the earthquake are buried in the Rural Cemetery, including two paperboys who were crushed by a falling parapet when they rushed out of the Press Democrat office where they had been folding their papers for delivery. A plot with three monuments holds their graves and remembers other victims of the quake.

In 1920, the cemetery was the site of the last documented vigilante hanging in the Western United States. The hanging tree stood just inside the cemetery, but it was taken down soon after the event – but not before people had chipped away its bark and cut down the ropes as souvenirs.

In the 1930s, the Depression forced the cemetery into bankruptcy and it was all but abandoned. Eventually the city of Santa Rosa took responsibility for it in 1979, but matters didn’t really improve until the Santa Rosa Rural Cemetery Restoration Committee took over caring for it in 1994.

Rhoads_SantaRosa_1256The Friends of the Santa Rosa Rural Cemetery recently celebrated 20 years of caring for this beautiful place. The city allocates $5000 a year for maintenance, but all other work in the cemetery is funded by donations or performed by volunteers. The group offers a variety of tours throughout the year.

On June 13, 2014 – Friday the 13th – the Friends are hosting their popular Darkside Tours, lantern-guided night tours which will cover “the murders, suicides, and other horrific events that took place in early Santa Rosa.” The tour, which raises funds for restoration of the cemetery, costs $25. Pre-registration is required.

Useful links:

Santa Rosa City homepage for the Rural Cemetery

PDF of the self-guided tour

PDF for making a donation to or joining the Friends of the Santa Rosa Rural Cemetery

Press Democrat story about the cemetery

Blog post with even more stories from the cemetery

Cemetery of the Week #137: Historic Key West City Cemetery

View of the Key West Cemetery photographed by Kathleen Rhoads.

Key West Cemetery as photographed by Kathleen Rhoads.

Key West City Cemetery
aka Key West Cemetery
701 Passover Lane
Key West, Florida 33040
Telephone: (305) 292-8177
Founded: 1847
Size: 19 acres
Number of interments: an estimated 100,000
Open: Weekdays 8:30 a.m. to 4 p.m. Closed on weekends.

Key West is the last of a string of islands stretching southwest off the tip of Florida into the Gulf of Mexico. As such, it forms the southernmost point of the United States.

When a hurricane struck Key West on October 11, 1846, it destroyed the old city cemetery on a sand ridge on the southern part of the island. Port inspector Stephen Mallory reported, “The dead were scattered throughout the forest, many of them lodged in trees.”

The following year, the city purchased a piece of land in the center of town large enough for 100 burial plots. Over time, more land was added, including a separate Catholic Cemetery in 1868 and a Jewish section with its own gate in the southeastern corner of the property.

Capt. James Johnson, as photographed by Kathleen Rhoads.

Capt. James Johnson, as photographed by Kathleen Rhoads.

In addition to a spectrum of religions, the graveyard encompasses a variety of grave markers, too. Marble, granite, or zinc monuments were shipped from the mainland. Less expensive markers were made locally of brick, tile, or cement. The people in the cemetery came from Scotland, Cuba, the Bahamas, Prussia, and across mainland America. They were freed slaves and Confederate sympathizers, civil rights leaders and a man tarred and feathered by the KKK for loving a “mulatto” woman. One was a 40-inch-tall “midget” called “General” Abe Sawyer. Several were friends of Ernest Hemingway, including a bootlegger who inspired To Have and Have Not.

Also buried in the cemetery are three Yorkshire terriers and a pet Key deer in the Otto family plot.

The oldest gravestone in the cemetery belongs to Captain James Johnson, who died in 1829. His stone was moved from the earlier graveyard and placed at the back of the Dade Masonic Lodge plot.

The USS Maine Monument, as photographed by Kathleen Rhoads.

The USS Maine Monument, as photographed by Kathleen Rhoads.

The most famous plot in the cemetery remembers the Maine. In Havana Harbor on February 15, 1898, the gunpowder magazines aboard the USS Maine exploded. 268 sailors, nearly three-quarters of her crew, died. William Randolph Hearst used the full power of his media empire to drive the United States into the Spanish-American War.

Of the Maine‘s victims, only 200 bodies were recovered and, of those, only 76 could be identified. Two dozen victims of the explosion are buried in the old Key West Cemetery, alongside other Spanish-American War veterans, Civil War veterans (including African-American sailors), and veterans of other wars.

One of the most amusing monuments remembers 50-year-old B. P. “Pearl” Roberts, a hypochondriac who got the last word. Near her rests Gloria M. Russell, whose stone says, “I’m Just Resting My Eyes.”

Pearl Roberts' marker, as photographed by Kathleen Rhoads.

Pearl Roberts’ marker, as photographed by Kathleen Rhoads.

The Historic Florida Keys Foundation offers walking tours of the cemetery twice weekly. For reservations, please call (305) 292-6718.

Useful Notes:

Tourist info about Key West, including a map.

Map and self-guided tour of the Key West Cemetery

Historic Florida Keys Foundation page on the cemetery

The City of Key West offers occasional Cemetery Strolls, although they seem to be over for this year.

The Weird Florida entry on Key West Cemetery

This ghost tour includes the Key West Cemetery

Special thanks to Kathleen Rhoads, my mom, for touring this graveyard in my honor and allowing me to use her photographs.

Tour Santa Rosa Rural Cemetery this weekend

Obelisk in Santa Rosa Rural Cemetery

Obelisk in Santa Rosa Rural Cemetery

Founded in 1854, the Santa Rosa Rural Cemetery is the final home of whalers, brewers, cattlemen, a survivor of the Centralia Missouri Massacre, and the brother-in-law of General Mariano Vallejo. Veterans from the War of 1812, the Mexican War, the Civil War, and World War I rest here.

Although the cemetery doesn’t boast any big names, it does contain some interesting stories – and the docents promise more, tailored to Obscura sensibilities:

  • John Richards, a very popular black barber, helped resettle slaves freed prior to the Civil War.
  • A monument remembers the 75 Santa Rosa victims of the 1906 earthquake.
  • “Doctor Dear,” Santa Rosa’s first female physician, was buried here in 1914.

Docents from the Santa Rosa Rural Cemetery Association will be joining us as guides on this special walk organized for the Society by our resident Bay Area tombstone historian, Loren Rhoads, author of Wish You Were Here: Adventures in Cemetery Travel.

A portion of ticket proceeds from this walk will be donated to the Santa Rosa Rural Cemetery Association to help them continue their work with this historic cemetery.


  • Date: Saturday May 24, noon to 2 p.m.
  • Meet at the gate at Franklin and Monroe, 1600 Franklin Avenue, Santa Rosa.
  • Tour starts promptly at noon. Please allow time for parking.
  • Bring water.
  • Wear comfortable shoes for walking and dress in layers suitable for the potentially warm weather.

 Space is limited. Advance tickets suggested. Walk-up tickets may not be available.

 The link for tickets is here.

Not the book Lone Fir deserves

Lone Fir: The Cemetery -- A Guide and HistoryLone Fir: The Cemetery — A Guide and History by Johan Mathiesen

My rating: 1 of 5 stars

This may be the worst cemetery book I’ve ever read, which is saying something because I’ve read a lot. It’s even worse because it volunteers to share profits from its sale to support the lovely and fragile Lone Fir Cemetery in Portland.

I wonder if anyone other than the author read the text before publication. It’s so poorly written that the history is difficult to follow. Some of that may be because it’s unclear who owned the property when Emmor Stephens was buried there, but since I’m not familiar with Portland history, I was completely lost. Typos bring their own form of amusement. (At one point, Chinese organizations “banned” together, rather than banded together.)

I could have looked past those problems, believe it or not, but the final straw was the random way photos have been dropped into the text. On page 6, there’s an unidentified photo of a woman in flip-flops alongside someone’s t-shirt sleeve plunked in the middle of a paragraph about the original property owners. Across from her is a photo of what seems to be a film crew. I couldn’t find any explanation for either photo.

As the book continues, photos of monuments from Lone Fir pop up arbitrarily. It’s especially frustrating in the Notable Monuments section of the book, where the text talks about monuments that may or may not appear elsewhere in the book while showing monuments that have nothing to do with the text surrounding them. The problem could have been solved if a page number had been dropped in here and there — or if an index had been included in the book, so I could have at least looked up what he was talking about.

As it is, the maps at the back are small and confusing. The listings are numbered to correspond with the maps, but since you don’t have a photo of what you’re looking for, you’d have to wander the graveyard until you could match it to his description. In the meantime, you’d have to keep flipping back and forth through the book…

I’m not sure for whom this book was intended. It doesn’t have enough history to be useful to historians or genealogists. It’s not a guide that would tour you around the cemetery, making it easy to hit the highlights. Without an index, it’s impossible to find anything quickly or to be sure of what you’re seeing when you do find it.

What a shame. Lone Fir Cemetery deserves so much better than this.

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Oregon Cemetery Overview

Mad as the Mist and Snow: Exploring Oregon Through Its CemeteriesMad as the Mist and Snow: Exploring Oregon Through Its Cemeteries by Johan Mathiesen

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I was looking for a book about the cemeteries of Oregon in advance of last weekend’s trip. This is a strange hodgepodge of a book, varying from the author’s unusual and intriguing thoughts on cemeteries and fraternal organizations to pages and pages of epitaphs to a fun and opinionated section on the “best” cemeteries of Oregon.

The guide to the Oregon cemeteries takes up the last 150 pages of the book. It doesn’t give much history of each graveyard, rarely includes photos, and says very little about historic personages one might visit. Some cemeteries get only a scant paragraph. This book is a place to start, but my quest for a book about the cemeteries of Oregon continues.

This same author has a book on Lone Tree Cemetery, which I picked up at Powell’s over the weekend.  I’ll review it as soon as I finish reading it.

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