“It is a town that was established in 1853 but has been largely destroyed by a series of major fires, the last in 1920. The town nevertheless produced in excess of $20 million in gold. We are told that prospectors, to this day, continue to find large gold nuggets in the river — the North Fork of the American — just out from town. There is an historic cemetery worth visiting here.” — The Complete Gold Country Guidebook
Our adventure started from that last line of the guidebook listing. How could I possibly pass up any cemetery “worth visiting”?
My husband Mason and I had traded houses with my friend Benjamin and his boyfriend Geraldo. They stayed at our place in San Francisco while we slept at Geraldo’s house in Rocklin. Roughly 20 miles north of Sacramento, Rocklin is basically a bedroom community; at that time, its downtown consisted of a patch of chain restaurants off of I-80. The house, while luxurious, served simply a base of operations for our weekend exploration the Gold Country.
We pointed our van up Highway 80 into the Sierra foothills. It had rained in the night, so the few surviving leaves hung from tree branches like wet rags. The sky glowered, the color of wet concrete. Why had we decided to take a holiday in March?
Following the rudimentary directions in the guidebook — “Iowa Hill is reached on a small side road, east off Interstate 80, six or seven miles in” — we turned off the highway at Colfax. The guidebook didn’t say which road to take, so Iowa Hill Road seemed our best bet. Iowa Hill itself survived as too small a settlement to rate a dot on the guidebook map.
The two-lane blacktop twisted amongst the rising hills. Before long, we reached the American River’s North Fork. A narrow trestle bridge crossed snowmelt boiling over the bare knees of Sierra granite. The water glowed olive green, greener than the threatening sky or skeletal trees.
“More than $20,000,000 in gold was taken from the ridge, mostly by hydraulic mining. An estimated $30,000,000 still remains, but it will probably stay locked in the gravel until the anti-debris laws are repealed.” — Gold Rush Country, published by Sunset in 1964.
I expected a gold mining town to be near its source of water. Instead, a whitewashed boulder beside the river sported a hand-lettered sign that promised “Iowa Hill – Beer – 7 mi.”
The road narrowed to a lane and a half, snaking steeply upward. No guardrail stood between us and the drop to the river below. Mason took the curves cautiously, never knowing when we’d need to share with one of the fast-driving locals coming the other way.
We rounded a hairpin curve to find a Chevy El Dorado rusting on the shoulder. Cracks webbed the windshield. Shotgun pellets had punctured the driver’s door. It looked like a travel advisory: the locals are armed. We joked about hearing the echoes of banjoes between the trees.
Eventually, we passed a weathered wooden building with an icebox on its porch. The first building we found functioned as both general store and post office.
“Wanna stop for a coke?” I asked.
“Let’s just find the graveyard,” Mason answered tersely. He’s a city boy, born and bred. The wild parts of America make him uncomfortable.
Just past the store on the opposite side of the road rose the Iowa Hill historical marker, a low heap of fieldstone mortared together to support a bronze plaque. It read:
“Gold discovered here in 1853. By 1856 weekly production estimated at one hundred thousand dollars. Total value of gold produced up to 1880 placed at twenty million dollars. Town was destroyed by fire in 1857 and again in 1862 but each time was rebuilt with more substantial buildings. Last big fire 1920 destroyed most of town.” — Tablet placed by California Centennials Commission, originally dedicated in 1950.
Behind the marker stood one of the few remaining historic buildings, the Wells Fargo assayer’s office. An assayer tested the gold to determine its quality and value. The building once protected the weekly fortune. Now it looked as if a strong wind would flatten it. I read in Elliot Koeppel’s The California Gold Country: Highway 49 Revisited that the old iron safe remained inside the shack because it was too heavy to haul away. We didn’t go look.
Instead, Mason continued driving along the ridge. Finally I spotted broken marble monuments jabbing through the red dirt. Oak leaves — the color of parchment and wet leather — drifted against the stones. Gnarled tree branches inhabited by mistletoe contorted under the jumbled gray clouds.
Rounded river stones outlined the path, so you could tell it from the mud. Rocks outlined a number of plots. Some graves no longer had headstones. I was surprised by the number of wooden monuments still standing. One said simply, “Died” — everything else had weathered away. Another slab of wood bore a large blue question mark.
Here and there heaped piles of ashes, as if the leaves had been raked up and burned on the bare earth. That seemed like dangerous business, given the town’s history of fires. Someone cared for the old graveyard, though. They’d done repairs, lifting the worn marble stones out of the red dirt and standing them upright in new cement jackets.
Among the tilted wooden crosses stood charred wooden poles, survivors of a fire. I found it hard to envision wildfire on the damp March mountainside, but if a forest fire came, there’d be no chance to bring water up from the river seven miles below. There’d also be no way to outrun the flames on that treacherous winding road. Saving historic grave markers would be the last thing on anyone’s mind.
While prospectors from Iowa supposedly founded the town, none of them mentioned their native state on their tombstones. Miners from North Wales, Scotland, Switzerland, and Italy remained in Iowa Hill. Some of them, like thirty-five-year-old Charles Schwab, perished young. His epitaph claimed, “If love and care could death prevent, my days would not be so soon spent.”
An epitaph for Jared S. Sparhawk lamented, “Can’t forget the agonizing hour when those loved eyes closed to wake no more.” A medal adorned his marble tablet, decorated with an eagle, a five-pointed star, and a flag. He died in 1898. I wondered if he’d been a Civil War veteran. Behind him stood a wooden cross remembering Mrs. Jared Sparhawk. She no longer had a first name.
The saddest graves honored children. The infant twins of G.W. Cross and wife lay under a wooden marker. Born May 16, 1888, the son lived a day. The daughter survived for nine days more. Apparently, both went to their grave unnamed. Another unnamed infant’s epitaph called it, “Happy infant, early blessed.” A third spoke of Dolly: “Her life was like a half-blown rose, closed by the shades of even. Her death the dawn, the blushing hour, that opes (sic) the gates of Heaven.”
Some graves had fascinating offerings. A pretty chunk of rose quartz sat on the bare ground. Ivar Aasen, born 1889 and died in 1977, had a railroad spike lying in front of his headstone. A modern cross, wrapped in a blue bandana, wore the label “GI Joe.” Terry Jo Luthe served in Vietnam before his death in 1987. Most mysteriously, an empty wooden picture frame stood in the middle of the cemetery, propped against two pine trees.
My favorite epitaph remembered Olive, beloved wife of P.T. Brown. Her gravestone instructed, “Dear husband, do not mourn for me. When I am dead and gone, only my body is dead. My spirit rests in the Spiritland and you will meet me soon.” Had she meant that as a promise or a curse?
As we poked among the gravestones, an occasional 4×4 crept past our van, moving slowly enough to run our license plate.
“What do you think they’re doing?” Mason wondered nervously.
“Keeping an eye on us,” I guessed. The scrutiny worried me, too. In the farm country where I grew up, if people thought you were up to no good, they confronted you. They did it with a friendly howdy, but they made your business theirs. They’d rather defuse a situation by being helpful than prowl around and spy.
I wondered why the Iowa Hill locals didn’t just stop and ask what we looked for in their graveyard. I would’ve appreciated the opportunity to speak to someone about this town on the near edge of nowhere. Why had they chosen to live up in the hills? What did they do up here for work? How did they survive? Were any old-timers left?
I couldn’t imagine they ever had tourists come up from the valley to cause trouble in their graveyard, especially not first thing on a Sunday morning. The scrutiny seemed one more indication of outsiders were unwelcome.
Across the road drowsed Iowa Hill’s Catholic cemetery, dedicated to St. Dominic. Dominic, a medieval priest, was erroneously credited with inventing the rosary. He did, however, found the Dominican order, dedicated to sacred learning and the burning of witches.
The gatepost, lying in the dirt, said the “Cemetary” had been established in 1860. John Fitzpatrick from Ireland rested just beyond. His grave echoed the old warning, “Remember, man, as you pass by, as you are now so once was I. As I am now, so you must be. Then think of death and pray for me.” Marble laurel sprigs and long, twining ivy ornamented his monument. In nature, both stay green year round, so they symbolize immortality and memory evergreen. A pretty wrought iron fence enclosed his plot.
Another Irish grave, marked with a Celtic cross, remembered the Gleasons. Their epitaph described, “Another form in the churchyard sod. Another soul gone to meet its God.”
The last photo we took captured the wooden marker for John Henry, native of Lorenne (probably Lorraine misspelled), France. He died in 1890. Beside him stood the marble marker for his son Louis F., who died in 1887, age twelve. Louis’ epitaph provided the title of this story and seemed to sum up the boom and bust of Iowa Hill.
Cautiously, we crossed the road back to where we’d parked the van. We escaped Iowa Hill without incident, never so glad to see suburbia as when we returned to Rocklin. Strangely enough, though, I still craved exploring more of the Gold Country. That would have to wait for a sunnier day.
For the next year, I’m planning to put a cemetery essay up every Friday. If there is a cemetery that has touched your life, I would love to hear from you. The submissions guidelines are here.