Tag Archives: dismantled graveyard

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.

Cemetery of the Week #47: Postman’s Park

Detail of the Heroes Wall

Postman’s Park
King Edward Street, London EC1
United Kingdom
Park founded: 1850
Size: less than an acre
Number of interments: perhaps none
Hours: None listed. It seems the park is always open.

Not far from the Museum of the City of London and the Barbican, home of the Royal Shakespeare Company, lies Postman’s Park, one of the City of London’s largest green spaces.

Bordered by Little Britain, Aldersgate Street, and King Edward Street, the park is comprised of three former churchyards. These were stuffed to overflowing by the cholera outbreaks of 1831 and 1848, during which graves were reused so many times that the ground level is six feet higher than that streets outside.

A brass sign at the park’s entrance reports: “A church has stood here since the time of Edmund the Confessor. The present church of St. Botolph is the third, dating from 1754. In 1950, it because a guild church.”

St. Botolph’s is sometimes referred to as Without Aldersgate, which indicates that this church, initially built in the 10th century, stood outside (“without”) the old gate in the Roman Wall. The gate is long gone. The Wall itself has been reduced to a few fragments propped up here and there. It’s strange to imagine that this park, now in the heart of London, once stood on the city’s edge.

St. Botolph is the patron of travelers, so it made sense for his church to stand outside the wall. That way, visitors who arrived after London’s gates had closed for the night had a place to stay. The modern guild served by the church is postmen.

Very little is known about Botolph (more likely Botulf, since he was Anglo-Saxon), except that he built a monastery in East Anglia in 654 C.E. That church was destroyed in the Danish invasions, after which Botolph’s bones were parceled out to sanctify other churches. Three in London alone were named after him, all three of which were rebuilt by Christopher Wren after the Great Fire of 1666.

The inscription at the park’s entrance continues: “Postman’s Park, which opened in 1850, is made up of the churchyards of St. Leonard’s, Foster Lake; St. Botolph’s, Aldersgate; and the graveyard of Christchurch, Norgate Street. More land bordering Little Britain was added in 1883. In 1887, Mr. G. F. Watts conceived the idea of a national memorial to heroic men and women and dedicated a wall to this cause in 1900.”

Before you reach the Heroes Wall, you pass through the park itself. Narrow and long, it has a lovely fountain and lots of benches, some of which are re-purposed granite sarcophagi.

Headstones lean against the neighboring building

Against the walls of the neighboring buildings lean eroded headstones from the original churchyards. Some stones are stacked three deep. The headstones are all the old tablet style, carved of marble or slate. They have been stained by soot and discolored by bright green mildew. Their inscriptions have been worn almost smooth. Nothing endures of these individuals: not their graves, not even their names.

Old, nearly blank headstones

At the back of the park stands the “cloister” covering the Heroes Wall. A cloister is a covered walkway around an open space, normally connecting a monastery or convent to its church. This freestanding “cloister” doesn’t connect to anything and has no religious significance, except perhaps to lend respectability to the monument within.

Born in London in 1817, George Frederick Watts became famous for painting “penetrating” portraits of Victorian notables. He presented 150 of his paintings to the National Portrait Gallery in the year before his death. His best-known sculpture, “Physical Energy,” was an equestrian statue unveiled in 1904.

For many years, he collected news stories about average people to saved others, often at the costs of their own lives. Actresses who died saving their colleagues, men rescuing their comrade at the sewage pumping works at East Ham, the laborer who was fatally scalded searching for his mate after the boiler exploded at a Battersea sugar refinery: Watts’ intention with his memorial wall was to recognize everyday heroism, as opposed to the heroism of warriors or politicians, and to inspire common people to look after each other. To qualify for memorialization on the wall, one had to give his or her life in an attempt to rescue someone else. Not all the rescues commemorated were successful.

The initial design called for 120 tablets, only 53 of which have been placed. The tiles were installed over a span of decades and their designs changed over the course of the project. The most recent panel was added in 2009 to commemorate Leigh Pitt, who died in 2007 while rescuing a child drowning in a canal in Thamesmead.

The Heroes Wall

Here are some of my favorite epitaphs:

“Salomon Galaman, Aged 11. Died of injuries September 6, 1901 after saving his little brother from being run over in Commercial Street. ‘Mother, I saved him, but I could not save myself.’”

“William Donald, Baywater, Aged 19. Railway clerk. Was drowned in the lea trying to save a lad from a dangerous entanglement of weed. July 16, 1876.”

“Henry James Bristow, Aged 8. At Walthamstow on December 30, 1890, saved his little sister’s life by tearing off her flaming clothes but caught fire himself and died of burns and shock.”

“Sarah Smith, Pantomime Artist at Prince’s Theater, died of terrible injuries received when attempting in her inflammable dress to extinguish the flames which had enveloped her companion. January 24, 1863.”

“David Selves, Aged 12, off Woolwich. Supported his drowning playfellow and sank with him clasped in his arms. September 12, 1886.”

Useful links:

Information about the former graveyards

Map and subway line info

Lots of photos

Info on the play Postman’s Park and the tribute book

The Wikipedia article goes into much greater depth

Other London cemeteries on Cemetery Travel:

Cemetery of the Week #2: Highgate Cemetery in London, England

Cemetery of the Week #63: Westminster Abbey, London, England

Cemetery of the Week #69: Kensal Green Cemetery, London, England

Cemetery of the Week #70: Salisbury Cathedral, Salisbury, England

Weekly Photo Challenge: Broken

The Wave Organ

Walking out along the breakwater with the Golden Gate Bridge at my back and Alcatraz Prison ahead, I passed squares and rectangles, clearly man-made shapes, half in and under the water. Most of the shapes seemed to be made of some sort of aggregate rock and concrete, but here and there, other boulders are clearly dressed granite. Their gloss has been worn away by decades of salt, but it’s obviously expensive rock — ruins of something important, thrown away.

This is the jetty at the Marina Yacht Harbor, formed of broken gravestones from the Laurel Hill Cemetery when it was destroyed to make room for housing in the 1940s.

Some of the larger, more beautiful pieces of granite were re-purposed to house the Wave Organ, an art installation built in conjunction with the Exploratorium in the 1980s. Organ pipes of PVC and concrete rise from the ocean to make subtle environmental music: gulping, rushing, gurgling, sighing, all made by the motion of the waves against the pipes.

The granite is a soft shade of gray with flecks of charcoal black and mica. I settle on the bench. The pipe behind me booms, bass to counterpoint the tenor susurrus of the waves lapping near my feet. When the wind shifts, I hear wind chimes on a sailboat in the marina.

Many of the San Francisco pioneers were buried in Laurel Hill. Among them, Thomas Larkin, first American consul in Monterey, and James Fair, Comstock silver mine millionaire, were lucky enough to have family who would pay to move their monuments south to new cemeteries in Colma. David Broderick, an anti-slavery senator killed in a duel by a Supreme Court justice; “Squire” Clark, who built the first San Francisco wharf; Phineas Gage, who survived having an iron spike driven into his skull, albeit with some serious personality changes; and Andrew Hallidie, inventor of San Francisco’s iconic cable car: all were reburied in a massive grave — and their monuments were demolished and sold for scrap.

As lovely as the Wave Organ is, it makes me sad. So much is lost.

A couple of links:

Some history of San Francisco’s historic cemeteries

Roadtrip America visits the Wave Organ