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.
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.
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.
In 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: http://www.atlasobscura.com/events.
I spent last year’s Nanowrimo working on a book about the historic cemeteries of the San Francisco Bay Area. I’ve visited a lot of them, but not nearly all, so I made myself a list of places I need to see. Ideally, I could find someone to give me a tour, show me the highlights, and ground my research for each one.
I am qualified to lead cemetery wanders, but not tours. My knowledge of our local graveyards is broad, rather than deep. However, I would be thrilled to arrange tours for anyone interested in learning more about cemeteries — and now I am.
This Sunday, March 23, the Obscura Society is touring one of my favorite local cemeteries: the Rose Hill Cemetery at Black Diamond Mines Regional Preserve. This cemetery was almost completely obliterated by vandals and the well-intentioned preservation tactics of early park employees. It has been painstaking puzzled back together through the love and service of the more recent rangers and historians.
The cemetery is about all that survives of the five coal-mining ghost towns on the eastern slopes of Mount Diablo. It’s a reminder of how different the past was from the present, even though it’s barely 150 years distant.
In April, we’re going to explore Mare Island’s ship-building history and the first naval cemetery on the West Coast. I’ll let you know when those tickets are available.
Looking past the headstones at Alcatraz Island
Now I’m working on the May tour. I think we’re looking at Memorial Day weekend, so it will be a tour closer in to San Francisco and Oakland. I was thinking maybe the San Francisco National Cemetery in the Presidio, which will be pretty with all the graves decorated with flags.
In the works are tours of St. John’s Cemetery in San Mateo, the Rural Cemetery in Santa Rosa, and a walking tour of the vanished cemeteries of San Francisco. I’m going to lead that one myself.
Is there anywhere you’ve been particularly interested in touring? Any Bay Area graveyard that caught your eye that you’d like to know more about?
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.
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.
Not a lovely photo, this week, but the prompt called for a picture of normal people doing something they normally do. In this case, I consider these extraordinary people, but they’re doing something they consider their calling, so it’s ordinary to them.
The people in the photo are in the process of resetting a gravestone. The three in Park Service uniforms worked at Black Diamond Mines Regional Preserve in Antioch, California. They’d made it their mission to restore and reset all the gravestones in their tiny graveyard, all that remained of five coal-mining towns that used to stand where the park is now.
The man in the blue t-shirt is Fred Oakley, a member of the Association for Gravestone Studies, who made it his life’s work to rescue old graveyards. I only had the opportunity to meet Fred this once, but I was impressed by the depth of his passion for his mission.
Even the smallest moments can be amazing. The rangers at Black Diamond are in the process of leveling a base stone in order to set a gravestone back in place. Almost all of the gravestones in the park had been shattered, since well-meaning historians in the 50s decided they would be safer lying flat on the ground — where they were subsequently stomped on. The rangers were carefully chipping the bits of stone from the ground, then setting them back together like huge, heavy puzzles. Their goal was to return all the stones to their upright positions.
Basically, they were piecing history back together. They believed that was the only way to help people in the present connect with people in the past.
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