Plastic flowers and ghosts in historic cemeteries
Haunting graveyards are not part of my normal routine, but there's something intriguing about Nevada's old cemeteries that grab my imagination.
On a jaunt through Nevada on a recent weekend, my husband, Gim, and I found colorful vestiges of Memorial Day in Austin's and Eureka's historic cemeteries, where bright plastic flowers laid next to headstones and contrasted with the dry desert surroundings.
The cemeteries date back to the 19th and early-20th centuries and contain Civil War soldiers, miners, merchants, ranchers, babies, mothers, and grandmothers. Many of the graves have sunk, forming shallow depressions, and their markers are lost. Elaborately engraved headstones anchor an impressive number of graves, evidence not only of grief but of the skill of marble carvers.
Graves are often enclosed in fancy Victorian metalwork. Simple wooden markers tilt at crazy angles on others. Although it seems a contradiction, history comes alive when you pause and read the headstones.
Like many early-day towns, Eureka and Austin have more than one cemetery. In addition to municipal cemeteries, the Freemasons maintained a graveyard for their members, as did the International Order of Odd Fellows. Several of the cemeteries are well maintained and provide the final resting place for today's residents.
The older cemeteries show signs of neglect—sagebrush and weeds are taking over the once well-delineated graves, and the words on wooden markers have been scraped away by time.
In one of Eureka's oldest cemeteries, an intriguing monument memorializes a violent incident from 1879. Five Italian charcoal burners were massacred by a sheriff's posse on August 18, 1879, southwest of the Fish Creek Ranch. The Eureka Historical Society installed the stone monument in 1983.
Wander among the weeds at Austin's cemeteries and you'll find many cracked and broken slabs of stone, several engraved with the words, “Gone But Not Forgotten.” But now it seems they are forgotten, and you wonder what their stories were.
What caused Victor A.E. Kingsoen, who was born in 1831, to die at age 42 in 1873 at Vicks Station, Nevada? Confederate General J. R. Williamson, who was born in humid Charleston, South Carolina, in 1832, left this dry high desert for, one hopes, a better place in the spring of 1894. What brought him here?
There is one Austin grave you have to see, that of Lee Kee (1824-1931), called a “good old Chinaman” in those non-politically correct times. The headstone is almost hidden beneath a piñon tree. Kee fed many a miner who was hungry and broke, and the story goes that one of those men paid for Kee's headstone when he died.
Nevada has its share of ghost towns and ghostly graveyards. If you're interested in browsing through some of them, you might check out Marilyn Newton's 2004 Alkali Angels: Recording Nevada's Historic Graveyards. Newton, a longtime photographer for the Reno-Gazette Journal, put hundreds of miles on her vehicle in her quest to chronicle those who are long forgotten.