By Susie Vasquez, Appeal Staff Writer
Comstock Cemetery Foundation President Candace Wheeler called efforts to restore Virginia City's Silver Terrace and Gold Hill cemeteries a grass-roots movement. Perhaps she's right.
Pieces once stolen from the historic old cemetery have anonymously found their way back to Silver Terrace and Gold Hill cemeteries for years, but that trickle has become a steady flow in the wake of the foundation's inception last summer.
The top portion of Patrick Kelley's marble stone was anonymously returned to the Comstock Historic District Commission after 33 years. And the simple wooden marker for Mabel Gill, who died in 1877 at the age of 14 months, mysteriously returned after more than 40 years.
Most of these items are returned anonymously, mailed or simply left on the porch of the Comstock Historic District Commission.
Vandalism has been a serious problem through the years, and as far as the foundation and the Comstock Historic District Commission's Bert Bedeau are concerned, each returned artifact is a gift that provides a critical key to the cemetery's restoration. They will take any and all, no questions asked.
"The people of Virginia City are committed to the cemeteries' preservation. But it has been so open that keeping it intact has been a huge problem," Wheeler said.
Vandalism was a problem long before there were tourists. She found newspaper accounts of thieves stealing grave fences for firewood in the 1890s.
As an all-important first step and in an effort to get public input, five test plots will be chosen for restoration.
"We're doing something that will make an impact and hopefully push things forward," Wheeler said, noting the restoration aims at keeping a vintage patina, rather than restoring the cemetery to perfect condition.
Both Silver Terrace and Gold Hill include a number of cemeteries, so the first five plots will be selected from different areas.
Another consideration in making these choices is the materials used. Examples of stone, wood, or ironwork will be chosen to give the foundation and its restoration team experience with different challenges.
"Each grave site requires a different approach. Each is its own house, so we can't make a blanket statement," said Gary Bowyer, historical archaeologist with the Bureau of Land Management. "We can't use wood for a marker unless there is activity that indicates it was there previously. We must replace in kind."
In keeping with that philosophy, the foundation has decided to renovate one unmarked grave.
"We can't really restore it but there is evidence of a grave and we must decide how to handle that," Wheeler said.
Because part of the cemetery is on Bureau of Land Management property, Gary Bowyer, historical archaeologist for the Bureau, is consulting on the project.
The BLM is offering technical advice and coordinating efforts with the foundation in planning for the restoration of the sites.
"At first, we were a little hesitant," Wheeler said. "But if we can do a better job and ultimately produce a good end product then that's a good thing."
Each section of the cemetery has a representative on the foundation's operating board, which is guided by an advisory board consisting of consultants knowledgeable in cemetery restoration.
The foundation is seeking money from private citizens and grants.
Contact Bert Bedeau at the Comstock Historic District Commission at 847-0281.