Group works to save Comstock cemeteries

VIRGINIA CITY - At the height of the Comstock, the Jones brothers, ages 14 and 9, were sent by their cruel father to find a calf across the Truckee Meadows.

They headed straight into a snowstorm, and on Dec. 24, 1871, they were found frozen to death on Ophir Grade, their horses by their side.

The boys are buried in the Gold Hill Cemetery. Pictures prove the gravesite was marked with a small white stone as late as until 1974 but the stone was stolen, and more are in jeopardy as the cemeteries of Virginia City and Gold Hill fall prey to the ravages of vandalism, theft and time.

"Losing a cemetery is like burning a history book," said Candace Wheeler, chairman of the newly organized Comstock Cemetery Foundation.

State Historic Preservation Officer Ron James agrees.

"The art of 19th-century tombstones is exquisite," James said, noting the stones are an opportunity to gain insight into all historical aspects of the Comstock.

In addition to stones and metalwork, the organization is dedicated to recreating the park-like setting at both the Silver Terrace Cemetery in Virginia City and the Gold Hill Cemetery.

"Cemeteries were preludes to the park systems: extensively irrigated oases with park benches and picnic tables," Wheeler said. "Silver Terrace boasted rose bushes, and 18 large walnut trees."

Historically, the cemetery was divided into a number of factions: Masons, Odd Fellows, the Catholic diocese and more.

The fledgling Foundation shadows that organization. Each faction represented in the cemetery was invited to send a representative to the operating board.

"If one group had balked, we couldn't have gone ahead with the project," Wheeler said, noting that the response has been phenomenal. There will be one elected member to represent those organizations that no longer exist here.

The Foundation's operating board will be guided by a group of consultants: an advisory board knowledgeable in various aspects of cemetery restoration.

"We're lucky to have some very talented people on the advisory board," Wheeler said. Michael Crow, a San Francisco expert on historical grave sites, and Sue Fawn Chung, adviser for the Chinese section are among the many people she mentioned.

But experts can't bring back the stones and metalwork that have been pilfered. Wheeler appealed to anyone with cemetery artifacts return them to the Comstock Historical District Commission, 372 S. C St. in Virginia City. No questions will be asked.

Almost from its inception, land ownership in the Virginia City area has been problematic. According to James, the people of Virginia City started the legal process to acquire clear title to the land from the federal government in 1865, but the paperwork was never finished. It's a fact that haunts the town to this day.

The only other way to get clear title was through private patent mining claims.

"If you had a mine with a legitimate mineral claim and a record of development on the property, the government would give clear title," James said, noting there is some indication that mining interests may have given title to the cemetery entities, but nothing can be proved to date.

Since renovation is the primary goal, Wheeler considers actual ownership of the land a transparent issue. The Comstock Historic Distric Commission acquired a grant to replant the landscaping and install an irrigation system over a quarter of the Silver Terrace cemetery, but grants for this kind of renovation are almost impossible to acquire without clear title. Wheeler plans to circumvent the problem by concentrating on fund raising.

"Virginia City was very technologically advanced at the height of the Comstock," Wheeler said. "We will be bringing that back with an aggressive and inventive entrepreneurial spirit."

Wheeler admits to a lifetime interest in cemeteries. In her 20s she worked in a historic cemetery with her mortician husband preparing bodies, handling family relations and grounds work as well as historic tours.

The first time she visited Virginia City's Silver Terrace, she was horrified at the decay.

"I wasn't prepared for what I saw. It was a very emotional thing for me because it was in such a state." Wheeler said, noting that the more she learned the worse she felt.

She began making phone calls, but was simply passed from one agency to another. "I tried everything, but finally gave up," Wheeler said.

She happened to see Andrea Daily Taylor, adviser to the National Trust, on television calling for volunteers to work on the project.

After one conversation, Taylor appointed her chairman.


Use the comment form below to begin a discussion about this content.

Sign in to comment