Reno’s nearly forgotten but very historic Hillside Cemetery
Tucked into a residential neighborhood of apartment complexes and fraternity houses near the University of Nevada, Reno campus is a patch of land that looks very much out of place.
The roughly 5-acre site, which overlooks downtown Reno, is known as the Hillside Cemetery and it is Reno’s oldest final resting grounds, having been first used in the late 1860s (and formally established as a private cemetery in 1875).
According to news accounts, the first person to be buried on the site was Menerva Morton, who died in 1868.
Among the others interred at Hillside include a number of pioneer Reno figures including George Peckham (Peckham Lane is named after him) and George Williams Cassidy, a former journalist and U.S. congressman from Nevada (1881-85).
From 1879 to about 1959, Hillside remained a more or less active concern that was originally owned by the Wiltshire Sanders and later by his heirs. Apparently, lots in the cemetery were sold to the individual families while ownership of the overall site remained with Sanders.
Records indicate there were a total of 190 lots, which could host as many as 18 individuals on each lot. More than 1,400 people are believed to have been buried in the cemetery.
In about 1905, Wiltshire Sanders turned over ownership of the cemetery to his wife, Margaret Sanders, who, according to court records, continued to sell lot deeds until 1920, when the city passed an ordinance prohibiting such sales. After that date, only members of the families already owning lots could continue to inter their deceased at the cemetery.
In the 1930s, the Sanders family moved away from Reno and the cemetery was abandoned (except for any maintenance efforts performed by the families of those buried there).
By the 1960s, the cemetery was officially an eyesore, used as a dumping ground for trash and old automobiles. Grave markers were broken or stolen and part of the site was used a parking lot by fraternity members living nearby.
In the 1970s, the property began to attract attention from local developers, who purchased the Sanders’ family interests, who wanted to relocate the bodies in order to build apartments, fraternities or dormitories on the site.
In 1978, the property was donated to UNR, which sought to get the site approved for student housing but abandoned the effort due to public outcry.
In 1985, the university sold the site to Sierra Memorial Services, which also wanted to use the land for other purposes. In 2001, it persuaded the Nevada Legislature to approve legislation allowing it to relocate the bodies since the cemetery had no financial mechanism for being a viable enterprise.
Since then, Hillside Cemetery has been in a kind of limbo with preservation advocates and descendants of those buried there successfully beating back efforts to disinter the bodies so the site can be repurposed for other uses.
In 2016, the Hillside Cemetery Preservation Foundation was created to restore, preserve and protect the site. The group has a website explaining its goals (http://hcpfoundation.squarespace.com).
Today, visitors can still wander around the fenced cemetery site, which is open (for now) only to family members due to past vandalism problems.
Despite the decades of neglect and vandalism, several impressive headstones and markers remain. They illustrate the significance of the cemetery to Reno’s history, reminders that this was once the city’s most prominent burial grounds where many of the community’s most important figures were laid to rest.
Rich Moreno writes about the places and people that make Nevada special.