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Dennis Cassinelli: The historic Nevada State Asylum cemetery

By Dennis Cassinelli

Many of Nevada’s old cemeteries have long existed in a state of neglect and abandonment. Many of them have little to mark the graves of the long departed pioneers but a few markers of wood or stone.

Unlike many of these historic cemeteries, the one at the old Nevada State Asylum did not have a single grave marker left to identify the graves of at least 767 and possibly as many as 1,200 former residents of Nevada whose remains are buried there. During the years from 1882 to 1949, many patients of the old insane asylum who happened to die there were buried on the grounds of the hospital.

I lived on nearby Hymer Avenue in the 1940s and witnessed burials being done at that time. What started out as a neat and orderly graveyard eventually became little more than a mass grave where the hundreds of deceased patients were buried in a haphazard fashion with some being buried one atop another. These burials were often done by other patients of the hospital.

Conditions deteriorated during the 1940s when a large pipeline was installed through the cemetery and several of the graves were ripped apart and the remains were later shoved back into the excavation. As small children, my cousin and I witnessed this and other desecrations. When 21st Street was constructed in 1977, several graves were accidentally dug up and had to be reinterred inside the cemetery boundary. The City of Sparks constructed a kiddie park atop part of the cemetery and uncovered even more remains.

In my book, Chronicles of the Comstock, I tell about several former residents of the Comstock who were patients of the asylum and were buried in the infamous old cemetery. Perhaps most recognized was Mrs. Piper, wife of John Piper, who built and operated Piper’s Opera House in Virginia City. Many people had become insane from causes related to difficult working conditions experienced by miners, mill workers and others. 

On March 28, 1949, the Nevada State Legislature abolished the use of any cemeteries located on the hospital grounds. During 1947 through 1948, at least 18 patients had been buried on a small strip of land about 300 feet west of the historic cemetery. There were never any provisions made by the State of Nevada to improve the two cemeteries until an organization known as Friends of the Northern Nevada Adult Mental Health Services Cemetery, led by Carolin Mirich, approached the Nevada Legislature. Due to the persistent efforts of this group during the 2009 session, Sen. Bernice Mathews and Assemblywoman Smith sponsored SB 256. This bill was passed and signed into law by Gov. Gibbons on May 29, 2009.

As a result of this legislation, the hospital achieved the status as a historic cemetery. The Nevada State Public Works Board prepared the plans and several contracts were awarded to make major improvements to the long-neglected cemetery.

The entire perimeter of the historic cemetery was fenced off with a substantial black iron fence. The playground park built by the City of Sparks was dismantled and turned into a memorial park. A concrete plaza with sidewalks and new lawn areas were planted. A 9-foot tall granite obelisk memorial was installed with bronze plaques on each of the four sides. The plaques contain the names of 767 people known to have been buried in the cemetery. There is evidence there may be hundreds of others whose names remain unknown.

Cassinelli Landscaping and Construction was employed to exhume the 18 graves buried west of the main cemetery and reinter them near the memorial plaza. Unfortunately, the name plates on these graves had been placed some time after the burials were made. The archaeologist we employed to help identify the remains was unable to positively identify the remains as those of the persons named on the markers. I was also given four sets of unidentified remains that had been accidentally dug up during reconstruction of 21st Street.

All the remains were placed in new caskets with liners and reinterred in the area surrounding the plaza and grave markers were placed over them. All the work authorized by the legislation has now been completed.

Dennis Cassinelli is a Dayton author and historian. You can order his books at a discount on his blog at denniscassinelli.com.