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Dennis Cassinelli: The Sutro Cemetery

Dennis Cassinelli

I was recently contacted by contractor Bill Miles, who is a former resident of the town of Sutro. Bill and I are members of the Friends of Sutro Tunnel, an organization dedicated to preserving and restoring the town of Sutro and eventually the Sutro Tunnel. Bill loaned me a book published in 1955 titled “Ralston’s Ring.” In the book, there is a chapter titled “Sutro’s Graveyard.” Also, in a biography of Adolph Sutro by Robert E. Stewart, there is a story of how the Sutro Cemetery came to be built.

May 1879 was probably the finest month the tunnel and the town of Sutro had ever experienced. Work on the tunnel was progressing satisfactorily and there were 1,310 men on the payroll. Pay day “extended over 5 days.” Paying the men was a ceremony held at the office of assistant superintendent Sheldon. He sat behind a tray of $20 gold pieces and alongside him was the tax collector for the town of Dayton. In addition, there were members from the Miners Union and the Hospital fund. Seated around the room was an impressive circle where the boarding house keepers sat, each armed with a book, a pencil and a Navy revolver. Also present were hotel and saloon keepers and restaurateurs. They all had lists of men who owed them money and they wanted to make sure payment was made before the mine employees left the room. The miners were paid in sections and passed through the line at the rate of 30 per hour. Pay day started on Tuesday and ended Saturday night.

It was during this boom period that the Sutro graveyard was started. Adolph Sutro later told how every death was an excuse for his men to get up a big funeral and go off to Virginia City or some other place to bury the man and have the traditional Irish wake afterward. All work had to be stopped for one or two shifts, and drunkenness kept some of the men away even longer.

Sutro wanted to stop this evil by establishing a graveyard at Sutro. However, when the next death occurred, the men objected to burying the man at Sutro, saying that he would be lonely. This went on for some time until two miners were killed at one time. These two were in bad standing with the Miner’s Union, so there were no friends to protest and no one could raise the issue of loneliness. From that time on, the burials were held at the Sutro Cemetery without any wakes.

By the end of May 1879, the cemetery was not the only quiet place in Sutro. Work on the drain boxes was nearing completion so fast that fewer workmen were needed. Men were laid off in groups of 200 and the town, so recently a promising community, went into a sharp decline.

Shortly thereafter, Adolph Sutro sold his stock in the Sutro Tunnel and moved to San Francisco. There, he started a new business career and eventually became the mayor of that city.

I searched the several pages in my copy of Thompson & West’s 1881 “History of Nevada” devoted to the Sutro Tunnel and found there was never a mention of any Sutro cemetery in their book. I did find reference to fatalities in “Ralston’s Ring” that said, “So far Sutro had suffered only twelve fatalities.” This was written before work was completed on the tunnel and we do not know for sure how many deceased Sutro miners were buried in Virginia City, nor do we know how many were buried in the Sutro Cemetery. Dan Webster, historian for the Friends group, knows there was a cemetery and he is researching where it might be located.

This article is by Dayton author and historian Dennis Cassinelli, who can be contacted on his blog at denniscassinelli.com. All Cassinelli’s books sold through this publication will be at a discount plus $3 for each shipment for postage and packaging.