Sunday, March 10, 2013


It was a graveyard of the old-fashioned Western kind. It was on a hill, about a mile and a half from the village. It had a crazy board fence around it, which leaned inward in places, and outward the rest of the time, but stood upright nowhere. Grass and weeds grew rank over the whole cemetery. All the old graves were sunken in, there was not a tombstone on the place; round-topped, worm-eaten boards staggered over the graves, leaning for support and finding none. "Sacred to the memory of" So-and-So had been painted on them once, but it could no longer have been read, on the most of them, now, even if there had been light.

- Mark Twain in Chapter 9 of Tom Sawyer

Samuel L. Clemens did a fine job of teaching generations of kids of a certain age that a cemetery was a sinister and scary place to frequent: haunted with spirits and specters.  Graveyards were safe for the passer by only if carrying a dead cat to swing by its tail at midnight beneath a full moon accompanied by the appropriately spooky incantation.  

Helltown circa 1973
It wasn’t until a day hike to a six plot site hidden up a remote reach of Butte Creek Canyon in my early twenties that my perspective changed.  Call it my “graveyard shift.” 

At the (now inaccessible) Helltown Cemetery, a knocked over and cracked marble marker read “Lost on the Steamer Golden Gate.”  In a virtual twinkling, that singular inscription turned Tom Sawyer’s over-arching, stay-away superstition on its head. 

Perhaps, I’ve come to realize, this is why we call them “plots:” There are stories here.  Histories.  Tragedies.  All I needed to do was walk through the gate, observe, question and reflect a bit. 

Some observations and questions:

Were the lives of those with big markers more significant than those with smaller ones?  Area bigwig Samuel Neal resides here, as does the namesake of the town called Durham.  Sam has the bigger stone.
Durham, CA

This prospector came all the way from Sweden.  My hunch is he was about 40 when he arrived in search of gold.  1869 seems like along time ago only a couple of decades removed from the Gold Rush…
…but this 1693 Boston plot puts things into perspective.  We’re all just whippersnappers out here in California.
Boston, MA

Speaking of perspective, I looked at the 88-year lifespan of Pvt. Butterfield (originally from Illinois) resting in Placer County now for about that same length of time.  I wondered what he may have wondered about the cavalcade of history that had marched through his life.
Gold Hill, near Newcastle, CA

Three years ago, I took a ride up toward Cherokee (Butte County) to console myself about the 22% drop in the value of my 401K.  Then I saw this marker…
Cherokee, CA
Nearby, I wondered if this resident was cozy or lonely…
Cherokee, CA

Throughout our cities and towns, we seem to sort and separate the departed: Protestants here, Catholics there and I wonder why we don’t assume God will just sort things out on the other side…
Near Elk, CA
Historians often look for primary evidence when trying to piece together what happened way back when.  Cemeteries can tell us when folks arrived in the area, where they came from either from an examination of their surname or because it’s engraved on the stone, and when the cholera epidemic hit. 
Cherokee, CA

Cemeteries equalize those who died too early with those who somehow enjoyed a wonderfully long existence even without our miracle of modern medicine. 

Occasionally, a marker will evoke a spirit different from sadness or loss…
Centerville (Butte Co, CA)
…and many times I ride away thinking, “That’s not a bad spot to spend forever.”

No matter what thought leaves with me after I’ve explored an historic burial ground, I always flicker back to that trek in Butte Creek Canyon so many years ago.  I’m thankful friends coaxed me up there and for the resultant “graveyard shift.”


Directions (in order of photos):

Greenwood Cemetery (El Dorado County): SR 49 from Auburn or Placerville to Cool, East on SR 193.

Helltown Cemetery (Butte County):  Skyway south and east out of Chico, right on Centerville Road, bear left at Covered Bridge, through Centerville, left on Helltown Road.  Private Property – Restricted Access – don’t mess with ‘em.

Durham Cemetery (Butte County): Midway south from Chico, left on Durham Dayton Highway.

Manzanita Cemetery (Placer County): Old SR 65 north from Lincoln, right on Chamberlain Road, left on Manzanita Road.

Boston Cemetery: N/A

Gold Hill Cemetery (Placer County):  SR 193 east from Lincoln, left on Gold Hill Road.

Cherokee Cemetery (Butte County):  SR 70 north and east from Oroville, right on Cherokee Road.

Guffy’s Cove Community Cemetery (Mendocino County):  SR 1 to Elk, one mile north of town.

Centerville Cemetery (Butte County): Follow direction toward Helltown, but stop in Centerville.  Check out the schoolhouse museum there.

Willow Ranch Cemetery (Modoc County): US 395 north from Alturas, right on Fandango Pass Road.

Mary's Chapel
Mary’s Chapel and Cemetery (Yolo County): North from Woodland on 113, west one mile on CR 15 (but watch for sign on 113).  There’s a lovely, preserved, whitewashed country church on the grounds, so typical of rural America.

Not pictured but of interest:

Mechoopda Cemetery (Butte County) on West Sacramento Avenue in Chico (Native American?)  Locked gate.

Iowa Hill Cemeteries (Placer County): West on I-80 from Auburn, at Colfax circle back on frontage road on southeast side of freeway, left onto Iowa Hill Road.  Challenging road: steep, twisty, scenic and steep.  Real steep.

Boot Hill (Mono County): US 395 to SR 270 junction south of Bridgeport, east on 270 to Bodie.  This is a great place to rest as the sun sets.  Beyond dusk, the voices of the past begin to tell stories on their neighbors.  Honest.

© 2013
Church of the Open Road Press


  1. You should go see the cemetery plot overlooking the Pacific just south of Caspar. Take the first right heading south after the bridge after Caspar. What a "forever" view.

  2. In my little town, there is a very old paupers and slaves grave yard. It is maintained by a man whose family is slave descendants. His family was eventually freed by Nathan Boone, Daniel Boone's son. When they were freed, they got the land that the grave yard is located..

    Quite humbling but very peaceful to visit the small little patch of green on the man's farm and see the graves marked with only a big rock or a big log stuck in the ground.

    Its on the National Registry of Historic Places

  3. The grave of Denton True Young aka Cy Young, is located in Peoli Cemetery, Tuscarawas County, Ohio.

    When I was President of the Newcomerstown Ohio Rotary Club 10 years ago, there were a couple of old timer members who knew Cy personally and attended ball games with him. Sadly, they have passed on and are hopefully visiting with Cy again.

    The road to the cemetery is twisty, hilly and you have to be careful of the "exhaust" from Amish buggy engines.

    If you want to visit, here are the coordinates: GPS (lat/lon): 40.22744, -81.43553

    If you don't use GPS, the cemetery is on State Route 258 between Newcomerstown and Freeport. The town of Peoli consists of about 10 houses, a church and the cemetery.

  4. Yesterday I read Jessica Mitford's book "The American Way of Death Revisited" about American funeral practices and how the way we treat our dead has changed over the years. It's somewhat dated but I highly recommend it for an eye-opening view of an industry that most of us don't put very much thought into until we have to.

  5. I've sometimes spent a little time wandering through the type of cemetery you talk about. I always feel a sadness at the graves of very young men killed in the old wars and there's usually a lot of children who died at a very young age - presumably from conditions now treatable.

  6. There are many old cemeteries in small towns and villages throughout New England. I have found they are wonderful places to enjoy the shade and cool off on a hot summer day. As described previously they are places of peace where one can look back through time and reflect upon the spectrum of lives once lived. Particularly saddening are the headstones of young men lost during our first major episode of wholesale carnage: the Civil War. The loss to the communities from which they originated was most profound as evidenced by some of the poignant inscriptions (I have seen the same in my travels throughout the South). What a waste! Childbirth and childhood in the 18th through early 20th century also exacted a high mortality.

    While I might leave these places temporarily refreshed on a hot summer day, it is also with a great deal of introspective gratitude for that fleeting gift of life.

  7. There's an interesting one up in Huntsville, TX where Sam Houston is buried. You can even see where they fixed the typo on his stone.

    Many there were victims of a post Civil War yellow fever outbreak. Some of the Union soldiers who died in the area during reconstruction are also buried there, but they're way off in their own corner.

  8. I work for a funeral home now, and spend quite a bit of time in O-L-D cemeteries, here in Germany. They are nice places to work, quiet and clean.

    One cemetery has a church that was FINISHED in 1111!! There are a lot of 'Waldfriedhofs' which means forest cemetery, here. They are nice, too.

    Anyone have ancestors here in S.W Germany? Perhaps I can dig them up for you!

  9. Ok ok, now I am gonna reveal the freak that I was... Cote des Neiges Cimetery is one of the biggest in the world. When I was a fresh at Montreal University (just beside that huge cimetery), I use to go there in spring right after the ground was no longer frozen to pickup discarded small tomb stones to make coffe tables for my flat...

  10. I thought I was the only weird one that does that, we have a bunch of civil war history near here. I mark the graveyards on gps and change the settings to closest route and to another graveyard and follow directions, it gets me to roads I wouldn't have taken otherwise. I have found some great dual sport rides this way.

  11. Nothing weird or sick about spending time in an old cemetery . I have always enjoyed a pleasant hour or two reading the markers and trying to visualize that persons journey through life . My ritual on veterans day is to salute as many vets markers as I can locate in small country cemeteries.

  12. I was walking through the woods overlooking I-40 at the NC/TN border, and realized I was in the center of a small, overgrown and forgotten graveyard of maybe 40 graves. Most were marked by a simple river rock planted upright. A few were "engraved" with a nail, or similar tool. One simply said "Father Dide 1821".

  13. Very cool. I need to get to a few of these.