Markleeville Cemetery: A grave matter
Among my earliest memories are visits to York cemetery. Four generations of us walked there once a month, great grandmother, grandmother, mother, my sister and myself. We would visit the family plots and my mother would read the names of those buried there, and one “Lost at sea,” my grandfather. My mother always brought scouring powder and a rag to clean the gravestones while we distributed our bunches of flowers.
The cemetery was huge and beautiful with an imposing Victorian mausoleum supported by pillars with Doric capitals. We passed the tiny graves of babies who died of Spanish flu after the First World War and admired the elaborate wrought iron work around the graves of an ironmonger’s family. My sister and I always insisted on visiting the weeping cherubs at each corner of a child’s grave. In Autumn we filled quart tins with the brambles that grew there in abundance. Mature sycamore, copper beech, oak, yew and pine created a canopy and provided homes for a great variety of birds.
On a shelf of the slope behind my house in Markleeville there is a cemetery. Until recently this inactive burial ground seemed to be an abandoned, overgrown part of Alpine County’s history, falling into oblivion.
Over the years, Wanda Coyan, Alpine Museum’s curator, has directed visitors to this cemetery to pay their respects to their departed kin. Many of these cemetery goers are elderly and it weighed on Wanda to send them off to rip their clothes thrashing through a hillside of sage, rabbitbrush and bitterbrush.
This led to the idea of providing trail access. Recently the Board of Supervisors approved the project and Ted Bacon consented to having the trail carved through his property. Don Jardine flagged the direction of the trail and the county agreed to haul away the brush.
On the weekend of Aug. 13, 14 and 15 a party of cheerful, hard-working Rite of Passage students and several locals gathered together and with axes, rakes and other hand tools, to create a trail. This new trail, which starts in Laramie Street, meanders around gentle switch backs, climbs several dainty steps and soon arrives at the cemetery. The trail is broad enough for jogstrollers but is conducive to wheelchair travel only if the operator is reasonably athletic.
The short trip offers rich instruction in natural and social history. Off to the left is the Jubilee Ranch, home of Jan, the cowgirl; further on one is surprised by a view of the Old Webster School, framed by pine; as one approaches the destination, Woodfords and Hawkins Peaks come into sight. The trail is bordered by pine, juniper and the ubiquitous brush. A Rite of Passage coach crafted two comfortable, log and rock trailside benches.
After this promising beginning, plans are underway to continue the project. Saturday, Wanda will be talking with a representative of the California Conservation Corps who will decide if they would like to help with the work. In the late 1970s the cemetery was vandalized. Gary Coyan repaired the broken headstones with the help of Campfire kids. Many stones have vanished over the years. Wooden stakes, eventually to be replaced by metal plaques, have been placed at the unmarked graves, located with the help of locals and cemetery expert, Laura Hickey.
A local man will be dowsing for more graves: this method can even determine the sex of the occupant. At the street end of the trail there will be a sign listing all the identified people in the graveyard.
The museum has a list, compiled by Karen Dustman, of twenty-two people known to have been buried in the cemetery with some details of their lives.
It appears that the first burial was in 1867 and the last in 1920.
The list includes people whose descendants still live in Alpine and Douglas counties, and others, such as the Grovers, whose names are familiar. Also listed is the notorious Ernest Reusch, who shot his lover’s husband. “Hooded parties” abducted him while he was being transported to Markleeville jail and hung him from Hangman’s Bridge.
Wanda hopes that schools will take advantage of the many educational aspects of the cemetery.
She participated in an event in Fredericksburg Cemetery sponsored by Douglas County Historical Society (many buried there were pioneers in Douglas). Volunteers, dressed in period costume, represented people who were buried in the cemetery. Such events would attract our local schools.
She would like to have wildflowers distributed throughout the area: Another way in which schools could be involved?
Thanks to Wanda, Gary, Adam and Leo Coyan, Rite of Passage, Richard Dustman, Gary Howard, Don Jardine and Sharon Osgood, John Super, Richard Specchio, Laura Hickey and all others who have helped implement this project.