Historic Cemeteries Provide Contemplation, Beauty

‘Sweet be thy slumber’
by Kathy Kaiser

Cemeteriesfencegrasses028In the Nederland Cemetery, above the old mining town, tucked into a forest of tall ponderosas, are three small marble tombstones, all in a row, the lettering worn on some so it’s not easy to decipher all the writing. But this much can be noted: that three children, two of them sisters, one the “only son of N.W. and V.J. Brown,” died within a month of each other.

There’s Roy Brown, “Aged 3 yrs, 6 ms., 3 ds,” whose stone reads:

Tis a little grave
But oh have care
For world wide hopes
are buried there.

And next to that, under the dark silence of the pine trees, are the graves for Jennie, 12, and Allie 8, daughters of “Parents: L.T. & V.J. Nossaman.” Jennie died on June 8, 1879; Allie on June 2, 1879.

Nearby, among the purple asters and yellow gaillardia that float among the tall grasses, is a more contemporary tombstone, from a man who died in his 60s. His epigraph is short and to the point: “I’m happy now.”

Cemeterieshillside024There’s enough sadness and tragedy in Colorado’s historic cemeteries for innumerable novels, movies, or grand operas. But there’s also a beauty and stillness that inspire meditations upon life and death.

The early residents of mining towns—such as Georgetown, Idaho Springs and Empire—chose places of beauty for their loved ones’ final resting place. Above town or down the valley, the cemeteries were removed from the noise and chaos found in many early mining towns, where every square inch was covered by hastily erected tents and cabins and where the hillsides were scarred by mining. But in the cemeteries, the bereaved would have been soothed by the fine lettering on the marble tombstone, by the sounds of the creek or beauty of the surrounding mountains.

In the intervening years, time and nature have added their own signatures to these places of repose. Aspen trees have emerged from once barren hillsides to cast their holy light on the white marble stones, while the wind through their leaves provides a soft, hushed refrain. Chickadees flit from the trees, a woodpecker hammers, and wildflowers border the tombstones and partly disguise the graves.

Cemeterieslichen032These are places mostly forgotten over the decades, left to the aspens, junipers and pines, the sagebrush and juncos. There’s a sense of desolation and of removal from the world and its frantic pace. Over the decades, the straight lines and orderly rows have been replaced with a more haphazard design. Tree roots have pushed up the soil, wooden caskets have sunk, lilac bushes planted 100 years ago have taken over family plots. Many of the old tombstones are half buried in the dirt, covered with the detritus of dead leaves and twigs, while orange and black lichen have added their own lettering to the tombstones. Vines twine through wrought iron fences, and purple harebells align themselves with the remains of a fallen wooden fence.

Nature’s artistry is complemented by the work of humans. Early stonemasons inscribed the names, dates and poetry in distinctive styles; their lettering could be florid, elegant, or delicate. On top of children’s tombs, lambs catch your gaze with their soft looks and vulnerability. On other gravestones, disembodied hands hold each other in some gesture of togetherness even in death. And then there’s the poignancy of handmade markers and burial plots: in the Georgetown cemetery, hanging from a small aspen tree are two small birdhouses, made of wood and obviously finely crafted, as if they could be the object of contemplation themselves. Wrapped around the aspen tree is a necklace of blue and orange glass beads that glitter in the sunlight.

Colorado has a wealth of historic cemeteries, most dating from the state’s mining days, starting around the 1860s and 1870s. Even if poor, especially with children, the residents of these towns would find enough money to mount an appropriate memorial. Often the grandest tombstones are to the littlest humans, as if the shortness of their years could be counterbalanced by the bigness of their resting place. There’s no shortage of graves for women who died in childbirth and for their children, who died young, often from epidemics, such as influenza and diphtheria.

Cemeteriesstonelandscape007Their names—Elsie, Percy, Eliza, Edward, Wilhelm, Matilda, Olive, Edna, Flora— the day they were born and the day they died create a kind of litany or dirge. The older tombstones are mostly marble; for the poorer folks, sandstone or wood, even though granite was all around, being blasted out of the mountain daily by the miners to get to the gold and silver. But the marble must have symbolized something classical, eternal; the purity of the whiteness associated with heaven and angels.

These historic cemeteries are often tucked off the beaten path, known mostly to locals. In Gold Hill, high above Boulder, the cemetery is on the back side of town, where the dearly departed face south, overlooking several lines of peaks and valleys extending to Mount Evans. In Georgetown, the early residents settled their cemetery on a hill above Clear Creek, a few miles east of town.

In some cases, the cemetery holds more souls than the town. And in a few cases, the only indication that a town even existed is the cemetery. Outside of Fairplay (up the road toward Tarryall Reservoir) is the Bordenville Cemetery, on a hill overlooking Tarryall Creek and surrounded by soft, low hills covered with short green grass and a few aspens. The large metal sign for the cemetery is almost grander than the cemetery and almost the biggest structure around, for the town is long gone, not even the foundations of buildings to denote that this was once a community.

Cemeteriesmistyfence026Most of these historic cemeteries are a respectful distance from their towns, which would have meant long funeral processionals, often uphill, carrying the casket, through winter snows, spring mud or harsh winds. It would be a symbolic journey from the hardships, uncertainties and joys of life to the quiet, stilled places of eternal slumber, and an opportunity for the survivors to measure, with each footstep, their sadness and grief.

Even today, the historic cemeteries seem removed from the world, in Empire, past the ball field and over the hill from the frenetic noise and movement of traffic on I-70, you slip through the metal gate and the world stops, as if time has been suspended. Silence greets you and your heart slows; suddenly, every detail is significant and full of meaning. At the entrance, a tall granite monument soars against the sky and mountains, recently erected to honor the memory of three of Empire’s more prominent citizens. Old and new stones are scattered on the hillside, among the yellow potentilla bushes and small groves of aspen.

CemeteriesIdahoSprings036Some of the cemeteries, like the one in Empire, sit in the bottom of the valley, sheltered by the mountains, while others, such as Idaho Springs, is on a steep slope south of town, affording views both of Idaho Springs, nestled in the valley below, and the Mount Evans wilderness area to the south. After having their first cemetery washed out by a flood, citizens set their second cemetery on a hill so steep that, in places, stairs have been built into the hillside for descendants to reach the family plot. While there is likely no danger of flooding, the possibility exists of tumbling down to the creek while visiting your loved one’s grave. Many of the plots are shored up with stone work or concrete, and some of the walls are splitting as the forces of nature push everything downhill toward the creek. Walking through this cemetery while trying to stay upright garners an appreciation for the early grave diggers who must have had to work hard to keep the dirt from rolling back into the grave.

The Georgetown cemetery sits on a gently sloping hill with views to the west of the high peaks. One of the first tombstones you see is a tall obelisk belonging to Louis Dupuy. In 1875, the Frenchman built a hotel in Georgetown known for its elegance, the Hotel de Paris, which is now a museum. The inscription on the obelisk is in French, with a mysterious notation: “deux bon amis,” but who was the other good friend?

Cemeteriescelticross039These historic cemeteries are full of tombstones that pose questions for which often there are no answers. A few stories are well known. In Central City’s Masonic Cemetery, on a hill overlooking Main Street’s old brick buildings, is the gravestone of Sarah Ella Rudolph and her two children, who all died on the same day, buried in an avalanche in their home in nearby Apex in 1899. The Denver papers carried the story with all the details: how many rescuers, how long it took to find the body, the faint cry of one son who survived, and how they found Stella with a wooden beam on top of her, holding her daughter.

But more often, the stories are buried with the dead. In the cemetery in Empire, generations of Crokes are buried side by side. There’s Garnet A. Croke, who lived to be 96 years old; Kevin C. Croke, presumably her son, who lived only 58 years.

Nearby a tombstone for “Ralph Salmon, 1854-1915,” stands alone, with the word, “Brother.” Who was the brother or sister who paid for this memorial, but died elsewhere? Mining towns were transient places, where spouses and family members often left after the death of a loved one, leaving behind blank spaces, unfinished legacies.

Cemeteriesstoneground023In the cemetery for Como (near Fairplay), the only designation on a marble tombstone is for “Wife of H.W. Keirstead. Died June 4, 1892. Aged 16 years.” Did H.W. not want her name on the stone? Or was H.W. already dead and buried somewhere else, so whoever erected the stone only knew this girl as someone’s wife? In mining camps, girls married young, but how could she be so unknown, without any family or friends?

Inscriptions on the tombstones can be blunt (“Killed on South Maroon Peak, July 27, 1965, Age 28” says one tombstone in Marble near Aspen). More often, the epigraphs are vague as to the cause of death and are designed to soothe a broken heart. These poems can be hauntingly beautiful and sad.

Rest loved one rest
Our footsteps wake thee not
Still is thy grave a consecrated spot
Sweet be thy slumber in the narrow cell
And soft thy pillow dearest one farewell

In contrast, some of the more recent remembrances can be almost flip: “Prop me up before the jukebox,” intones one for a woman buried in 1998 in the Georgetown Cemetery, where another tombstone is ” in memory of a swell guy.”

Yet some can be inspiring. In the Gold Hill Cemetery, the date of birth and date are followed by: “Reborn the day I came to Colorado.”

And, in the Como cemetery, where the thickness of the aspens inside the cemetery is counter-balanced by the wide open spaces of South Park, is another comforting reminder:

The spirit now free
of earthly restraints

Cemeterieslamb033And did the lamb atop their child’s tomb comfort parents, as if this portrayal of sweetness and innocence would lessen their suffering? The Idaho Springs cemetery has a section just for children, and the number of tiny lambs decorating the tombstones can break your heart. For the Victorians, tombstone symbols had clear meanings. Not just the lamb, which indicated the death of a child, but flowers, hands, birds, crosses, even draperies could indicate hope, eternal life, a winged soul or fidelity. In the Georgetown Cemetery, where the traffic on I-70 is a constant reminder of modern life, one tombstone shows a hand, the index finger pointing up, between two stage curtains. The finger is pointing to heaven, while the curtains frame this yearning in a symbol of mourning or mortality. Hands clasped, a common theme in these historic cemeteries, mean farewell and the hope of meeting in eternity.

And there’s the more modern, unofficial symbols: a miniature football helmet, a toy plastic industrial truck with “waste management” written on the side, a brown felt cowboy hat with a Bud Lite pin stuck in the brim, teddy bears, and a full-life replica of a golden Lab puppy with an eager look on its face, as if the owner might rise up any minute from the grave and take the dog for a walk. For family and friends, these small icons must symbolize the lives of the dearly departed and bring some comfort. In the Nederland cemetery, many of the more recent granite stones depict the same view of a line of mountains with pine trees in the foreground. This seeming monotony is broken by one such tombstone, in which, below the mountains, a man sits on a bulldozer. Here’s someone who had a sense of humor.

In many of these historic cemeteries, you can trace the lineage of the town’s founding fathers and mothers. In Georgetown, there’s the Guanellas, for which Guanella Pass south of Georgetown was named. Here, at least three generations, comprising some 20 tombstones, share a plot among the aspens and purple asters.

Many of the early settlers came from across the ocean. In Georgetown, three marble tombstones in a row are for young men from England who died in a mining accident, including: “Lewis Garrett, Born in Dalby, Isle of Man”; and “John Gregory, Born in Beeralston, Devon, England.”

In Gold Hill, the family of Julia Verehlighte retained their German language for the afterlife: “Geboren Den 12, Nov 1856. Gestorben Den 26, Nov 1886.” As did the Italians in Central City, who are buried together in one section of the Catholic Cemetery: “Andreatta Na. 22 April. In Memoria I Suoi Fratelli.”

Cemeterieshandshake020Many of the miners came from Cornwall, England, where they had worked the tin mines, and not only is their heritage written on the tombstones, but also in the buildings and stone work in these mining towns. The Jamestown Cemetery, which sits on a hill above James Creek, has many plots enclosed by beautiful rock walls, perhaps the work of Cornishmen. The cemetery entrance is marked by a tall, white picket fence and arch, a surprising bit of domestication in this otherwise unruly landscape of dry hills and mining scars above this town west of Boulder.

And, of course, there are tombstones and memorials for those who died in the wars. Often, the stones for World War I are grouped together, as in the Georgetown Cemetery, where dozens of small marble stones contain just names, with no date of birth or death, plus a reference to the soldier’s military service: “64 Ill. Inf.” Presumably, these men died overseas, and the town put up these stones to commemorate their deaths.

Reportedly, many cemeteries have burial plots facing east, a Christian practice of waiting for the rising sun on resurrection day. (And, those who were not good Christians, such as gunslingers or prostitutes, were deliberately buried on a north-south axis, according to some historical reports.) Indeed, in the Catholic Cemetery in Central City, all the tombstones, sitting in a meadow of yellow potentilla bushes, face east. But across the road, where the Oddfellows are buried, the stones all face downhill, toward the southeast and Central City. This old mining town, now a gambling stepsister to wealthier Blackhawk, has 11 cemeteries. Once considered the richest square mile on earth because of all the gold that was removed, Central City had a population big enough to support individual cemeteries for every conceivable fraternal organization plus a few religions, including the International Order of Oddfellows (IOF), the Catholics, the Masons, and the Knights of Pythias.

These fraternal organizations, including Woodmen of the World (whose distinctive tree trunks, made of sandstone and symbolizing a life cut short, are spread throughout the historic cemeteries), were more than chummy men’s groups that had strange club rituals. In the days when health insurance didn’t exist, and one’s family might be a thousand miles or more away, these groups were an essential part of the community and offered security, paying for the tombstone for a miner who lost his life and helping the miner’s widow and children survive.

Cemeteriespinecone027In Central City, those not belonging to one of these organizations were left with the City Cemetery, where a respectable family of four might find themselves next to a lady of the night. While it’s hard to know which tombstones belonged to the fallen women, several modest stones in the City Cemetery list first names only, including “Kitty”—no last name no date of birth or death. Compared to the Catholic Cemetery, with its even rows of large granite markets, the City Cemetery is poorer, more ramshackle, with more wooden markers and modest gravestones. Here, too, there is more desecration, with headstones pushed over, heads of lambs gone. This cemetery, along with the adjoining Knights of Pythias and IOF, is located at a crossroads a few miles outside of Central City, easily spotted from the road, which has heavy ATV traffic.

What some may consider another form of desecration are the fake flowers that adorn many of the tombstones, even those from a hundred years ago. Made of a tough fabric or plastic, sun-bleached and frayed, these fake roses, daisies, peonies look garish among the otherwise subdued aspens and grasses. (This practice of using faux flowers is apparently not a new one. A photo taken of women, wearing long dresses and bonnets, at a burial plot somewhere in southwestern Colorado, shows cloth flowers “planted” around the gravestone, similar to the ones that still droop over many tombstones.)

In the Nederland cemetery, which is on a hill above the old mining town west of Boulder, are two graves covered with Astroturf, two plastic crosses, and six baskets of plastic flowers, most of them fading. Several purple harebells growing along the edge of the grave make a valiant attempt to compete with this profusion of fakery. Many descendants, apparently wanting maintenance-free grave sites, simply cover family plots with rocks, often of local origin but sometimes using decorative stones that would look more in place in a 1950s driveway.

Cemeteriesfogwhitefence031Aside from the Astroturf gravesite, Nederland’s cemetery is more unkempt and wild than others, reflecting the town’s hippie and unconventional past. On the south and sunnier side, tall grasses almost hide some of the markers, which include Celtic and plain wooden crosses, including one that simply says “For Spike 1949-1981.”

In many historic cemeteries, fences apparently make good neighbors. Older family plots are protected with wrought-iron fences or, for the poorer folks, with wooden fences. Newer ones are bound with black chains or a border of rocks. Inside the fortification might be one grand tombstone or a whole family, where you can trace the lineage, from great-grandparents to aunts, uncles, grandchildren. Here, forever, the Gusauds are separated from the Thompsons, and the Thompsons from the Harrisons.

Still, there is one final barrier that separates us, the living, from those lying peacefully in these places. As one tombstone, for a Woodman buried in Central City, states:

Our brother the haven hath gained
Out flying the tempest and wind
His rest he hath sooner obtained
And left his companions behind.


  • Central City: Four of the bigger cemeteries—Catholic Cemetery, the Oddfellows, Knights of Pythias and City Cemetery—are at the intersection of Upper Apex Road and Bald Mt. Road, a couple of miles above town, on the road that goes past the Opera House. The Masonic Cemetery is about a half mile up from town, past Glory Hole parking lot, on the right.
  • Como (in South Park): Cemetery is about a half mile past town (on road that goes to Boreas Pass) on the left.
  • Empire: Coming from Denver into Empire, turn left on Main Street (sign has arrow “to Bard Creek”), and a couple blocks down is a ball field. Turn left at the road in front of the field (Minton Park) and go all the way to the end.
  • Fairplay: From Highway 285, near the main intersection that takes you into Fairplay, instead, take a left on an unmarked street that leads to the Park County Jail (behind the Phillips 66 station). About a mile or so down, turn left before the Middle Fork Ranch sign. (Warning, in wet weather, the red, clay-like soil can be messy.)
  • Georgetown: Take the Georgetown exit off I-70, but at the first stop sign, head back east on the frontage road, past the lake, for about two miles. Cemetery is on your right (south).
  • Gold Hill: There are several approaches to Gold Hill from Boulder (Sunshine Canyon, Four Mile Canyon, Lefthand Canyon) or from the Peak to Peak Highway. Once in town, follow Dixon Road, just off of Main Street, south and over to the other side of Gold Hill.
  • Idaho Springs: Cemetery is about a half-mile up the road (Hwy. 103) toward Mount. Evans. You’ll see wooden sign on left side of road. The older gravestones are on the southern end of the cemetery.
  • Jamestown: North of Boulder (on Hwy. 36), take Lefthand Canyon up to James Canyon. In Jamestown, at the first stop sign (across from the red and white Jamestown V.F.D.), turn left onto Main Street heading east. A few blocks down, the road curves upward and you’ll see a sign that says Cemetery Road. The cemetery is about a half mile down the road on the right., marked by a white picket fence. You can also park your car at the town park (Elysian Park) and walk across the park to the cemetery, which is on the southeast corner.
  • Nederland: Heading north of town, just as the Peak to Peak Highway (Hwy. 72) goes uphill, is a sign for the Community Center (the old elementary school). Turn right and take the road behind the school, called Forest Road, a half mile or so. The cemetery is on right, the entrance announced by two huge stone pillars. If you go too far, you’ll hit the Peak to Peak Highway

From the Grave: A Roadside Guide to Colorado’s Pioneer Cemeteries, by Linda Wommack (Caxton Press, Caldwell, Idaho, 1998).

The Mining Camps Speak: A New Way to Explore the Ghost Towns of the American West, by Beth and Bill Sagstetter (BenchMark Publishing of Colorado, Denver, 1998)

All photos by Kathy Kaiser