Skip to content

Tombstone Adventures: Connections, Part I

By Thyria Wilson

Recently, I saw a car sticker that read, “I brake for cemeteries.”
I heartily agree with that sentiment. Find A Grave can give more information than just names and dates. Has the tombstone been erected by a fraternal organization or in a religious cemetery? What other burials occurred in that cemetery? Many graves do not have tombstones because the grave marker has disappeared or never existed. The only evidence is sunken ground. It takes a lot of exploration to sort out some of these very old gravesites and cemeteries.

Caribou Cemetery

I went to a YMCA day camp near Nederland, Colorado, a while back. Sometimes, we took trips to nearby cemeteries, including those in Central City in Gilpin County and Caribou in Boulder County, and explored these matters. Nederland was the mill site for the town of Caribou and other mining towns for silver and tungsten ore. Nederland was named by the miners—it is Dutch for lowland. The elevation of Nederland is somewhat lower than Cari- bou, which is six miles away, so lower is all relative. Nederland was a trading post for the Utes in the 1850s and is at the edge of the Indian Peaks Wilderness area.

One of the former annual activities in Nederland in March was the Frozen Dead Guy Day races. When I was a law clerk for a Denver District Court, I had to read the rambling court documents by Trygve (of Nederland), who was trying to sue Denver Airport for false arrest for a hijacking threat. In the court pleadings, he included information on the cryogenic freezing of his dead grandfather in Norway, who was, at that time, stored in a shed in Nederland. A few years later, I read about a malfunction of the freezing equipment and the thawing of Grandpa and some other guy in the shed.

Back to cemeteries, the Caribou Cemetery is at 10,000 feet and is located in a grove of aspens and pines up a steep mountain road from the ghost town.

The trees in the ruined town are bent over from the fierce winds. I was fascinated by a tombstone shaped like the Washington Monument with the names of a mother and three of her chil- dren who died of diphtheria within two days. When I returned as an adult, I was horrified to discover that most of the marble tombstones had vanished, cut down to the base by vandals. The stories of the silver miners and their families were gone. Fortunately, in 2023, the Friends of Caribou Cemetery cleared the area of debris and downed trees. The group also erected an arched metal sign over a metal gate and began mapping the known grave sites. In 2024, the group will be intensely researching the unknown dead.

Boulder’s Valmont Cemetery

While a graduate student at CU Boulder, I wrote about a woman cleaning up a small unnamed cemetery near Valmont Cemetery in northeast Boulder. As we hiked on the Butte through public service land to the remote graves, she told me about the lives of the people buried there. One of the stories in my article in the Boulder Daily Camera was about a teenage girl who died when she swallowed chloroform after a fight with her boyfriend. The lands are highly contaminated now from the nearby power plant, and the clean-up may disturb the graves outside of the Valmont Cemetery along with the remains of Native Americans. Cemeteries often contain compelling stories.

Central City Cemeteries

Halfway across the state, and although there are casinos in Central City, this town has retained buildings from its past, unlike Black Hawk down the mountainside. I commuted to Central City when I was a paralegal for a Boulder water and mining law firm for an inverse condemnation case. I-70 was constructed through his mine, and the plaintiff did not feel he was fairly compensated. It was pleasant working in the courthouse and meeting residents of the town. Central City was known as the “richest square mile on earth.” The opera house was built by Welsh and Cornish miners and financed by town residents. In the 1930s, the opera house was donated to the University of Denver, and major reconstruction was begun by the Central City Opera House Association under the direction of Anne Evans (Governor John Evans’s daughter). The Association hired artist Herndon Davis to create paintings for the Opera House. Davis was a noted artist, but he created paintings with purposely whimsical mistakes. At one point, he had a heated row with Anne Evans about the wood floors, and she fired him. So, in the middle of the night, he painted the face of his wife on the barroom floor of the Teller House.

In addition, Central City has seven major cemeteries up a hill from the town. Aspen and pine trees spread throughout the cemetery areas. Five of the

cemeteries were organized by fraternal societies. Fraternal organizations used communal funds to support families and the costs of funerals. Miners could be killed by explosions, rock falls, and floods that were caused by accumulated water in the mine. Drills used by miners in hard rock mining were called widow makers. In Denver, the banks of the Platte River were filled with miners’ widows and orphans.

Nonetheless, many of the graves in the cemeteries in Central City are those of young children who died from a wide variety of lethal diseases that spread through the mining camps. The children’s tombstones often included a lamb on top. The fraternal cemetery organizations are the I.O.O.F. (International Order of Odd Fellows), Redman Lodge, Masons, Knights of Pythias, and the Foresters. The Woodmen of the World members received elaborately carved tree trunks, representing equality, as tombstones, which are scattered in the different cemeteries. The symbols on the Mason’s emblem are a compass, a carpenter’s square, and a capital G. In comparison, the symbol on the I.O.O.F tombstones is three linked chains.

The largest cemetery above Central City is the Catholic Cemetery, which includes graves of miners from Ireland, Italy, Germany, and Austria. Many of the tombstones in the Catholic Cemetery show the Irish county of birth. The Central City Cemetery includes the graves of Cornish miners, too.

Boulder’s Columbia Cemetery

As another place for exploration, Columbia Cemetery in Boulder is on 9th Street, near Baseline Road. When I was in high school, the opening scene of a television series showed people running and screaming in this cemetery. I walked and drove past the cemetery very often, particularly when I visited my mother in Boulder in her senior housing apartment. One of the tombstones in Columbia Cemetery was called the “Lollipop Stone.” When a two-year-old girl died in 1964, her parents hired a sculptor to create a tombstone inspired by a lollipop painting that had made the little girl laugh. The gravesite is adjacent to the 9th Street sidewalk. Notables of Boulder and the university were buried in the cemetery. The cemetery is owned by the City of Boulder and is managed by Boulder Parks and Recreation.

One of the deceased in the Columbia cemetery had less than a spotless reputation. Tom Horn was an army scout, frontiersman, a cowboy, and a Pinkerton agent. He was hired by the Wyoming Stock Growers Association, essentially as a killer for hire. The Johnson County Wars, also called the Wyoming Range War, lasted from 1889 to 1893. The fight was between the cattle barons and the smaller ranchers and homesteaders. The cattle barons tried to drive out the ranchers, who were often accused of cattle rustling before they were lynched or shot. In 1901, cattle baron John Coble hired Tom Horn to work for him in Wyoming. A family of sheep ranchers

moved into the area and encountered hostility from their neighbors. The 14- year-old son of the sheepherders was killed, and Tom Horn was accused. Tom Horn claimed innocence but was found guilty of murder and was hanged in 1903. Cattleman John Coble paid for the coffin and tombstone and Tom Horn was buried in Columbia Cemetery.

Another notable person, Andrew J. Macky, arrived in Boulder in 1859 and became one of its most prominent citizens. He bequeathed $300,000 to the University of Colorado for the construc- tion of the Macky Auditorium, thus bearing his name. He is also buried in Columbia Cemetery.

Boulder’s Gold Hill Cemetery

Before her death, my mother said if she were to be buried, she would like to be buried in Gold Hill Cemetery in the mountains of Boulder County. There are trails in the cemetery that wind around the tombstones secluded in Aspen trees. She loved quaking aspens. She thought if people were to visit, they should be treated to a beautiful view of the mountains. After she died, I spread her ashes near a grave and Aspen trees.

You never know what bits of history you might find in a cemetery, even in a small one, so the bumper sticker, “I brake for cemeteries,” seems a helpful hint. Happy hunting!

W.I.S.E. Family History Society P.O. Box 100551, Denver, CO 80250

info@wise-fhs.org