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ROAD CREW UNEARTHS LONG-LOST GOLD RUSH-ERA CEMETERY.

Byline: Peter Hecht Scripps-McClatchy Western Service

They were inhabitants of old mining towns, long since vanished.

There was George A. Elmer, a well-known merchant and a justice of the peace, buried in 1857. And there was miner Henry Glen Camp, 57, buried in 1870. And a 4-year-old girl, Catherine Gertrude Turner, buried in 1854. And an infant, Baby Riggs, buried in 1872.

Preservationist Sue Silver believes these are some of the people whose remains were discovered this week by California Department of Transportation crews clearing a knoll along Prairie City Road in Folsom as part of a Highway 50 interchange project.

Silver, a former Folsom resident and director of the El Dorado Pioneer Cemeteries Commission, a group trying to document and preserve mining-era burial plots, says the graves likely hold people from a cluster of nearby Gold Rush towns that eventually faded into history.

They were towns such as Prairie City and Alder Creek and Rhodes Diggins and Rebel Hill.

But the only thing for certain Thursday, as Caltrans officials confirmed that their crews had discovered 11 graves at the interchange site, was that they had unearthed the fury of one preservationist.

Silver said she had presented state officials with evidence of possible grave sites as early as 1994, and had persistently urged them not to proceed with the $12 million highway project until the graves were found and the remains properly exhumed.

``The work was going to go ahead come hell or high water,'' Silver said grimly. ``I've been stirring up a lot of trouble on this and they're not real happy. . . . This interchange was going to happen whether or not I screamed bloody murder or they bulldozed the bodies.''

Defensive Caltrans officials confirmed crews, using a large-shovel excavator digging a few inches of soil at a time, uncovered the grave sites Monday and Tuesday. They found coffin nails, bits of wood, one worn granite gravestone and fragments of human bones.

The highway officials said the road work will be suspended for several days until hand crews unearth the remains and rebury them at the Mormon Island Cemetery, which is on the border of Folsom and El Dorado County. But they denied having rushed ahead with construction without first searching for the grave sites.

The so-called Prairie City Cemetery has been a subject of Folsom lore for generations, chronicled in local newspaper and historic accounts. But the mystery of the graves only intensified when no one could find them for many years.

Recently, Caltrans spokeswoman Pat Miller had dismissed accounts that there would be graves amid the rolling fields between the Intel Corp.'s Folsom plant and Highway 50. ``I find it hard to believe that there would be a cemetery in the middle of what looks like a farm,'' she said.

Caltrans archeologist Daryl Noble said Thursday that before beginning the interchange construction, officials had interviewed longtime residents on the possible location of any graves. Crews also combed the area with special ground-penetrating radar.

``It was a good-faith effort . . . an extensive effort to locate the cemetery,'' Nobel said. ``It just didn't happen. We're not perfect.''

Nobel said Caltrans has an agreement with state historic preservation officials to closely monitor the interchange project and to properly rebury any human remains that are discovered.

``We're responding to that agreement now,'' he said.

The interchange is being expanded to handle the increased traffic from Folsom's continuing growth - particularly at Intel Corp.'s nearby facility, which employs nearly 4,000 people.

Local historians and preservationists had tracked old church and community records to establish the existence of the cemetery and determine who might be buried there.

Silver uncovered one old Sacramento Daily Union account about a well-attended Prairie City funeral for George Elmer, the local businessman and justice of the peace.

``Many also attended the funeral from Folsom, including the Masons and Odd Fellows with whom the deceased was connected,'' the paper reported. ``It was anticipated that the attendance . . . would be unusually large.''

Silver said she unsuccessfully tried to persuade Caltrans officials of the cemetery's existence after showing them a photograph taken by a Folsom prison guard in 1944. She said the picture showed a man posing next to the tombstone of a little girl who had died in 1854.

About two decades ago, a Folsom newspaper account, headlined ``Prairie City Cemetery Mystery Cleared Up,'' quoted a former resident saying he used to play in the cemetery in the 1930s. The man, Herbert Puffer, said: ``At one time there was only one broken marble marker left,'' plus ``an ancient wooden fence which evidently once enclosed the cemetery.''

Puffer said many headstones were stolen and used - ``faces down, of course'' - as steppingstones at a Folsom residence.

And by Thursday no markers identifying the people buried there had been found. Crews had cordoned off the site, where the plots were discovered after a heavy equipment excavator had cleared away three feet of dirt.

Most of the grave sites were distinguishable only by the hard- packed, lighter color dirt that indicated the surface of the plots. Crews covered one partially disturbed grave with planks of wood and a sign: ``Do Not Step Here.''

``Do I feel vindicated? Not really,'' said Silver, who said she believes Caltrans crews will find more graves if they keep looking. ``I will feel much better once this is handled properly. With all the evidence they had, I don't think it should have taken them this long to recognize what was there.''
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Publication:Daily News (Los Angeles, CA)
Date:May 11, 1997
Words:911
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