Grave Consequences

From the October 26-November 1, 2000 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

Sometimes developed and vandalized, or just left to the weeds, some old graveyards are finally winning protection in the open space and historical preservation movement. But not all of them.

SETTLED DOWN AT THE BOTTOM of a draw, along a shallow creek in south San Jose, the town of New Almaden is a small marvel of historical preservation. To be sure, there was much to preserve. New Almaden's mines were not only the first in California, but among the most important; the mercury found there was essential to the process of gold and silver mining. At its peak, in the 1870s, New Almaden was a busy and lively town. The population hovered around 4,000 and consisted of miners from as far away as England, Mexico and Chile. There were three schools, three major stores, a volunteer fire department, dormitories, a hotel and a doctor. But like all of the historic mining towns, the prosperity didn't last, and by the early 20th century the population began to dwindle.

FOR A TOWN that played such a seminal role in California mining, New Almaden remains relatively obscure. Getting there is easy: eight miles south on the Almaden Expressway from Highway 85, plus a few more on Almaden Road. You know you're there when you see a "Welcome" banner strung across the road, or La Casa Grande, the unmistakable mansion built in 1854 and now serving as the town's historical museum. Certainly one of the most intriguing of the town's surviving artifacts is the Hacienda Cemetery. Located on a scenic residential back road, across the creek from the museum, it's easy to miss. There's a sign, but it is slightly faded and pushed off the road.

  Along with being one of the more notable historic sites, the Hacienda Cemetery is also one of the least likely to have survived. The land on which the Hacienda Cemetery sits has been bought and sold several times, and only through a tax sale, in 1947, did it come into more caring hands. The family of songwriter Ben Black, once famous for "Moonlight and Roses," purchased the land in the 1920s and, in 1928, Black decided to "make improvements" by driving a road through the cemetery--directly over an untold number of graves. A lawsuit brought years later on behalf of the desecrated grave owners describes Black's activities this way: "That on the 10th of May, A.D., 1928, said defendants in person, and/or through their agents or servants, did break down the fences surrounding the cemetery and did enter with scrapers and did proceed to build a road through the cemetery.

Matters, fortunately, improved from there. The California Pioneers of Santa Clara County, a local historical society, managed to pick up the land for cheap almost 20 years later, and since then a number of genuine improvements have been made. The Pioneers, along with a variety of volunteers ranging from Boy Scouts to local fraternities, have managed to get the cemetery into perhaps its best shape of the last hundred years.
The preservation work has really been twofold: not only have the physical grounds--the fauna, the gravestones, the fencing, etc.--been cleaned, rebuilt and maintained, but the narrative history has also been saved. The property is small but not cramped, without landscaping or adornment, and the bottom half slopes down to the creek's edge. Footpaths wind in and around myrtle, oaks and laurels, and there is even some poison oak.
Appropriately, each grave is enclosed by its own individual picket fence. Not every one still has a gravestone, but most do. Some of the lichen-scarred markers are still legible, while the writing on others has weathered away. There is even a sturdy wood headstone with a faint but visible etching.

Near the entrance, the Pioneers have erected a glass case containing everything from a section of the General Cemetery Act to a list of the buried to relevant newspaper articles. Like most cemeteries from this era, the Hacienda reveals an often arduous past. In this case, approximately 50 percent of the buried are children. The Perez family, for instance, lost a 1-year-old on June 10, 1873, a 2-year-old on June 11, 1873, and another 1-year-old on August 24, 1874. One of the more lurid stories is that of Bertram Barrett. In 1898, Barrett, aged 13, lost his arm in a hunting accident. Because the law at the time required that severed limbs be given a proper burial, Barrett did so in the Hacienda Cemetery. The arm is still there--it's even marked with a gravestone--but the rest of Barrett is buried down in the valley at Oak Hill.

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