SOUTH LAKE TAHOE, Calif. — Tucked between two houses on a quiet, residential street is what looks like an empty lot. But if you look closely, you’ll see the few scattered headstones remaining in the Al Tahoe Historical Pioneer Cemetery. The cemetery was almost lost to time until the Daughters of the American Revolution South Lake Tahoe branch stepped in to restore it. On Saturday, June 20, with the help of the city and Tahoe Conservancy, DAR was able to figure out roughly how many bodies are buried there. This information is a major step forward in preserving the cemetery.
The first person to be buried in the land that would soon become the cemetery was in 1861.
In 1866, after starting the town of Rowlands, founder Thomas Rowland dedicated a plot of land for the cemetery.
The last person to be buried there was in 1959.
Ownership of the cemetery has changed many times over the years until the city of South Lake Tahoe was deeded the land in 1966. The Tahoe Conservancy does own a plot of land behind the cemetery that DAR also suspected held burial sites.
Eagle Scout Donald Deede began in 1976 to compile the names of those who were buried there, of which he found 35. Lake Tahoe Historical Society vice president Lee Vestal has continued conducting research of the cemetery.
Over the years, the cemetery became overgrown and vandalised. A road was paved over a section of the cemetery, and while sewer lines were being laid, many bodies were likely scattered. Of the over 100 gravesites at the cemetery, only 12 headstones remain. The others were stolen or destroyed.
While the Kiwanis Club would do annual cleanups at the site, the cemetery went relatively untouched until the Lake Tahoe Chapter DAR, which was founded in Feb. 2019, decided to take on preservation of the cemetery as a project.
The Al Tahoe Historical Pioneer Cemetery Support Committee was started, made up of DAR members, the Tahoe Conservancy, Kiwanis and the Historical Society.
One of the first steps to preserving the site was to figure out how many people had been buried there. The city matched a $3,000 grant the committee had received from the El Dorado Community Foundation to pay for a ground penetrating radar survey.
Ground Penetrating Radar
GPR is able to create subsurface images by using radar pulses. The image appears in horizontal wavy lines and disturbances in those lines showed where bodies were.
The committee hired Matt Turner, Vice President of GeoModel to conduct the survey.
While GPR can be used for many scenarios such as finding utility lines, detecting tunnels or studying bedrock, Turner mostly uses it for archeological purposes.
The GPR can penetrate 9 feet into the ground but Turner said bodies in historic cemeteries are not usually buried very deep. So, when Kiwanis members cleared the land for the survey, they were instructed not to cut weeds and plants rather than pulling them up, in case they pulled up “something else” with the plant.
Turner combines geology and archeology when conducting surveys.
For example, he looks for slight depressions in the ground where coffins have likely collapsed and the ground has settled. But he also knows 99% of cemeteries are facing east with the person being buried on the east side of the headstone. So, with the few headstones remaining in this cemetery, he was able to tell this cemetery followed the same pattern.
Turner said the most interesting part of his job isn’t the graves themselves but the headstones.
He said he’s seen some interesting and unique designs and inscriptions over the years. Although he did note one interesting grave he’d found; a mass grave in Pennsylvania filled with victims of the 1918 flu pandemic.
Turner began the slow task of mapping the cemetery, which took several hours to complete. He pushed his radar, which looks like a lawnmower with a screen, over every inch of the land going north to south and south to north.
He would spray paint lines for every body he found.
While he mapped, the ladies of DAR shared stories of some of the people buried there.
Who’s buried there?
Sally Holcombe is the founder of the Lake Tahoe Chapter and the chapter’s in house genealogist. It’s obvious that she’s passionate about this project and she’s spent countless hours researching.
Town founder Thomas Rowland, along with his wife and daughters are among the names of those buried there, although without their headstones it can’t be known for sure where they are buried.
Rowland’s daughter Flora Dickey was the last person to be buried there in 1959. His other daughter, Fannie, married into the Barton family, likely the same family of Barton Health fame.
Kate Hill was also buried there in 1939. According to Holcombe, Hill was married to E.B. “Starvation” Smith who built the Lakeside House in 1892. After he died, because women couldn’t hold property at the time, the resort went to his nephew Arthur Hill. It’s said that Kate married Arthur so that she could keep the resort.
Kate Hill’s headstone is one of the few remaining ones in the cemetery. She had requested to be buried next to her first husband, so while there is no headstone, Holcombe is sure Smith is buried there. Turner did confirm there was a body buried next to Kate Hill.
Arthur Hill was cremated but his ashes are also buried in a box in the cemetery. He was originally buried where the street is now located, so he was reinterred in the remaining cemetery.
A woman named Maggie Lue Bloom was also laid to rest there in 1941. While she isn’t a well known name in history, she was a chiropractor with her own practice, something that was very significant for a woman living during the turn of the century.
The names of 52 people have been confirmed and Holcombe is working hard to identify the others.
At the end of the day, Turner identified 105 burial sites in the cemetery proper, five on the Conservancy land and none on the street but Turner thinks that’s because they have been disturbed by the installation of gas line, sewer line, cable lines, and fiber optics all of which Turner saw.
Chapter Regent Rosemary Manning said she now plans to get little plaques to mark all of the burial sites as well as a large plaque recognizing the people buried there and the groups that supported the project.
Manning said the city is going to help put in a new fence and Manning hopes to put in lighting as well.
Holcombe will continue looking for names. She wants anyone who might be related to someone buried there to contact her.
She is also looking for any pictures of the original cemetery since they currently don’t have any.
If anybody has any information, please contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.
To learn more, visit https://laketahoe.californiadar.org and search chapter projects and activities under the about us tab.