SHAUN STANLEY/Durango Herald
SILVERTON – The word “cemetery” typically conjures images of rolling green lawns criss-crossed by neatly manicured pathways. Not so at Silverton’s Hillside Cemetery. Here, the ground is sloped and uneven, the landscaping is “au naturel” and the history is colorful.
Overlooking Silverton from its perch on Boulder Mountain, Hillside is a suitably rugged final resting place for a town with a rough-and-tumble past. Four-year-old Rachel Farrow was interred here in 1875 – 10 years before Silverton was incorporated – and since then about 3,000 other people have joined her in the ground. “About” is an important distinction, because the exact number of bodies at Hillside is a mystery, even to the cemetery’s most dedicated historian.
In the 1970s, Freda Peterson noticed Hillside’s lack of proper documentation. No official town or county burial registry existed, and gravesites were scattered about its 20 acres in no discernable pattern. Many of them were unmarked or crumbling.
Drawing upon her interest in genealogy, Peterson took action.
Over three decades, she diligently sifted through more than 7,000 microfilm newspapers dating back to the 1800s. In the pre-computer era, Peterson pieced together information the old-fashioned way.
“I bought (the newspapers) from the San Juan County Historical Society … and commenced reading each issue, making notes for each person on 4x6 cards,” she said in an email from Oklahoma, where she now lives.
Peterson supplemented the newspaper clippings with memories from the Silverton old guard. The culmination of her research was a two-volume “magnum opus,” published between 1996 and ’98, called The Story of Hillside Cemetery.
Life: Unpredictable and cruel
Far from a dry list of dates and names, Peterson brings Silverton’s past inhabitants to life with details about their birthplaces, careers, personalities and, of course, causes of death.
Life in turn-of-the-century Silverton could be unpredictably cruel, as Peterson writes in grisly detail.
John Shaeffer was blown to smithereens in Lucy Mine; his remains were returned to Silverton in sacks. Theo Ressouches went to fetch water near Maggie Gulch Falls and was fatally struck by a massive boulder for his troubles. Charley Rew, known for his ever-present straw hat and galoshes, survived both a bear attack and being trampled by a runaway horse-drawn wagon before he succumbed to heart disease at age 84.
David Clayton Ogsbury, a town marshal, was shot through the heart while arresting a gang of drunken outlaws. “Steam Shovel John” Zanei fell victim to “miner’s con,” a common respiratory disease. Carrie Lewis barely had time to blink before she was swept away by an avalanche. And poor Mrs. Leveque was done in by a “ghastly carriage accident” too gruesome to print.
The hapless Peter Dalla died in what can only be called a severe case of relationship drama. The night before his wedding to Katie Sartore, a rival for Miss Sartore’s affections shot him twice in the leg. The wedding was postponed, allowing Dalla time to heal. As the rescheduled nuptials approached, Dalla’s house was rocked one night by a tremendous explosion, the “death knell of the groom-to-be. The wedding was cancelled forever.”
A large depression near the bottom of the hill marks a mass grave containing more than 100 victims from the 1918 influenza outbreak. The virus spread across the globe after World War I, killing an estimated 50 million people. In Silverton alone, 10 percent of the population died within a three-week span in October and November.
“People were wondering, ‘Is it going to kill everybody? How do we stop this?’” said Bev Rich, director of the San Juan County Historical Society.
One town, many cultures
The Hillside headstones tell of old Silverton’s multiculturalism. Italian surnames are the most common, but they are mixed in with Poles, Irish, Germans and Mexicans, among others.
“Silverton was a true melting pot. Your past, your previous reputation, didn’t matter here,” Rich said.
One glaring exception to the spirit of relative racial harmony was the presence of the Chinese railroad workers, who suffered discrimination in the late 1800s.
“They were generally hated by the ‘whites’, and their businesses – mostly restaurants and laundries, possibly a few opium dens – were boycotted,” Peterson said. “In early 1902, those Chinese who still remained in Silverton were run out of town.”
An especially poignant section of the cemetery is reserved for the “working girls” of Blair Street.
Many prostitutes took false names to protect their identities and spare their families embarrassment and heartache, Rich said. Even on her deathbed, Emma Duncan, a young woman dying of liver cirrhosis, refused to reveal her true name. She preferred to “die among strangers, with no friend to shed a tear over her death.”
Cemetery today: A ‘living place’
“We see fewer burials than we used to because cremation is popular,” Rich said. “But they still happen.”
This season was mild, but in a city that typically gets more than 150 inches of snow each year, winter funerals can be problematic. Most often the bodies are stored until the snow melts and ground thaws. But occasionally a family decides not to wait.
“This February a local man passed away. They brought a trackhoe up to puncture the ice,” said part-time Silverton resident Paul Beaber. “It was a logistical nightmare to get the coffin up there. But in the end it worked.”
Soil erosion can also cause trouble; a builder is called upon periodically to fortify precarious gravesites.
“The mountain is always shifting. Gravity is pulling (the graves) downhill,” said Rich, laughing.
Today it costs $250 to purchase burial rights in Hillside. But because the agreement does not stipulate any exact plot location, the individual or family are free to choose. Sometimes rock piles appear to reserve a prime spot years in advance.
Given the asymmetrical layout, it isn’t unheard of to encounter a subterranean surprise while digging. When she lived in Silverton, Peterson would warn people about the possibility of existing graves. “If a digger runs into an existing casket,” they just have to “move over,” she said.
Every June for the past 19 years, Beaber and his wife, Mary, have organized a group of volunteers to give the place a facelift – removing trash, lopping dead branches, clearing underbrush and other general maintenance. About 30 people show up on any given year, and past helpers have come from as far as New Mexico and Utah.
“It was a neglected place (by the early 1990s). There was a certain degree of apathy about the cemetery,” Paul Beaber said.
Using Peterson’s research, the volunteers also install about 20 new headstones across the cemetery each year to identify formerly anonymous people.
This year’s workday is scheduled for June 16.
Chronicling the history of Hillside Cemetery was a time-consuming project, but Peterson is proud of her work.
Her most memorable moment came 13 years ago. An Italian man named Marco Toffol called to inquire about the cemetery. His mother, Gina, was the daughter of two 1918 flu victims. After a few twists and turns, she ended up in Italy living with her grandparents.
“(Marco) came to Silverton in 1999. My husband and I subsequently visited him in Italy and met his mother, Gina, the baby born and orphaned in Silverton so many years before,” she said.
Time will tell what other secrets and connections Peterson’s work will unearth.