The End of the Trail
Cemeteries are supposed to be scary places, doubtless because of all the dead people there, but clear your mind of movie mold and medieval debris and you’ll see that cemeteries are actually quite friendly places. Lots of interesting people, and never a cross word. Even on a night when lightning flashes, thunder crashes, and a wolf’s far away howl is half heard through the storm, the serenity is overpowering. On a sunny day, there is nothing like it for calm.
So it is no wonder that Nevada’s cemeteries are such magnetic attractions for visitors — they are filled with art, historical artifacts, and food for thought. Count the children’s graves until you lose count, taste the heartbreak each little monument represents. How trivial are your problems now?
In Virginia City, you can visit the nine burying grounds clustered together across a fold in the landscape grandly called Silver Terrace. They are a great ornament to the old city, and when the weather’s good visitors by the dozens stroll among the dead. How can they resist? Virginia City is a major cultural treasure of the American nation and these cemeteries are among its crown jewels.
They were once like gardens, with tree-shaded walks and carriageways between the elaborate enclosures, headstones, and monuments, but with the decline of the mines, they fell into dilapidation and disrepair, along with the rest of the city. The condition of the cemeteries was a recognized disgrace for years but it wasn’t until the 1970s that a coherent, sustained program of restoration began. With the contributions that visitors leave, cemetery restoration and reconstruction have been ongoing since, although on a pathetically small scale.
Carson City cemetery is at the corner of Roop and Beverly streets with its entrance on Beverly. Many of the great names and Carson City history are here: Yerington, Curry, Clemens. The stagecoach driver Hank Monk was probably Carson City’s best-known citizen during his lifetime. His fabled dash across the mountains to get Horace Greeley to Placerville for a speaking engagement became a legend, and his response to the pleadings of the bumped and battered Greeley inside the coach became a national byword: “Keep your seat Horace, I’ll get you there on time.”
Jenny Clemens, Mark Twain’s nine-year-old niece, died in 1864 and is buried here. Her headstone was contributed by Abe Curry, Carson City’s progenitor. He is here too. And Abe Cohen, the storekeeper who encouraged Dat-So-La-Li to make her fabulous baskets. And Harrison Shrieves the popular conductor on The V&T railroad. Wounded as a teenager at the Civil War Battle of Bear Run and dead at 27, his elaborate gravesite is the epitome of the Victorian style.
Five governors have gone to the ground here, but the only elaborate crypt, a unique stonefaced Quonset hut, is that of attorney P.H. Clayton, a notorious secessionist during his career in the Territorial capital. The west end of the cemetery is a pleasant jumble of markers and memorials of every description, in contrast to the severe minimalist design of the newer section to the east, where markers and plaques are indented into the lawn to permit gang mowing. This featureless expanse seems empty and uninteresting by comparison.
Dayton Cemetery, overlooking the town from the hill on the west, was the earliest in the state. Governor Russell is buried here, and Judge Guild, who established the State Museum in Carson City. The greatest celebrity asleep beneath the gravel however is James Finney, or maybe Fenimore, better known as Old Virginity during his lifetime. He is remembered as the man who named Virginia City in honor of his native state. On the trail to his lean-to one dark night, he had stumbled and fallen, breaking the bottle of whiskey in his pocket. Aghast at the precious elixir soaking into the dirt at his feet, he made the best of a sad situation by blurting, “I hereby christen thee Virginia Town!” He had migrated to Dayton by the time a balky donkey kicked him in the head and killed him.
Restoration of the old cemetery has been carried out in recent years, and the overview of the town and the rich river bottom country it occupies provides a most satisfying panorama.
The Genoa cemetery on the west side of Jack’s Valley Road (follow the signs) is a splendid exhibit of elaborate 19th-century stone carving and Victorian sentimentality.
Fernley’s Veterans Cemetery is its biggest attraction for out-of-town visitors. The remains of several hundred former servicemen and women are interred here, and their markers blossom with little flags on Memorial Day, making the green lawns a garden of fluttering red, white, and blue. There is no shadow of the macabre in this cheerful scene.
Almost every small town in Nevada has a cemetery, which means, among other things, that discoveries await you no matter where you find yourself here. My uncle John spoke fondly of an epitaph he saw in — Rawhide? Seven Troughs? — I no longer remember, but I do remember the closing words beneath the name and 19th-century dates of a young woman: “She did her best.”
Sometimes an epitaph can hit you in the heart. Here’s one at Wells that did that to me — who was John Nichol, and who was his sorrowing friend who left such a poignant farewell? That’s another thing about cemeteries: questions without answers.
It’s not only in the small towns that we visit cemeteries. At Mountain View Cemetery in Reno, you can visit the stone box with Pat McCarran’s bones inside it and his résumé outside recapping a career that began as Nye County District Attorney during the Tonopah boom and ended in the US Senate.
McCarran isn’t the only celebrity you can visit at Mountain View. You’ll find the earthly remains of many of Nevada’s greatest figures here — Reno Mayor E.E. Roberts for example, whose Libertarian philosophy made headlines during Prohibition. Roberts advocated free whiskey on every downtown street corner: “The only way to put bootleggers out of business is to place a barrel of good corn whiskey on every downtown street,” he told the New York Times. “Attach dippers and put up signs saying ‘FREE WHISKEY DRINK ALL YOU WANT.’ But they’d have to drink it right there on the spot, they couldn’t take any away with them.” Ed knew from his personal experience there’d be no graft to corrupt policemen or politicians under his plan, and perhaps for that reason, it didn’t catch on.
Bill Stead is here, the pilot Stead Air Base was named for. Alf Doten is here, whose daily journals provide such a clear and detailed record of the development of the Comstock Lode and the vivid events of 19th-century Nevada. The Pittman brothers are here. Southerners, they came to Nevada by way of the Klondike and became leading lights, Vail as Governor and Key in the US Senate. As chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee Key got drunk in London one night during a monetary conference and started shooting out streetlights with the six-shooter he always carried.
Their present serenity belies the passions that once stirred them, and the neat rows and simple plaques have no relation to the complex and sometimes tangled lives they lived.
The purpose of cemeteries has always been to benefit the living by reminding us that our connections with one another are the greatest gifts life bestows and that life is fleeting.
By the time my season at Mountain View Cemetery was ended I had accumulated an expectation of a future time in which grave markers are placed at their edges, freeing the grass for games and picnics.
Surely technology will one day allow the plaques to disappear altogether, in favor of holograms — instead of name and dates on a plate screwed into the ground, there is grandpa himself, sitting in his favorite chair, smiling, even speaking a few of his favorite words, called up by tapping a personal password onto a keyboard.
“Why, hello Jessie — see that fella over there? ’twasn’t the cough that carried him off, ’twas the coffin they carried him off in. Well, well, well: three holes in the ground!”
And look — out there on the lawn his grandsons are playing catch and having a fine old time while he looks happily on. . . .
I have a friend in Reno, a banker. To see him standing at attention in a group of suits you’d never suppose that years ago, on a moonlight night in June when he was a teenaged boy, he kissed a girl for the first time right there by the Nixon crypt. But he did.
And when he did, surely Nixon, McCarran, the Pittmans and all the other dead must have been pleased. Or is the pleasure wholly ours, in imagining that they know or care?
David Toll is a prize-winning writer and small-time publisher whose latest book is David Toll’s Nevada: A 50-year tour of the most interesting state in America (2021). The book is an anthology of David’s writing about the Silver State over the last 50 years, featuring tales that appeared in Nevada Magazine, online publications, and newspapers including the Gold Hill News and David’s classic, The Complete Nevada Traveler. The anthology is available online at the Nevada Bookstore. Toll also publishes regularly: The NevadaGram, which contains his stirring trip reports, and Nevada history.
Founded in 2020, the Sierra Nevada Ally is a self-reliant publication that offers unique, differentiated reporting on the environment, conservation, and public policy, and gives voice to writers, visual, and performing artists. We rely on the generosity of our readers and aligned partners.