Take a tour of Summit County’s seven cemeteries
January 3, 2009
Editor’s Note: This is the next installment of a history series featuring local historian Mary Ellen Gilliland’s book, ‘SUMMIT, A Gold Rush History of Summit County, Colorado, 25th Anniversary Edition.’ The mining history of each town through the founding of the ski resorts will gradually unfold every Sunday on PAGE A8. Enjoy, and let the history of the area become a part of your Summit County experience.
A mountain community’s cemetery mirrors its grief in a way both unique and poignant. A white picket fence, a simple ring of river stones, a splash of wildflowers remain to remember lost infants and toddlers, young wives and miners struck down in the mine shafts or on gold dredges.
Summit County’s seven cemeteries chronicle our past. These graveyards ” some haphazard and blurred almost past recognition like one at 1880s Chihuahua, some laid out in orderly rows like Breckenridge’s Valley Brook ” make an intriguing tour.
Historic cemeteries at Breckenridge, Montezuma, Frisco and Dillon remain in use today. Smaller graveyards exist at Parkville, the gold-rich 1860 county seat; at Grandview in the Lower Blue River ranchlands and at Chihuahua, destroyed by forest fire in 1889.
Hikers and a few surprised homeowners have discovered many of Summit’s unofficial gravesites. For example, the double grave of 1870s Ten Mile Canyon pioneer brothers Andrew and Daniel Recen (1842-1912 and 1852-1917 respectively) appear at trailside on the Gore Creek trail, part of the Red Buffalo Pass route featured in the author’s book The New Summit Hiker. Graves in Breckenridge’s Weisshorn neighborhood, graves of the 1880s Clancy family along the Peru Creek Road, a single remaining gravestone at Old Lincoln in French Gulch and family burial grounds on historic homestead ranches along the Lower Blue River remind visitors of the fragility of human life.
Summit County’s early residents rarely succumbed to old age. People died in curious and bizarre ways. Stagecoaches plunged over cliffs. Sawmill machinery mangled and crushed victims. Electricity, a welcome but little-understood wonder, killed Colorado Power Company employees and dredge boat workers in electrocutions. Narrow gauge railway workers died in runaways and wrecks.
Summit’s heavy snow winters brought snowslides to bury miners, swept with their precious ore dumps from mountainside diggings. Travelers caught in blizzards floundered and froze to death to be found only when spring melted their snowy shrouds.
Diseases with strange names took their toll. Nephritis (kidney disease) and apoplexy (stroke) killed older residents while membranous croup and mine camp epidemics attacked the young. Dropsy (edema or Bright’s Disease) ushered in the Grim Reaper. Pneumonia ranked as the biggest killer. Consumption (tuberculosis) claimed victims. Premature babies and their young mothers often shared double funerals. The 1918-launched influenza epidemic took the local population to its sickbed ” and many failed to leave those sickbeds alive.
These dead now reside in Summit’s known cemeteries.
Valley Brook Cemetery: At the entrance near the sexton’s building (constructed 1901 at a cost of $187) you can look on your left in a straight line to see the graves of five people who lived past 90, quite a feat during a time of early death. They were Mary McManis, 91, a Civil War veteran’s wife; Mary E. Swisher, 94, wife of newspaper publisher J.W. Swisher; John Leuthold, 92; Jenny Mitchell, 91; and Mabel Gore, 98, the pint-sized matron who subdued a drunk on a railway car. The oldest Valley Brook resident may be Annie Bertha Jacot, a gifted pianist despite deafness from youth. This turn-of-the-century resident survived to 99.
In 1904 the Breckenridge town fathers decided to take action on the graves scattered around town. They passed an ordinance to remove bodies from alleys, streets and public property. The town clerk awarded $1 to persons who located these early graves.
In fact 1904 proved itself so hectic a year in the funeral business that Breckenridge’s longtime mortician, Mr. Huntress, upped and died himself. The town’s first funeral director, starting in 1880, Mr. Huntress displayed a less than somber flair when he introduced the town’s first hearse, an elegant horse drawn conveyance that turned heads in 1891. The then-pricey $3,000 hearse now resides in Fairplay’s South Park City Museum. (To go: Drive Colorado 9 to just north of Breckenridge and turn left onto County Road 3. Ahead lies the cemetery arch.)
Montezuma Cemetery: This 1865 silver camp blossomed into a lively 1880’s town with a population of 800. Its cemetery gives eternal rest to prospectors like Dan, who died one windswept winter night in a cabin above nearby Argentine. Friends failed to discover his corpse, still frozen stiff, until early spring. Montezuma residents ordered a casket in Dan’s dimensions and gathered for a proper funeral in the town’s one-room schoolhouse, still preserved today. As the minister intoned in prayer a plea for Dan’s eternal repose, an ominous cracking noise emitted from the coffin. Boards began to separate and an awful stench filled the air. Dan’s body had thawed, decomposed and swelled with noxious gases, much to the distress of polite mourners. A few staunch pallbearers interrupted the ceremony to snatch Dan’s casket and rush it uphill to the Montezuma Cemetery where it remains ” but, bless his soul, Dan’s odor does not. (To go: Drive U.S. 6 east from Dillon 6.5 miles to Gondola Road. Turn right, then left, then right and proceed 5.5 miles on the Montezuma Road to Montezuma. The cemetery is on the lower slopes of Collier Mountain in the southeast section of town. Ask permission to enter through private property.)
“SUMMIT” is available in local
bookstores and at alpenrosepress.com. Mary Ellen Gilliland’s eight local books include a humorous county history titled, “Colorado Rascals, Scoundrels and No Goods,” and “The New Summit Hiker.”