By Victor Meier
Mary Townsend was accidentally shot by her husband in 1881 and when he buried her, he surrounded her gravesite with the white picket fence he had always promised her in life.
Townsend is one of Mammoth’s original Pioneers and you can find her grave near the trailhead to Mill City. She’s just one of the memories of early Mammoth, as is the Pioneer Cemetery.
Mammoth Lakes Museum (also known as the Hayden Cabin) Curator, Mark Davis reminisced recently about the cement Historical Monument (once in existence) that was placed on the edge of Mammoth’s Pioneer Cemetery. “I know it was placed there sometime in the 1950s,” said Davis, “and it existed until the 1990s. I have seen pictures of it myself.”
The Town of Mammoth Lakes was founded as a mining town and hosted three mining camps and therefore many pioneers/miners before, during and after the famous California Gold Rush. So what happened to those early pioneers and miners who perished during Mammoth’s Golden Era when the average life expectancy was around 40 years of age? Presumably, not every person who perished in Mammoth would be buried in Bridgeport.
There were 23 deaths (13 of which are documented and the other 10 were probably unmarked graves) and burials within the town of Mammoth Lakes between the years of 1877-1882, according to information at the museum. According to museum records supported by newspaper clippings, the Pioneer Cemetery existed and was the burial site for all three mining camps, in the area of town now known as The Bluffs.
The statutes of the State of California, Political Code; Chapter V. Section 3105, state that the title to lands used as a public cemetery or graveyard, situated in or near to any city, town, or village and used by the inhabitants thereof continuously, without interruption, as a burial ground for five years, is vested in the inhabitants of such city, town, or village, and the lands must not be used for any other purpose than a public cemetery. Mammoth’s Pioneer Cemetery was in existence from at least 1877-1882.
In the museum there are readily visible photos of dilapidated gravesites from the 1950s, which are no longer identifiable or seemingly no longer in existence. So, where are the remains of the perished Pioneers of Mammoth Lakes? Were their final resting place moved? If not, then where are their graves? They aren’t in Bridgeport. Certainly they couldn’t be in the same location and merely unidentifiable?
According to a 1965 Land Survey of the “Schotz Parcels,” requested by local businessman Bob Schotz and conducted in the area of The Bluffs, there were provisions made to dedicate one square acre of land to a “graveyard.” This one acre parcel of land was set-aside on the southeast end of the Bluffs and was clearly marked “Graveyard;” a distinction that is echoed by another (1966) land survey of the same area (also requested by Schotz). So, what legally constitutes a “graveyard?” According to Section 3106 of the California State Law, six or more human bodies being buried in one location affirms the existence of a graveyard.
The Mammoth Museum has two “headstones” or rather, two wooden grave markers, which were retrieved from Mammoth’s Pioneer Cemetery and preserved by Schotz in the 1940s (when they were last identifiable) and donated to the Mammoth Museum. One marker reads, “Isabelle-Infant Daughter of Eli and Katie Schweiger, August 23 – September 12 1879.” The other reads, “James Fahy, August 14, 1840 – August 9, 1879.” According to Davis, “Fahy was a bartender in Mill City (a former Mammoth subdivision) who was shot by one of two patrons who had a disagreement in the bar he was working in. Mr. Fahy later died of an infection from his gunshot wound.”
Today, the spot where this historical monument once existed from the 1950s until the 1990s is now a proposed location for a private home.
Section 3109 of the law states that public cemeteries of cities, towns, villages, or neighborhoods must be enclosed and laid off into lots, and the general management, conduct, and regulation of interments, permits to inter, or remove interred bodies, the disposition of lots and keeping the same in order, is under the jurisdiction and control of the cities and towns owning the same, if incorporated; if not, then under the jurisdiction and control of the board of supervisors of the county in which they are situated.
As Museum Curator Davis said, “This could be some potentially bad karma for the town of Mammoth Lakes.”
In 1995 the Mammoth Lakes Planning Commission, seeking to make public improvements in The Bluffs area, certified an Environmental Impact Report (EIR) from 1982 by one Jeff Burton. According to Burton’s EIR a recommendation was made that the Pioneer Cemetery (located within The Bluffs) be preserved as a cemetery … as it was … again. That hasn’t bothered William West though, who doesn’t seem to mind that for generations the remains of at least 23 of Mammoth’s Pioneers have been buried on the lot he purchased.
West requested to develop his land for years. Of course this is his right, if it weren’t for the discrepancy that his land is on a well-known cemetery. He pressed, and it appears that eventually he got his way. To West’s credit, he was also open to the idea of selling his cemetery lot back to the Town of Mammoth Lakes, at full market value of course. So, in response and in full acknowledgment of Burton’s report the town suggested that West have his own EIR conducted. Evidently historical references, official surveys and the original EIR weren’t enough.
West along with the Town’s approval hired Pacific Legacy to conduct his EIR. Pacific Legacy dug eight random trenches with a backhoe. There was a “qualified” archaeologist, paid by West, on site and overseeing the dig.
The archaeologist found no remains to account for the at least 23 pioneers allegedly buried there. Then the Town of Mammoth Lakes, under the guidance of then-Deputy Community Development Director, Bill Taylor and his staff, recommended in a letter to the Planning Commission, “that the Commission accept the letter report from Pacific Legacy and find that no further archaeological investigation is required at this time.”
“There was no official record anywhere of it being a graveyard,” Taylor told The Sheet last week. “It’s a puzzle to say the least, but the Town didn’t have much choice but to let him [West] go forward.”
There are local records establishing that this area in question is a cemetery and many of Mammoth’s Pioneers were buried there. The book Old Mammoth refers intimately and directly to the cemetery. Local publications have run a handful of stories about the fact that the cemetery exists. Land surveys corroborate the existence of a graveyard in this very location. Anecdotal information about the Pioneer Cemetery matches the existing artifacts. In the 1950’s a cement monument was placed there by Louis and Joe Serventi along with Fred Brooks and it read, “WE WILL NEVER FORGET YOU.”
Former Mammoth Lakes Police Sgt. and Cadaver Dog Handler/Trainer, Paul Dostie has taken his specialized cadaver searching dog, Buster, to the Pioneer Cemetery and has witnessed his dog alert on many occasions within the lot. “I was curious to see how my dog would react after the soil had been turned over by the backhoe,” said Dostie, “so, I went up there with Dan McConnell and we watched him [the cadaver dog] as he laid down a bunch of times, alerting me to a number of locations of human remains.” Dostie went on to say that if one were so inclined to look for human remains that it would be hard to establish any such thing other than teeth due to the duration of the burials.
The report presented by Pacific Legacy read, “No evidence of soil disturbance, artifacts or human remains was found.” Then, according to the report that Taylor and his staff submitted to the Planning Commission, “The report concluded that no evidence of a graveyard exists on the subject property and no development restrictions related to a graveyard are necessary.”
The most recent information available from the Town of Mammoth Lakes is the report cited from July 2007 and issued by Taylor and his staff. This report also read, “Staff also recommends that a condition be placed in the building permit tracking system that any future ground disturbing construction be provided with State guidelines for treatment of historical, prehistoric or human remains.”
“It means that if during building something were to be found, then the developer would have to follow State guidelines,” Taylor said.
West has yet to develop his property and currently, there are no publicly available plans for development of the Pioneer Cemetery; that includes a memorial.
“Something had gone on up there, but with the passage of time, it’s not clear what it was,” Taylor said.