You know, no matter how long you live in a place there’s always something you don’t know about, things you’re still able to discover. I’ve been in Carson City over 20 years, and until today I had no knowledge of Carson City’s Pioneer Cemetery. Maybe that’s because this thing is really well hidden. There are no signs pointing you to it, it’s in a part of town you don’t go to unless you have a reason for going, and it’s barely visible from the road. It only has a tiny presence on the web and in a couple of library books. Even when I wrote about the Lone Mountain Cemetery earlier this week, I skimmed past the link pointing to the Pioneer Cemetery. It’s Carson City’s forgotten cemetery, which is odd because it was also Carson City’s first cemetery.
To get to the Pioneer Cemetery (which was also called the Walsh Cemetery, because it was on the Walsh Ranch), you drive west on Fifth Street, towards C Hill. Right at the bottom of the hill, Fifth Street curves sharply to the left and turns into Terrace. Right there at the curve, there is an empty lot in between two houses. Park there and hike about 150 feet up the hill, and you’ll reach the cemetery.
There’s not a whole lot to see at the Pioneer Cemetery. Most of the bodies were actually moved to the Lone Mountain Cemetery long ago, but a few scattered graves are still marked, and presumably there are several bodies lying underground here that are not marked. The cemetery stretches along the hillside, running north to south right along people’s backyards. A few crude hiking trails connect the graves, and with one exception the headstones are all sticking up from their surroundings, so it’s easy to find your way from one to the next. The ground is also trampled and uneven because this was one of the front lines of the Waterfall Fire four years ago. Brave firefighters fought here to save the houses from the flames that swept down the hill. A few charred bushes still remain as reminders of the fire.
The most notable thing about the Pioneer Cemetery is that it was the first resting place of Major William Ormsby, after he was killed in an Indian ambush in May of 1860. I say the first resting place, because his body was later dug up by relatives and taken out of state. A large stone marker stands on the spot where his grave was, with a plaque about the cemetery.
The plaque reads: In May, 1860 Major William Ormsby was killed in an ambush by Paiutes at Pyramid Lake. In June, 1860 William Allen, a scout, was the last of some 40 white men killed in the ensuing war. Both were interred here, but Ormsby was later reburied in N.Y.
Next to Ormsby’s marker is the grave of William S Allen, another casualty of the Paiute War.
These two grave markers are visible from the road, if you know to look for them. But when you reach them, you realize that the cemetery stretches further to the south. Off in the distance you can spy two more markers, a couple hundred feet distant.
First is the grave of Mary Lou Gardner. Do the math here, and you can tell she was only a year and a half old when she died. Pioneer life was hard, especially on the little ones. That the Lone Mountain Cemetery has an entire section devoted to babies is testament to that.
At the far end of the cemetery is the headstone for Edward B. Buckley, a 25-year-old Irishman. Edward’s stone seems to be sinking into the Earth.
As you’re clambering around the hill, you should watch your step. Because if you don’t, you’ll trip over the fifth grave in the Pioneer Cemetery, that of the 3-year-old Ronin boy. This stone has toppled and cracked, so it’s impossible to read the whole first name. I do see a “hn” on the stone, so maybe his name was John?
These five grave markers were the only ones I found on my excursion this morning. Doubtless there are other graves on this land, other pioneers who could only afford wooden markers, or no marker at all, and so are lost to history. If you turn your back on the city, and look up at the barren, windswept hill, you can get a sense of how lonely it was for these first brave settlers of Carson City. And of the small funerals that must have taken place on this hillside, in this tiny cemetery on the edge of a new town.