An Afternoon at a Coal Miners’ Cemetery

Did you know there was coal mining in California? I didn’t learn that until recently. This, despite the fact that the Mount Diablo Coalfield, the largest in California, was in Contra Costa, the very county where I was born. From 1850 to 1906, mines in the Mount Diablo Coalfield, many under the operation of the Black Diamond Coal Mining Company, produced 4 million tons of (low grade) coal, the primary source of coal and energy in California over that period. The region was home to five mining towns, the largest and oldest called Nortonville.

In 1885, the Black Diamond company shut down its mines in the region and moved its miners to Black Diamond, Washington, where the mines produced better coal. They dismantled the railways and the towns completely, leaving nothing but some brick foundations in Nortonville, some great piles of dirt where the openings of the mines had been, and the cemetery, now known as Rose Hill Cemetery, which overlooked the town of Somersville.

Here’s Somersville in 1878. You can see the cemetery up on the hill to the right, and the great mounds that mark the openings of the mines.

 

Here’s that region today.

DistantHills

A view of Rose Hill Cemetery from afar. (Click to enlarge)

 

You can’t see it in this photo, but the mounds over the mine openings remain. Nothing grows on them. The region is now part of the Black Diamond Mines Regional Preserve, just outside the city of Antioch.

We visited the park on a cool, overcast March Sunday. Early spring is the best time to visit that area; there are hills that block the ocean breezes from that part of the county, and in the summer it can be twenty degrees warmer — or more — than it is in San Francisco, only an hour away. It can also be very dry and brown. I was a bit worried, since we haven’t had any rain, but the hills were green and blooming with wildflowers.

CemeteryFlowers1

(Click to enlarge)

 

By the time we visited the cemetery, in the early afternoon, the clouds were burning off and the sky was turning blue.

There are over 200 people believed to be buried in the cemetery, which served all four mining towns. Not everyone was buried there; it’s a Protestant cemetery, filled mostly with the Welsh residents of the region. Many Welsh miners immigrated to work in the coal fields of Pennsylvania, then came to California for the gold rush, and went back to coal mining after that rush went bust. The earliest known gravestone is that of Elizabeth Richmond (age 8), buried 1865. The most recent is William Davis, buried in 1954 in the Davis family plot.

ElizabethRichmond

Elizabeth Richmond, age 8. (Click to enlarge)

 

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From left to right: Ellen Davis, two Davis children (unnamed), William Davis. (Click to enlarge)

 

Far too many of the gravestones are gone now, lost to vandalism or souvenir hunters before the park district acquired the cemetery in 1973. There are only about 80 left. The site was beautiful and serene in the muted sunlight, with only a few other visitors besides my husband and me.  The dead have a lovely view, probably lovelier than they did when they overlooked Somersville, facing east into the sunrise. And traditionally, the Son-rise.

FacingEast1

Facing east, over what was once the town of Somersville. You can see the mounds that mark the old mine openings. (Click to enlarge)

 

For as the lightning comes from the east and flashes as far as the west, so will be the coming of the Son of Man.

— Matthew 24:27 (New Revised Standard Version, Catholic Edition)

 

It’s supposed to be haunted, of course. I felt nothing that day but the sun overhead as I wandered around the headstones, reading and photographing them. Supposedly, though, people have felt angry or mischievous presences, maybe upset by the desecration of their headstones. The best known story is about the ghost of Sarah Norton (whose headstone I didn’t photograph). Mrs. Norton was the wife of Noah Norton, the founder of Nortonville, and she was a midwife. She was killed on her way to a delivery in Clayton when she was thrown from her buggy. The townspeople tried to hold her funeral twice, but both times they were interrupted by violent storms. The story goes that after failing twice, they simply put her in the ground without a “Christian Burial.” And so now she haunts the graveyard. Angry? Supposedly she wasn’t very religious in life, so that seems unlikely. The other theory is that she is watching over the children buried in the graveyard, of which there are many. That’s a story that makes more sense.

InfantsCorner

The “Infants Corner” of the cemetery. From left to right: Alice J. Hook, age 3 months (“God took her from a world of care”); Mary A. Dawson, age 4 months (“Gone but not forgotten”); Martha Green, age 7 months (“Gone but not forgotten”) (Click to enlarge)

 

Children, mothers, fathers, husbands and wives. I snapped photos of several headstones that afternoon; I’m including a few here, along with the epitaphs, when I can read them (click to enlarge). There’s so often the sense of a story written on a gravestone. Maybe you like reading them, too.


Photo of Somersville from the Contra Costa County Historical Society. All other photos by Nina Zumel.

By the way, the Black Diamond Coal Mining Company still exists. They’re called The Southport Land and Commercial Company, based out of Contra Costa County. They develop, lease and manage commercial real estate. You can find their history here.

4 thoughts on “An Afternoon at a Coal Miners’ Cemetery

  1. What excellent photos. Thank you for sharing. I didn’t realize it either, but I’m not surprised. I often think of coal country being more in places like West Virginia. It’s so timely that I read your post today after reading a news article this morning from India (I think), where an improperly closed coal mine from 100 years ago is still burning fire. It’s destroyed many homes over the years. Your photos are such a contrast to this image. Serene (maybe hiding buried secrets?!; that’s just me being sensationalist).

    • There’s a burning underground coal mine in Pennsylvania, too. I remember hearing about it when I lived in Pittsburgh (and our house there was on top of an old mine…).

      The mines in the park I visited have been checked — obviously, since they turned it into a park. The coal mines are all sealed. There are sandstone mines in the same field, from after they closed the coal mines. A park services guide was telling us that before they sealed most of the sandstone mines, people would sometimes suffocate because poisonous fumes from the old coal mines would leak into the sandstone mines. Brrrr….

  2. What a lovely stroll through a serene landscape! LIke you, I love wandering through cemeteries. With its rolling hills, this one looks so inviting. The word Norton rang some bells for me. My husband and I once lived in a 1920’s four-plex in Berkeley called Nortonville. Curious…

    • Well, Nortonville was in the Bay Area (near Antioch/Pittsburg) and I believe that in the 1920’s that region still had active (sandstone) mining, so maybe people back then still remembered Nortonville… Also, I just discovered the Noah Norton, Nortonville’s founder, is buried in Oakland (Mountain View Cemetery, where the Chapel of the Chimes is).

      I do recommend a visit to the Black DIamond Mines Regional Preserve — probably not in the summer, though; it gets really hot in Antioch.

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