Lake Tahoe Chapter, NSDAR, Historic Preservation Project

Al Tahoe Pioneer Cemetery

Restoration of this historic cemetery is a collaborative effort
between the City of South Lake Tahoe, Lake Tahoe Chapter, NSDAR,
Lake Tahoe Historical Society, Kiwanis of Tahoe Sierra, and California Tahoe Conservancy.
Together, they jointly form the Al Tahoe Pioneer Cemetery Support Committee.

To contribute photos, stories, offer assistance, or to learn more about the project
please contact the
Al Tahoe Pioneer Cemetery Support Committee at


Discovering Hidden Graves at Al Tahoe Cemetery

By Karen Dustman, Clairitage Press
January 15, 2021
Article and photos are courtesy Clairitage Press.  

We’re the luckiest of the lucky -- we recently got to watch experts use ground-penetrating radar to search for long-forgotten graves at Tahoe!
       I’ll confess we knew almost nothing about the historic Al Tahoe Pioneer Cemetery before our recent visit. Turns out this small cemetery near the shore of Lake Tahoe was set aside in 1869 by landowner Thomas Rowland, one of Tahoe’s earliest settlers. Rowland once owned a way-station at Strawberry. In 1868, he and his wife, Sophronia, had bought land here beside the lake -- probably for a song -- after an earlier hotel was destroyed by fire.

This Lawrence & Houseworth photo from 1866 captured the early Lake House Hotel before it burned. Rowland and his wife bought the site in 1868.
        Rowland erected a brand new station here, which soon became known (not surprisingly) as ‘Rowland’s.’ One of its main attractions: a saloon called the ‘Customs House,’ which perched jauntily at the end of a wooden pier jutting out into the lake. And oh, the parties that once took place there!
Early Rowland's Station, with what might be the hotel in the background.
            Rowland himself passed away in 1883. The small community that had sprung up around the hotel (yes, also called "Rowland's") soon faded away, too, as locals moved east to the larger economic center of Bijou.

        Blessed with less-than-stellar engineering, Rowland's hotel sadly collapsed from heavy snow during the winter of 1889-90. (They were big on recycling, even in those days; the hotel’s lumber was carted off and re-used in the lodge at Fallen Leaf).
       But the early cemetery that still bore Rowland’s name remained behind, of course. Over the years, many Tahoe pioneers found their eternal rest in the old Rowland Cemetery. Thomas Rowland’s wife, Sophronia, too, was buried there when she passed away in 1919 at the ripe old age of 81.

       The last official burial, they say, took place in 1959. Others whisper, however, that a quiet midnight “reburial” occurred as late as November, 1975, when paving work on the frontage street turned up an inconvenient body.

       As the years crept by, the old Al Tahoe cemetery fell into disrepair. Once upon a time, cast-concrete angels had marked the cemetery corners, but eventually those disappeared. Old-timers would recall years ago that dozens of grave markers used to be visible. But many early headstones were stolen over the years. Pretty soon it wasn't entirely clear how large the cemetery truly had been. As residential neighborhood sprouted up nearby, several new homes unwittingly encroached on the original cemetery’s perimeter.
Map showing what was thought to be the outline of the original cemetery. GPR readings suggest that early burials took place even more extensively than shown here. 
          In 1965, the Harootunian family thoughtfully deeded the property to the City of South Lake Tahoe to make sure it was preserved. Unfortunately, that was also the same year the City itself was incorporated. The cemetery deed, it seems, got lost in the paperwork shuffle. For the next fifty years, the City didn’t even realize they owned the property.
Rosemary Manning, Regent for the Lake Tahoe chapter of the DAR.
         And then Rosemary Manning came along. The current regent for the Lake Tahoe chapter of the DAR, Rosemary used to walk by the old, rundown cemetery. Since the DAR’s mission includes historic preservation, she thought restoring the old cemetery might make a great project for the group.

       The group began trying to locate the current owner of the property. But tax records proved to be no help; nobody had been paying taxes on the cemetery land. It wasn’t until October, 2019 that the City of South Lake Tahoe finally realized they owned the property, after the City Attorney turned up the deed!
       Chapter members initially began trying to identify likely graves based on depressions in the ground. They also used metal rods to gently test for disturbed soil. Suspected grave locations were identified with small wooden stakes. But Rosemary suspected the old cemetery might hold even more unmarked burials.
       It was Rosemary who pioneered the effort to launch a comprehensive ground-penetrating radar study. But the work wouldn’t come cheap: over $8,000 to survey multiple parcels and the street.
Thanks to tireless efforts by Cyndy Brown-Carlson, chair of the Lake Tahoe DAR Chapter’s Historic Preservation Committee and chair of the Cemetery Support Committee, several groups finally came together to make this incredible project happen. A $3,000 grant from the El Dorado Community Fund was generously matched by the City of South Lake Tahoe. Cyndy's late husband, Len, made a generous donation to the cause; the DAR raised additional funding; and the California Tahoe Conservancy underwrote the portion of the survey for adjacent vacant lots they own. Before the actual GPR work began, members of the Kiwanis of Tahoe Sierra contributed their labor to clear the site of weeds and brush.
Matt Turner, getting ready to mark a ground anomaly detected by his GPR unit, at Al Tahoe Pioneer Cemetery (June 20, 2020).
          GPR expert Matt Turner of GeoModel, Inc. agreed to take on the job, traveling all the way from Leesburg, Virginia with his bulky equipment in June, 2020. With more than twenty years’ experience under his belt, Turner has taken on GPR projects all over the globe, including Japan, Africa and the Middle East.

          The unit he brought for the Al Tahoe grave detection is able to sense anomalies up to about nine feet deep, Turner explained. For other applications he employs a unit with a specialized antenna that can detect variations as much as 30 feet beneath the ground's surface!
            As he slowly and methodically criss-crossed the site with his GPR unit, Turner flagged spots where ground density anomalies were found, using bright orange paint. By the end of the day, orange lines representing likely grave locations lay scattered over the “vacant” lot, and patterns for the burials began to emerge. Because graves traditionally are oriented in an east/west direction, Turner explained, it's common to see patterns of burial locations “line up.” Clustered orange lines typically represent family burial groups, he added.
Matt Turner carefully covered the cemetery with his unit in a back-and-forth pattern. Note the orange line where a suspected burial was detected. (June 20, 2020)
Marking a suspected grave.
Matt Turner points to a ground anomaly pattern detected by his GPR unit.
       The outcome of this survey astonished everyone present. By the end of the day, some 110 likely unmarked graves had been identified! Perhaps best of all, Turner’s meticulous documentation was able to provide the City with a precise map of these suspected grave locations for the future.
       Sadly, we still don’t know exactly where pioneers Thomas and Sophronia Rowland are buried. But they’re here, somewhere, beneath the pines.
Burials continued to take place at Al Tahoe Cemetery as late as the 1950s. Although many of the oldest headstones have vanished, other grave markers, like this beautiful example, still remain.  
Headstone for Kingsbury Grade hotelier Richard Peters, still surrounded by its original fence.
       Among the headstones that still remain, visitors can find the final resting place of Katie Hill, once married to hotel-keeper Elijah Benjamin “Starvation” Smith (who supposedly earned his nickname after nearly starving on his way west). Another prominent grave, still enclosed by its original fence, is that of Richard Peters, owner of an early station on old Kingsbury Grade.  
DAR genealogist Dawn Hill happily discovered she's related to Charles S. Buell, who died in 1885.  (June 20, 2020)
            Not surprisingly, a few ghost stories have been told about the old cemetery, too. Locals say that a professional musician living across the street would sometimes see an apparition appear when he practiced his cello. And a vacation-rental house next door to the cemetery just might have a few ethereal visitors, too; renters sometimes don’t stay the full week they’ve paid for, neighbors say with a smile.
            The Lake Tahoe DAR chapter is continuing their hunt for information about the Al Tahoe Pioneer Cemetery and its burials. If you have any old photos of the cemetery from days gone by, or information about families buried here, they'd love to hear from you. And if you’d like perhaps to contribute to the group's continuing restoration efforts, they'd love that, too! Here's their website: or contact them at
This sign lists the very few burials that were known in the 1970s. Thanks to DAR research, the list of known or suspected burials now includes over 40 names. 

How to get there: 
    Al Tahoe Pioneer Cemetery is located on Alameda Street in South Lake Tahoe, between Fresno and Berkeley Avenue. Coming from “Y” head east on Lake Tahoe Blvd.. When you're almost at the lake, watch for side streets for Modesto; San Francisco; and Tallac. Turn left when you reach the next side street, Alameda (Sprouts Restaurant is on the corner), and follow Alameda for about 6-1/2 blocks. The cemetery will be on your left, surrounded by a tall iron fence.




Preserving history: Over 100 confirmed in historic Al Tahoe Cemetery

SOUTH LAKE TAHOE, Calif. — Tucked between two houses on a quiet, residential street is what looks like an empty lot. But if you look closely, you’ll see the few scattered headstones remaining in the Al Tahoe Historical Pioneer Cemetery.

The cemetery was almost lost to time until the Daughters of the American Revolution South Lake Tahoe branch stepped in to restore it.

On Saturday, June 20, with the help of the city and Tahoe Conservancy, DAR was able to figure out roughly how many bodies are buried there. This information is a major step forward in preserving the cemetery.

The History

The first person to be buried in the land that would soon become the cemetery was in 1861.  In 1866, after starting the town of Rowlands, founder Thomas Rowland dedicated a plot of land for the cemetery. The last person to be buried there was in 1959.

Ownership of the cemetery has changed many times over the years until the city of South Lake Tahoe was deeded the land in 1966. The Tahoe Conservancy does own a plot of land behind the cemetery that DAR also suspected held burial sites.

Eagle Scout Donald Deede began in 1976 to compile the names of those who were buried there, of which he found 35. Lake Tahoe Historical Society vice president Lee Vestal has continued conducting research of the cemetery.

Over the years, the cemetery became overgrown and vandalized. A road was paved over a section of the cemetery, and while sewer lines were being laid, many bodies were likely scattered. Of the over 100 grave sites at the cemetery, only 12 headstones remain. The others were stolen or destroyed.

While the Kiwanis Club of Tahoe Sierra would do annual cleanups at the site, the cemetery went relatively untouched until the Lake Tahoe Chapter DAR, which was founded in Feb. 2019, decided to take on preservation of the cemetery as a project.

The Al Tahoe Historical Pioneer Cemetery Support Committee was started, made up of DAR members, the Tahoe Conservancy, Kiwanis and the Historical Society.

One of the first steps to preserving the site was to figure out how many people had been buried there. The city matched a $3,000 grant the committee had received from the El Dorado Community Foundation to pay for a ground penetrating radar survey.

Ground Penetrating Radar

GPR is able to create subsurface images by using radar pulses. The image appears in horizontal wavy lines and disturbances in those lines showed where bodies were.

The committee hired Matt Turner, Vice President of GeoModel to conduct the survey.

While GPR can be used for many scenarios such as finding utility lines, detecting tunnels or studying bedrock, Turner mostly uses it for archeological purposes.

The GPR can penetrate 9 feet into the ground but Turner said bodies in historic cemeteries are not usually buried very deep. So, when Kiwanis members cleared the land for the survey, they were instructed not to cut weeds and plants rather than pulling them up, in case they pulled up “something else” with the plant.

Turner combines geology and archeology when conducting surveys.

For example, he looks for slight depressions in the ground where coffins have likely collapsed and the ground has settled. But he also knows 99% of cemeteries are facing east with the person being buried on the east side of the headstone. So, with the few headstones remaining in this cemetery, he was able to tell this cemetery followed the same pattern.

Turner said the most interesting part of his job isn’t the graves themselves but the headstones.

He said he’s seen some interesting and unique designs and inscriptions over the years. Although he did note one interesting grave he’d found; a mass grave in Pennsylvania filled with victims of the 1918 flu pandemic.

Turner began the slow task of mapping the cemetery, which took several hours to complete. He pushed his radar, which looks like a lawnmower with a screen, over every inch of the land going north to south and south to north.

He would spray paint lines for every body he found.

While he mapped, the ladies of DAR shared stories of some of the people buried there.

Who’s buried there?

Sally Holcombe is the founder of the Lake Tahoe Chapter and the chapter’s in house genealogist. It’s obvious that she’s passionate about this project and she’s spent countless hours researching.

Town founder Thomas Rowland, along with his wife and daughters are among the names of those buried there, although without their headstones it can’t be known for sure where they are buried.

Rowland’s daughter Flora Dickey was the last person to be buried there in 1959. His other daughter, Fannie, married into the Barton family, likely the same family of Barton Health fame.

Kate Hill was also buried there in 1939. According to Holcombe, Hill was married to E.B. “Starvation” Smith who built the Lakeside House in 1892. After he died, because women couldn’t hold property at the time, the resort went to his nephew Arthur Hill. It’s said that Kate married Arthur so that she could keep the resort.

Kate Hill’s headstone is one of the few remaining ones in the cemetery. She had requested to be buried next to her first husband, so while there is no headstone, Holcombe is sure Smith is buried there. Turner did confirm there was a body buried next to Kate Hill.

Arthur Hill was cremated but his ashes are also buried in a box in the cemetery. He was originally buried where the street is now located, so he was re-interred in the remaining cemetery.

A woman named Maggie Lue Bloom was also laid to rest there in 1941. While she isn’t a well known name in history, she was a chiropractor with her own practice, something that was very significant for a woman living during the turn of the century.

The names of 52 people have been confirmed and Holcombe is working hard to identify the others.

What’s next?

At the end of the day, Turner identified 105 burial sites in the cemetery proper, five on the Conservancy land and none on the street but Turner thinks that’s because they have been disturbed by the installation of gas line, sewer line, cable lines, and fiber optics all of which Turner saw.

Chapter Regent Rosemary Manning said she now plans to get little plaques to mark all of the burial sites as well as a large plaque recognizing the people buried there and the groups that supported the project. Manning said the city is going to help put in a new fence and Manning hopes to put in lighting as well.

Holcombe will continue looking for names. She wants anyone who might be related to someone buried there to contact her. She is also looking for any pictures of the original cemetery since they currently don’t have any.

If anybody has any information, please contact her at

To learn more, visit and search chapter projects and activities under the About Us tab.


 Photo courtesy Tahoe Daily Tribune

Chapter members (from left): Vice Regent Laura Trimberger, Historic Preservation Chair Cyndy Brown-Carlson, Geomodel Inc. owner Matt Turner, Regent Rosemary Manning, Chaplain Dawn Hill, and past Regent Sally Holcombe.

 Photo courtesy of a chapter member.


National Society Daughters of the American Revolution  NSDAR

California State Society Daughters of the American Revolution CSSDAR