Lake Tahoe Chapter Historic Preservation Project




Al Tahoe Pioneer Cemetery


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

 



Discovering Hidden Graves...

By Karen Dustman, Clairitage Press
October 1, 2020


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 waystation 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. (For our earlier story about Peters Station, go here!  
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:  https://laketahoe.californiadar.org/ or contact them at info@altahoecemetery.org.
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.




 

Ground Penetrating Radar Survey Completed
for Historic Al Tahoe Pioneer Cemetery -
Over 100 Graves Found.

Friday, June 20, 2020

The Historic Al Tahoe Pioneer Cemetery located near the intersection of Al Tahoe and Alameda Avenues in South Lake Tahoe was established in 1861 and has been known to contain numerous unmarked graves, but until recently the exact number and location of the graves was a mystery.  When the cemetery was established it was within the town of “Rowland” located where the Al Tahoe neighborhood is today. Over the past 150 years the town disappeared and the cemetery was left to be cared for by neighbors, local citizens, and the Boy Scout Troop.  Today, the property officially belongs to the City of South Lake Tahoe and is being preserved by the City and several concerned groups including the Lake Tahoe Historic Society, Kiwanis Club of Tahoe Sierra, California Tahoe Conservancy, and the Lake Tahoe Chapter of the Daughters of the American Revolution (D.A.R.). 

On October 11, 2018, Lake Tahoe Chapter Daughters conducted a walking survey of a neglected cemetery in the Al Tahoe neighborhood, South Lake Tahoe.  Daughters placed 96 wooden stakes at possible burial sites. Soon after, Vice-Regent Rosemary Manning formed a cemetery committee with four additional chapter members and local organizations to promote its preservation: Cyndy Brown-Carlson, Historic Preservation Chair; Sally Holcombe, Regent (2018-2020), Dawn Hill, Chaplain; and chapter Historian Shelby Kolstad along with representation from the City of South Lake Tahoe, Kiwanis Club of Tahoe Sierra, California Tahoe Conservancy and the Lake Tahoe Historical Society.  Until COVID-19, the committee was meeting monthly.  It is now meeting virtually through the City of South Lake Tahoe.

On June 20, 2020, the cemetery was surveyed once again, this time with ground penetrating radar (GPR) conducted by Matt Turner, owner of Geomodel Inc.  The survey was made possible by a $3,000 grant from the El Dorado Community Foundation written by current Regent Rosemary Manning that was matched by the City of South Lake Tahoe.  Additional $1,000 funding was provided by local history enthusiast Mr. Len Carlson for a survey of the Conservancy property adjacent to the cemetery.

The GPR survey confirmed 105 burials in the cemetery, and five burials on the Conservancy property.  Many of the cemetery burials were located exactly where the 96 wooden stakes had originally been placed during the walking survey in 2018.

Geomodel Inc., the GPR company, is in the process of completing a detailed map showing the location of all burials within the cemetery and the adjoining Conservancy property. This will allow the committee to plan for future monuments and landscape plantings.  The City of South Lake Tahoe is already planning for fencing around the cemetery as well as posted signage.

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.

 

 




 

Local DAR Daughters Pledge Support
for Historic Al Tahoe Pioneer Cemetery

South Lake Tahoe, California, USA

Friday, May 3, 2019

 

Although the Lake Tahoe Chapter, National Society Daughters of the American Revolution (NSDAR), has only been in South Lake Tahoe since last summer, chapter members have already pledged to do everything possible to see that Al Tahoe History Cemetery is restored and preserved.  To quote the chapter’s Vice Regent Rosemary Manning: “We are not going away!”

One of the three basic tenets of the DAR is historic preservation.  To further the cemetery project, the DAR chapter has organized the new “Al Tahoe Historic Cemetery Support Committee,” which consists of five DAR members along with representation from the California Tahoe Conservancy, City of South Lake Tahoe Planning Department, the Kiwanis Club of Tahoe Sierra and the Lake Tahoe Historical Society.  Cynthia Brown-Carlson, the chapter’s historic preservation chair, is heading up the committee.

Land for the Al Tahoe Cemetery was donated to the community by former California State Assemblyman Thomas Benton Rowland and his wife, Sophronia Dow Rowland, in the second half of the 19th century.  Rowland was buried there in 1883, his wife in 1919. 

When the streets were laid out for the Al Tahoe area, the cemetery’s boundaries were ignored.  While the current cemetery occupies just three lots, burials exist in parts of eight different lots - und

er Alameda Avenue, under homes to the east and west of the current cemetery and behind the south fencing. 

California law is specific regarding what may be done to cemeteries.  From law put in place by the California Legislature in 1933, land dedicated to cemetery use may only have that dedication removed if 1) no burials were ever placed on the property, or 2) existing burials are reinterred elsewhere prior to dedication removal. 

In the case of the Al Tahoe Cemetery, which now belongs to the City of South Lake Tahoe and sits within the boundaries of the Happy Homestead Cemetery District, laws were clearly violated. To quote from an article written by Phillip L. Sublett for the Tahoe Tribune, April 24, 2008, “…former Al Tahoe postmaster Stanton Meyer told the Tribune for an article in its 1974 Halloween issue.  ‘When the sewer line was run along the south side of the street near the cemetery, bones were flying far and wide,” Meyer said.”

Chapter Regent Sally Holcombe has indicated that nothing physical should be done within the cemetery until burial sites are located and the identities of as many burials as possible are found.  “We are not going to make the same mistakes that were made in the past,” she said.  To begin the identification process, Lake Tahoe Chapter members conducted a preliminary survey of the cemetery in October 2018.  Results demonstrated that there are many more burials in the cemetery than the 12 remaining markers - and the 20 listed by Don Deede on his 1976 sign - would indicate.

The Al Tahoe Historic Cemetery Support Committee is reaching out to the community, asking for early cemetery photographs and narratives.  DAR chapter members are also performing genealogical research to learn more about individuals buried in the cemetery and to identify current-day descendants.  Use of GPR (ground-penetrating radar) for grave location is the logical next step.  To prepare for this possibility, DAR members will coordinate with the Kiwanis Club of Tahoe Sierra’s annual cemetery cleanup.

The final resting places of possibly more than 50 former residents - including E.B. “Starvation” Smith and California State Assemblyman Thomas B. Rowland - deserve better treatment than they have received.  The members of Lake Tahoe Chapter, NSDAR, are committed to making this happen.  To contribute photos or narratives, to offer assistance or to learn more about the project, please contact Al Tahoe Historic Cemetery Support Committee at altahoecemetery.org