Downtown Dayton is located along the Carson River where Gold Canyon empties into the river on the rare occasions when water actually flows down the canyon. This is the location where in 1849, gold nuggets were first found by prospectors who tried their luck at gold panning while resting along the California Trail on their way to the California gold fields. Later, many of these same miners returned to the area when they found the streets of California were not paved with gold.
Just west of downtown Dayton, near the community water storage tank, lies the historic Dayton Cemetery. It is very near where Spafford Hall’s Station and trading post were once located. Hall’s Station was the first business establishment in the community which has arguably been called Nevada’s oldest settlement. At Dayton, the Old California Trail turned west from the Carson River and headed toward Carson City. The trail passed just north of the Dayton Cemetery which became the final resting place for several of the early emigrants who had died along the trail. The same trail was used by the Pony Express between April 1860 and November 1861.
Between 1850 and 1859, Dayton became very active as several hundred prospectors including many Chinese panned for gold along Gold Canyon and up through Johntown and the Silver City area. During this time, whenever someone died along this route, they likely were buried in the Dayton Cemetery. The Chinese population was so prevalent for a time that the community of Dayton was known as Chinatown.
Several prominent Nevada citizens have been buried in the Dayton Cemetery. Many of the earliest graves that had wooden grave markers can no longer be identified, since the markers have rotted away or were taken by vandals. There are several graves marked “Unknown” in the older western half of the cemetery. Maintenance personnel have told me that these graves were uncovered in recent times when seemingly unoccupied plots were dug into in order to make new burials. When bones were encountered, the graves were re-buried and marked “Unknown.” The policy is now to not attempt to bury people in the old section except in existing family plots. The newer section on the east half of the property is still being used for new burials. I have recently purchased one of these for my own family plot.
Perhaps the most notorious person buried in the Dayton Cemetery is James Finney, also known as “Old Virginny.” The story of Finney is a matter of Comstock folklore. The story that Virginia City Nevada was named for him after he christened the ground where he had broken a bottle of whiskey “Virginia Town” has become an accepted fact.
Finney, a native of Virginia, died in Dayton (Chinatown) at the age of 44 after being bucked off a mustang horse and landing on his head. Other Comstock miners revered him so much they voted at a community meeting to name Virginia City after him. What little is known about him indicates that he was a hard drinking but skillful miner who located the first quartz claims on the Comstock Lode at Gold Hill and at the Ophir Diggings in 1859. Virginia City and the entire Virginia Mountain Range carry his name. Citizens of Dayton buried him along the Carson River near where he had died. Later, several years after the new cemetery was established in 1851, his remains were re-interred in the present cemetery along with several other persons who had been interred in an area where commercial development was taking place.
Other prominent Nevadans buried at the Dayton Cemetery include Judge Clark J. Guild and members of his family and Governor Charles H. Russell and members of his family. Many of the graves in the cemetery have Italian names due to the large number of Italian ranchers who settled along the Carson River and the many Italian brick masons who found work in the region during the Comstock boom.
The views from the Dayton Cemetery are scenic. To the northwest, the peak of Virginia City’s Mount Davidson can be seen. Also visible along the road to the cemetery is the California Trail and Pony Express route ascending a steep slope toward a trail marker at the top of the hill. To the northeast the Flowery Range, the lower reaches of Gold Canyon and the quarry where Hall’s Station was located can be seen. Off in the distance, you can see the huge yellow band of material that was removed from the Sutro Tunnel when it was being constructed. Directly East is a panoramic view of the entire town of Dayton and beyond. Toward the southeast is the mountain peak marking the location of the ghost town of Como. The Carson River lined with Fremont Cottonwoods marks the corridor where over 25 farms and ranches operated by Italian farmers became known as the breadbasket of the Comstock.
Few other places in the State of Nevada are surrounded by as much history as the Dayton Cemetery.