During the past several years, I have written several articles about the plight of the historic cemetery located at the old Nevada State Asylum in Sparks, Nevada. Many of Nevada’s old cemeteries have long existed in a state of neglect and abandonment. Most of them have little to mark the graves of the long departed pioneers but a few grave markers of wood or stone.
Unlike many of these historic cemeteries, the one at the old Nevada State asylum has not a single grave marker left to identify the graves of at least 767 and possibly as many as 1200 former residents of Nevada whose remains are buried there. During the years from 1882 to 1949, many of the patients of the old insane asylum who happened to die there were buried on the grounds of the hospital. What started out as a neat and orderly graveyard eventually became little more than a mass grave where the hundreds of deceased patients were buried in a haphazard fashion with some actually being buried one atop another. These burials were often done by other patients of the hospital.
Conditions deteriorated during the 1940s when a large pipeline was installed through the cemetery and several of the graves were ripped apart and the remains were later shoved back into the excavation to become backfill. As a small child, I was witness to this and other desecrations. When 21st Street was constructed in 1977, several graves were accidentally dug up and had to be reinterred inside the cemetery boundary. The City of Sparks constructed a kiddie park atop part of the cemetery and uncovered even more remains. Recent excavations on 21st Street in 2010 uncovered at least four sets of remains which were eventually released to me to be reinterred near the new memorial marker.
In my book, Chronicles of the Comstock, I tell about several former residents of the Comstock who were patients of the asylum and were buried in the infamous old cemetery. Perhaps most recognized of these was Mrs. Piper, wife of John Piper, who built and operated Piper’s Opera House in Virginia City. Many of these people had become insane from causes related to the difficult living conditions experienced by the miners, mill workers and other people living on the Comstock.
On March 28, 1949, The Nevada State Legislature abolished the use of any cemeteries located on the Hospital Grounds. During 1947 through 1949, 18 patients had been buried in a small strip of land about 300’ west of the historic cemetery. There was never any provision made by the State to improve the two cemeteries until an organization known as the Friends of the Northern Nevada Adult Mental Health Services Cemetery, led by Carolyn Mirich, approached the Nevada State Legislature. Due to the persistent efforts of this group during the 2009 Legislative session, Senator Bernice Mathews and Assemblywoman Smith sponsored SB 256. The bill was passed and signed into law by Governor Gibbons on May 22, 2009.
As a result of this legislation, the hospital cemetery achieved the status as a historic cemetery. The Nevada State Public Works Board prepared plans and several contracts were awarded to make major improvements to the long-neglected cemetery.
The entire perimeter of the historic cemetery was fenced off with a substantial black iron fence. The playground park that the City of Sparks had built was dismantled and turned into a memorial park. A concrete plaza with sidewalks and new lawn areas was built. A 9’ tall granite obelisk memorial marker was installed with bronze plaques on each of the four sides. The plaques contain the names of 767 people known to be buried in the cemetery. This single marker is the only marker to memorialize the hundreds of people buried there. There is evidence there may be up to 400 others whose names remain unknown.
Cassinelli Landscaping and Construction was employed to exhume the 18 graves buried west of the main cemetery and reinter them near the memorial plaza. Unfortunately, the name plates on these graves had been placed some time after the burials were made. The archaeologist we employed to help identify the remains was unable to positively identify the remains as those of the persons named on the markers. I was also given four sets of unidentified remains that had been accidentally dug up during recent reconstruction of 21st Street. All the remains were placed in new caskets with liners and reinterred in the area surrounding the plaza and grave markers were placed over them. All the work authorized by the legislation has now been completed.
A rededication ceremony was held at the Historic Cemetery at Northern Nevada Adult Mental Health Services on January 21, 2011. After many years of destruction and neglect, the hundreds of Nevada citizens buried there will now receive the respect and memorialization they deserve.
This article was originally published in The Comstock Chronicle