Relocating a Nevada cemetery

I’ve written several articles for the Comstock Chronicle about the deplorable conditions that plagued the Northern Nevada Adult Mental Health Services Cemetery for many years. These are contained in the last chapter of my latest book, Chronicles of the Comstock. Formerly known as The Nevada State Asylum, the State Mental Hospital had its own cemetery during the period from 1882 to 1949. When first used, the cemetery was neat and orderly. Trees and shrubs were planted and the graves were placed in numbered rows as in any well-kept cemetery.

Many of the patients of the hospital who died and were interred in this cemetery were former residents of the Comstock. Had these people not become mentally ill, they would have been buried in Virginia City, Gold Hill or Dayton. There were many causes of mental illness for the early Comstock people, including alcoholism and working conditions in the mines and mills where high temperatures, bad air and mercury poisoning were common ailments. As it were, the patients often passed away after many years of confinement in the institution and had in many cases been forgotten by their families.

As time passed, the cemetery, located along 21st Street in Sparks at the end of Hymer Avenue, became neglected and unmaintained. Patients, or “inmates,” of the hospital were employed to bury those who died. Markers placed in the early years disappeared and when new graves were dug, previous burials were sometimes uncovered. As a small child, I lived nearby on Hymer Avenue and witnessed the excavation of a deep ditch across the cemetery for an irrigation pipe and saw many of the graves torn apart as the equipment dug through the cemetery.

Finally, in 1946, the state decided to start burying the deceased people in a different section of ground about 200 yards to the west of the original cemetery. This small cemetery was used from 1946 through 1949. It was in 1949 that the State of Nevada decided to discontinue burying their deceased patients on the hospital grounds.

Now, let’s jump ahead 61 years to more recent times. During the 2009 legislative session, a bill was introduced and passed to provide funding to protect and preserve the long neglected historic cemetery. Plans for improvement included reclaiming a children’s park on the north end that had been built by the City of Sparks. This actually sat on part of the old cemetery. An enclosing fence and granite obelisk marker were designed to memorialize the 800 people known to have been buried there.

This obelisk memorial now stands in remembrance of past patients of the Nevada State Asylum who were buried disrespectfully.

This obelisk memorial now stands in remembrance of past patients of the Nevada State Asylum who were buried disrespectfully.

The State Public Works Board contacted me to see if Cassinelli Construction Co. would be interested in removing the graves from the small cemetery and relocating them to the historic cemetery near 21st Street. The state has plans for constructing another building where the 1946 – 1949 graves were located. John Cassinelli, owner of the company, submitted a bid and was awarded the contract to exhume up to 30 graves from the small cemetery and reinter them in the memorial park area being constructed adjacent to the historic cemetery.

I was appointed superintendent for the project. My crew and I proceeded to exhume the graves. A ground-penetrating radar technician had marked about 30 possible grave locations along a fence line at the small cemetery adjacent to the Townsend Building at the hospital. About 13 of those marked corresponded with copper plate grave markers set in concrete blocks that had names and dates on them. We used the same backhoe we had used when we uncovered over 900 coin dies at the Carson City Mint in 1999.

As we excavated each grave, we used the backhoe until we reached the first sign of wooden casket material. We then carefully hand dug and screened the material from the excavation much like an archaeological dig. All the caskets had long ago collapsed and the wood was nothing more than rotted fragments with a few rusted nails. The human remains were fairly intact with most of the major bones being salvaged and carefully screened from the sandy soil. Each day we worked, Walton’s Funeral Home came out and transported the remains back to their facility in Sparks. They placed the remains and any other grave goods in new caskets.

Archaeologist Kim Hopkinson examined each set of remains in an effort to confirm identity, sex and ethnicity. The remains were so fragmented, this effort was not very productive. It appeared the copper markers that had been placed on the graves were not accurately placed. Some markers had no grave by them and some others did not match the remains that were found at that location. We also found the ground penetrating radar technique of locating graves was very unreliable for this particular project. The technician was called back to run a new set of GPR readings and over 30 of these possible locations proved to have no remains associated with them.

In all, 19 graves were removed from the small cemetery and brought over to the new location at the area where the memorial marker will be placed. In addition, four other sets of remains accidentally dug up during a construction project on 21st Street were brought over for burial. Each casket was placed in a vault and reinterred in the new section. One set of remains of an American Indian woman was returned to the local Indian tribe for burial at their tribal cemetery in Yerington.

Related:

The Historic Cemetery Memorial Marker

Horrible Childhood Memories

Further Reading:

Friends of Northern Nevada Adult Mental Health Services Cemetery 

Horrible childhood memories

I participated in my first archaeological dig when I was about four years old. It was my earliest memory and has been etched in my mind forever. As I recall, the year was 1945 and the place was the old cemetery of the Nevada State Asylum at the western end of Hymer Avenue in Sparks.

This neighborhood was called “Conductor Heights” due to the number of Southern Pacific Railroad conductors who once lived in the neighborhood in rather substantial homes. My mother, Phyllis, and her sister Clare, lived there with their mother, Ida, while working as blackjack dealers at Harold’s Club, Palace Club and other local casinos. They were two of the first female blackjack dealers allowed to work in major Nevada casinos. Clare’s son, (who I will call “Cousin”) and I, lived with our mothers and Grandma in the Hymer Avenue house.

Cousin was a few years older than I and had a morbid curiosity about weird, bizarre and unusual things. Grandma could not possibly keep him from getting into trouble and he often took me along with him. While Grandma was busy cooking, cleaning and tending to the chickens, Cousin and I roamed the neighborhood getting into whatever mischief he could find. Occasionally, we visited the gypsies who parked their wagons in Grandma’s garden. Sometimes they caught big green crawfish from the ditch behind the house and cooked them until they were red and succulent as lobsters.

One day, we noticed a commotion from other neighborhood kids gathering up the street by the big windmill at the Nevada State Asylum graveyard. The windmill was inside the fence of the Asylum cemetery at the west end of Hymer Avenue. We found the source of the excitement was one of the asylum inmates had hung himself from the windmill. Cousin and some of the other kids took great delight in throwing rocks at the corpse as it swayed in the cool October wind, until the cops came and cut the poor fellow down.

Many former residents of the Comstock are buried at the Asylum Cemetery. Alcohol problems, brutal working conditions, and mercury poisoning from working in the mines and mills, caused many people from the Comstock to be committed to the asylum.

The day after the man was cut down from the windmill where he had hanged himself, a team of horses pulling a hay wagon came out from the asylum to the graveyard. As usual, Cousin and I were there to observe the burial. On the wagon sat two inmates dressed in blue coveralls. There was a large refrigerator-shaped box and some shovels. We all ran up to the fence and watched as the inmates dug a big hole.

When it seemed the grave was big enough, the men backed the wagon close to the hole and shoved the box and its contents off the wagon into the grave. Unfortunately the hole was not quite big enough, so the inmates jumped up and down on the cardboard coffin until it finally collapsed into the hole. They then covered the grave over with dirt, leaving only a mound to mark the spot. We were told the asylum had its own graveyard in those days because no sane person wanted to be buried in a cemetery with a bunch of “crazy people.”

Some weeks later, there was another commotion at the cemetery. As usual, Cousin and I, along with other neighborhood kids, showed up to see what was happening. Someone had come up with the bright idea to dig a huge ditch for an irrigation pipeline across the historic cemetery. Isbell Construction Company was using a massive track-mounted drag-line excavator to cut a six-foot-wide and eight-foot-deep trench through the graveyard.

By mid-day, the excavator started cutting into the graves that dotted the site. Corpses, body parts and pieces of rotted coffins began to litter the spoil pile alongside the trench. The equipment operator began to puke and had to be replaced. Shortly after, the replacement operator also had to be replaced, then another and another.

The massive shovel bucket cut some of the graves in half. Several of the bodies were pulled apart with arms and legs dangling from the sliced coffins into the muddy water at the bottom of the ditch. Some of the graves contained only bones but others contained moldy, blue-green bodies with most of the flesh rotting. Some of the kids went home sick, but my weird cousin was in his realm. I was so young I really did not realize the impact of what I was seeing.

By late afternoon, when the equipment shut down and the workers went home for the day, Cousin and I crawled through the fence to check out the horrible desecration of the graves. Cousin immediately spotted the shiny, untarnished glint of gold in some of the teeth of the rotted skulls. As I held the wet, gooey heads for him, he pried out the gold teeth with a pocket knife and stuffed them in his pocket.

This true story is contained in my book, “Uncovering Archaeology,” along with many other interesting, entertaining and educational stories. After years of neglect and desecration, the State of Nevada has finally created a memorial park at the old asylum cemetery where an obelisk monument contains the names of over 800 people buried there in unmarked graves.

Copyright © 2014 by Dennis Cassinelli