When 5-year-old Elija Foster Stout died in December 1874, the Pleasant Valley Cemetery was established to serve the families that had begun settling along the Arkansas River between present-day Cañon City and Salida.
Four years later, another child’s death brought about another cemetery just south of the river. Six-year-old Joseph Toupain, whose father owned the Coaldale store, was the first to be buried in the Coaldale Cemetery after he died on Jan. 6, 1879.
Small pioneer cemeteries dot the mountains and valleys of Colorado, in their own way telling the stories of the families that moved west in the late 19th century to search for gold, work in the coal mines or for the railroads, or try to farm or ranch the rock-hard land.
Colorado has its share of famous graves and memorials — gunfighter Doc Holliday (buried at a trailhead in Glenwood Springs), Buffalo Bill Cody (buried on Lookout Mountain), Ute Nation Chief Ouray (buried at Ouray Memorial Park in Montrose), Philip K. Dick, author of “Man in the High Castle” and “Minority Report,” among other influential works (buried next to his twin sister in Fort Morgan’s Riverside Cemetery) and singer/songwriter John Denver (memorial in Aspen), among others — but there are dozens of small cemeteries that often are not far off the beaten path and make unique road-trip stops.
The state has 24 cemeteries that are on the National Historic Register and five on the state register. Many have been lovingly restored by community historical societies or other groups, often with grants from the State Historical Fund. Since 1993 the fund has provide nearly $1.6 million for 43 projects, said Sara Doll, outreach specialist with History Colorado.
They offer a glimpse into the communities that arose there, usually hastily built mining and railroad towns that faded when mines were spent or railroads took another route. They also offer clues of triumphs and tragedies that ensued as settlers moved into the West. And they can be a treasure trove for genealogy hunters.
A few websites list all of Colorado’s cemeteries, including colorado-cemeteries.com/Colorado-Cemeteries.html and findagrave.com/cemetery-browse/USA/Colorado?id=state_7. Or you can simply search “Colorado cemeteries” online and see what you find.
Some cemeteries offer seasonal tours, and other information is sometimes available at local museums and tourism offices. Rules and hours may be posted online or at the cemetery gate; if you’re heading to some of the less-kept ones expect to find weeds with critters lurking in them. Most do not offer public facilities so chart your adventure with that in mind and take sunscreen and water. The main “Do,” though, is be respectful of those buried and their descendants.
Here’s a sampling of pioneer cemeteries that are within an easy day trip from Denver. Most are in or near small towns that offer other sightseeing options. We’ll start with several along U.S. 50.
1251 S. First St., Cañon City
The first recorded burial was in 1865, and the graves include many of the first settlers in the area. In 1933, the southwest corner of the cemetery, known as Woodpecker Hill, was deeded to the Colorado Department of Corrections for inmates who died while incarcerated. The last inmate buried there was Luis Monge on June 2, 1967. The cemetery also has sections for Civil War veterans, both Union and Confederate. The cemetery was added to the National Historic Register in 2013. More information is available at the Royal Gorge Regional Museum and History Center
or at fremontheritage.com.
Formerly the Pleasant Valley Cemetery
On Fremont County Road 45, which runs off U.S. 50 east of Salida
The cemetery has about 400 marked graves, including that of Jonah Peregrine, believed to be the first settler in the area. He arrived from Tennessee in 1871 to homestead 160 acres, according to Cemeteries of Fremont County, a downloadable local heritage guide. The cemetery has lovely views of the Twin Sisters and Shavano Peak and is on what once was the stagecoach and wagon road that went to Leadville.
U.S. 50 about 1.5 miles east of Salida
The cemetery is pretty much all that’s left of Cleora, a would-be railroad town established in 1878 by the Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe Railroad in anticipation of it winning the fight to get a rail line from Cañon City through the Royal Gorge and on to Leadville. But it lost the fight to the Denver and Rio Grande Railroad, which decided to put its station on its own land a bit further west: present-day Salida. The cemetery, though, is a prime example of the “boot-hill” cemeteries that popped up quickly out of necessity and were so-named from the western legends of people dying with their boots on. It is marked by social trails and randomly placed graves wherever there was space, according to National Register of Historic Places records.
County Road 33, off U.S. 285 about 10 miles east of Fairplay
Located in another former railroad town, the cemetery was established in 1887 to replace another that was too close to a spring that provided drinking water for residents. The cemetery has a number of historically significant features, including markers and monuments and inscriptions and iconography that provide information on industry and fraternal organizations that were important to the community. It also is the burial site for 17 of the 25 miners who died in the January 1893 accident at the King Coal Mine southeast of town. The dead included 16 Italians, six Austrians, two Americans and one Swede, according to Park County archives. They were buried in trenches, although the exact location of the graves is not known. There is a monument bearing the names of four of those killed, according to the historic register.
Off County Road 10 about a mile west of Alma
The burial grounds were established by President Theodore Roosevelt in 1902 for the town’s residents and remain in use.
It is in a wooded area and the graves are “located without apparent organization,” according to a 2000 survey of the cemetery by Pat and Fred Harris. The Harrises inventoried the graves that are marked and found some interesting details. For example, Sam C. Carmichael died in a “runaway accident” when his horse was frightened by some dogs in Alma. And for Tom Casedy: “Born in Ireland; had a hook arm. He drowned in the Platte River and was believed to have been murdered.” You might want to take the survey along if you visit the cemetery.
Mt. Pisgah Cemetery
Teller County Road 1, Cripple Creek
The raucous mining town of Cripple Creek may have been a man’s world during the Gold Rush of the 1890s and early 20th century, but it is two women who today draw visitors to its cemetery. The graves of Dr. Susan Anderson, known as Doc Susie, and Pearl de Vere, known as the soiled dove of Cripple Creek, are the most popular, according to the Gold Camp Victorian Society.
Doc Susie moved to Cripple Creek with her family when she was 21 and then left for medical school and spent most of her career tending to miners, lumberjacks and Moffat Tunnel construction workers near Fraser. She died in Denver but wanted to be buried alongside her brother in Cripple Creek. DeVere ran the most elegant brothel in the mining district, and today her home is the
Old Homestead Museum on Myers Avenue. She also started the town’s first soup kitchen to feed widows and orphans. The cemetery also is the resting place for the ashes of astrologer Linda Goodman, the author of Sun Signs. And it has a potter’s field, where it is believed that 3,000 people were buried. More information is available at the Cripple Creek District Museum or the Cripple Creek Heritage Center.
Just about 5 miles from Mt. Pisgah Cemetery is the often overlooked mining district cemetery in Victor. It too has a potter’s field and the sections familiar to most pioneer cemeteries — Mason, Oddfellows, Fraternal Order of Eagles, Moose Lodge. But perhaps the most interesting “resident” of Sunnyside is Joseph Lesher, a silver miner who on Nov. 13, 1900, coined his own “Referendum Dollars.” He believed an ounce of silver was worth $1.29, but it was actually worth 65 cents. Nobody knows where those now-rare coins ended up, but Lesher died on July 4, 1918, and is buried at Sunnyside. A pioneer in the numismatic world, he probably would love Bitcoin.
About a half mile south of U.S. 50 on the Hayden Creek Road (County Road 6)
This small cemetery has about 260 known gravesites, including 24 veterans, one unknown soldier and three people who lived to be at least 100 years old. The cemetery was primarily used by families that settled in the area and is maintained by the community.