We’re the luckiest of the lucky: this past summer, we got to watch as experts searched for long-forgotten graves at Tahoe, using ground-penetrating radar!
I’ll confess we knew almost nothing about the historic Al Tahoe Pioneer Cemetery before our 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.
Rowland erected a brand new station there, 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!
Rowland himself passed away in 1883. And the small community near the hotel (yes, also called “Rowland’s”) soon faded away, as locals moved east to the larger economic center of Bijou.
Blessed with less-than-stellar engineering, Rowland’s hotel 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 bore Rowland’s name remained behind, of course, and continued to be used. Over the years, many Tahoe pioneers found their eternal rest there in the old Rowland Cemetery. Thomas Rowland’s wife, Sophronia, was also buried there when she passed away in 1919 at the ripe old age of 81.
The last official burial, they say, occurred in 1959. Others whisper, however, that a quiet midnight “reburial” took place 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 that dozens of grave markers used to be visible. But many early headstones, too, were stolen. Pretty soon it wasn’t entirely clear how large the cemetery had been. As the residential neighborhood sprouted up nearby, several new homes unwittingly encroached on the original cemetery’s perimeter.
In 1965, the Harootunian family thoughtfully deeded the property to the City of South Lake Tahoe to make sure the cemetery was preserved. Unfortunately, that was also the same year the City itself was incorporated. The deed, it seems, got lost in the paperwork shuffle. For the next fifty years, the City didn’t even realize they owned the property.
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. 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 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. And 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 on 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.
GPR expert Matt Turner of GeoModel, Inc. agreed to take on the job, traveling with his bulky equipment all the way from Leesburg, Virginia 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 project was 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, Turner flagged spots showing ground density anomalies, using bright orange paint. By the end of the day, orange lines representing likely grave locations lay scattered over the “vacant” plot, and patterns of the burials began to emerge. Because graves traditionally are oriented in an east/west direction, Turner explained, it’s common to see burial locations “line up.” Clustered orange lines typically represent family burial groups, he added.
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 resting here, somewhere, beneath the Tahoe pines.
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 iron fence, is that of Richard Peters, owner of an early station on old Kingsbury Grade. (To read our earlier story about Peters Station, go here!
Not surprisingly, a few ghost stories have been told about the old cemetery, too. Locals say that a professional musician living across the street sometimes saw an apparition appear as he practiced his cello. And a vacation-rental next door to the cemetery just might get 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.
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.