By Francine Brevetti
For the Contra Costa Times
ANTIOCH — Do the dead walk? No, but their headstones can travel.
While the remains of Rebecca Abraham (1860-1878) lay at peace in Rose Hill Cemetery, near Antioch, her headstone went on a walkabout for decades.
Recently a Napa resident returned Rebecca’s headstone from where he found it years ago, discarded and defiled behind the Contra Costa County’s Sheriff’s workshop. The marker has had a strange trajectory.
Newly married 18-year-old Rebecca was sitting by a kerosene lamp, which toppled over in the fall of 1878. As she tried to douse the fire, the fuel spilled on the floor, the flames enveloped her and she died two days later. The account in the Contra Costa Gazette reported her demise and described the widespread grieving among her neighbors and her funeral cortège.
Her grave and headstone remained at Rose Hill Cemetery as late as 1955, a photograph so proves, said Eddie Willis, naturalist with Black Diamond Mines Regional Preserve, the site of Rose Hill Cemetery.
“But by 1965 we have a photograph that shows the stone was missing,” Willis said.
There are folks who care about preserving the past and mementos of real-life people who inhabited this area even 200 years ago. Other folks do not.
The park is attempting to restore the cemetery. To encourage the return of these artifacts, Willis asserts the cemetery does not ask any questions about the provenance of gravestones gone missing.
Of the 80 original gravestones, 40 have vanished.
“This is the fourth stone we’ve recovered since the mid-1970s; in other words, one per decade,” Willis reckoned.
How do gravestones disappear?
“The cemetery is inside the (Black Diamond Mines) preserve and is available for hiking, about half a mile from the parking lot. … ” he explains.
In other words, it is fair game for scalawags and the high-spirited who migth carouse through the cemetery at night, and, just for the fun of it, steal gravestones.
“Teenagers,” Willis muttered.
The emergence of this mournful relic puts in relief the history of Rebecca Abraham’s community in the 19th century.
Gold wasn’t the only lure to California’s hills in the 19th century. Rose Hill Cemetery is what remains of five coal mining communities of the 19th century. Then called Nortonville (Rebecca’s home), Somersville, Stewartville, West Hartley and Judsonville, they constituted California’s largest coal mining operation, where nearly four million tons of coal (“black diamonds”) were extracted from the soil during these horse and buggy days.
Mining folks knew hardship, hard work and long hours. Rose Hill served as the resting place for children who perished from epidemics, women in childbirth and laborers from mining disasters. At its peak it is estimated to have held the bodies of 250 residents. Because of the expense of erecting a marker, many individuals and families combined their resources to share the same headstone.
Sometime between 1955 and 1965 Rebecca’s headstone was wrested from its plot and found years later by criminalist John Thornton at the Contra Costa County Sheriff’s office in Martinez.
During his laboratory work for the Sheriff’s office from 1963 to 1972, Thornton said, “I saw several headstones leaning against the mechanics shop. They were covered in crankcase oil and other debris. They had not been tended with dignity.”
He explained that several had been collected when the Sheriff’s office made an arrest for some offense and found them on the perpetrator’s property.
Out of respect for the deceased, Thornton appealed to Sheriff Harry Ramsey to return the headstones to the deceased. The sheriff, however, did not want to spend County resources on this endeavor. Ramsey told Thornton he was free to track down their origins on his own time.
But California did not collect death registries until the 20th century, Thornton said, and who knows how many counties and their cemeteries he would have to call.
So he took two headstones, that of Rebecca and one of a Manuel Medeiros, to his property in rural Napa and constructed a small, 10-by-10-foot, private cemetery for them. And there they stayed. Recently his wife, Kim Wildman, pointed out that he might be able to track down the deceased online — a facility unavailable when he first collected the headstones.
He got a hit on Rebecca Abraham and saw she should be in the East Bay Regional Parks, which had acquired the Rose Hill property. He came up dry with Medeiros and assumed it was because of the common use of that name. The dates on his headstone are 1896-1941; that is all that is known about him.
Thornton immediately called the staffers at the East Bay Regional Park District who already knew about the two departed individuals and their missing markers.
Willis of the Diamond Mines Regional Preserve collected the headstones and returned them to Rose Hill Cemetery where they were restored and will soon be placed back in their original spots.
Welcome home, Rebecca and Manuel.
The East Bay Regional Park District began acquiring land for Black Diamond Mines Regional Preserve, south of Pittsburg and Antioch, in the early 1970s.
Today, most of the former mining district is within the Preserve’s nearly 6,096 acres.
FOUND a MARKER?
To return a tombstone or marker to the East Bay Regional Parks District — no questions asked — call 510-544-2750.