Rose Hill Cemetery, Antioch

The hike out to this particular cemetery was difficult. It was brutally hot and there is little in the way of shade, directions aren’t exactly the best, and during the walk, I was stalked by a coyote for most of the way. To add icing to the experience, upon arrival at the cemetery, I was warned about wildlife, tarantulas, and vandalism.

But ultimately, it’s worth the hike because this off the beaten path cemetery gives great insight into the lives of those who lived during a different California mining era (different from gold): that of black diamonds… or coal.

It’s about a 2-hour drive between Mt. Diablo (which is laden with coal) and the Sierra Nevada (which is laden with gold). And in the mid-1800s, while a plethora of peoples and cultures seemed to flock to Coloma in search of nuggets and flakes, the Welsh took a different approach and searched the mountains for coal around what is now Antioch and Pittsburg. Many settled in the town of Nortonville, which is now a crumbling ghost town in the middle of the Black Diamond Mines Regional Preserve.

The Rose Hill Cemetery is near the old settlement. It rests on a slope overlooking a landscape that once was bustling with people and dates from the time of the Nortonville mine’s opening in 1865 to its closure in 1954. It’s believed that nearly 250 individuals are buried in Rose Hill. No original records exist for the cemetery but through death records, photographs, oral history, old newspaper clippings, technology, and remaining headstones, officials know with reasonable accuracy where individuals rest. A map of the plots and a few personal histories are located on a sign near the entrance.

Buried here are people who died of typical Victorian-era diseases: smallpox, tetanus, diphtheria, scarlet fever, and typhoid. Also buried are those who experienced traumatic death common around mining communities: some died in mine accidents, one 5-year old boy was kicked in the head by a horse, another crushed by a carriage, and many women and babies died in childbirth. On July 24, 1876, 10 men were killed in a mine explosion… and not all have headstones.

The most famous grave is that of Sarah Norton. Sarah was the wife of Noah Norton, who founded and named the town of Nortonville. She was a well known local midwife who on October 5, 1879, was on her way to help deliver a baby when she ran into trouble with a borrowed horse and was thrown from her buggy and killed. Local folklore refers to her as the White Witch because she is said to appear in various locations around Nortonville and the cemetery. I saw/felt none of this. The only things I noticed were the incredible amount of life that moved in and around the cemetery… and that the gophers seemed to like to bring up bone fragments from the graves.

Between the mine’s closure and the time when the site became a preserve in the early 1970s, the graveyard was heavily vandalized and robbed. Of the nearly 250 burials in the cemetery, it’s estimated that only about 80 original gravestones remain today.

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