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What Lies Beneath: The Many Mysteries of Pioneer Cemetery

The earth was parched. Cowboys meandered by on horses. Red ants scurried in and out of little dirt mounds. If it was not for the condominiums, the cars, and all the usual signs of modern Valley life, I could swear I was playing some particularly grim version of Oregon Trail. It was 9:00 a.m. in Sylmar on a Saturday, and already the sun was piercing my stupidly unprotected eyes. I was at the dusty corner of Bledsoe and Foothill Boulevard. I walked up the brick-lined entrance of the Pioneer Memorial Cemetery. Two ladies were setting up an information table under a large red umbrella, which matched the bricks. Smart ladies.

I struck up a conversation with one of the women, the charming and extremely knowledgeable Jacky Walker, chair of the Pioneer Cemetery Committee. She offered to show me around, and as we entered the cemetery, I have to admit I was surprised. Pioneer Cemetery is unlike any graveyard I have ever seen. To begin with, there are very few gravestones, only 13 or 14 scattered around the property. There are more headstone bases, and many crosses made out of white piping. In the back right hand corner, there is a strange unfinished picnic area, whose tall wooden posts strung with white chains reminded me of a ghost ship. As Jacky took me from area to area, and as the sun got hotter, this odd cemetery became more and more interesting. "There are so many mysteries here," Jacky said, "so many."

Long forgotten, this Western outpost is shrouded in myth -- tales of hundreds of infant burials and mass graves for the victims of the St. Francis Dam disaster and the 1918 influenza outbreak. The persistent belief that it is a pet cemetery means that periodically caretakers have to deal with dead animals who have been unceremoniously dumped over the fence. For decades, tireless volunteers, like Jacky, have put in thousands of hours attempting to piece together the true story of the early settlers who are buried here. Until recently, their number, location and names were incorrect. Now, the picture is becoming clearer, but it is still obscured by time, lack of money, and the transient and careless nature of the still Wild West.

Photo: Hadley Meares


Morningside

In the quiet graveyard at San Fernando is the last resting place of Colonel A. B. Moffitt, which has been tenderly decorated by loving hands today. He was well known to a majority of those present, and to some connected by the tenderest ties [...] To him we say, and to all his gallant comrades dead, whether sleeping on the field of battle or in the quiet church yard, sleep on, brave souls! Sleep on, and may naught disturb thy endless and restful sleep!
--A.B. Moffitt obituary, Los Angeles Herald, March 31, 1887

In 1874, California State Senator Charles Maclay filed papers to establish the township of San Fernando. In the filing, he set aside 40 acres for a non-sectarian graveyard. This cemetery, which was named Morningside, was only the second burial ground in the Valley. The first was the graveyard at the San Fernando Mission, which was only available to Catholics. By 1894, due to the land boom, Morningside had shrunk to only ten acres. In 1905, the San Fernando Cemetery Association was formed to manage the cemetery. The directors of the association were leaders of the early Valley, including H.R. Maclay, F.A. Powell, H.C. Allen, J. Burr and E.G. White. In 1911, the city of Fernando voted to shrink its borders, thus excluding Morningside from city limits. It became part of the new neighborhood of Sylmar, an area renowned for its olive production and clean healthy air.

The remaining headstones at the cemetery from this time tell the diverse story of early California. There was Agnes Danforth, who left Scotland in 1850 as a 12-year-old child, bound for New York. She married George Washington Danforth and had six children. She died in 1903, a world away from the Scottish highlands. There was David B. McKinnon, who died at the age of 35. He was a member of "Woodmen of the World," a fraternal benefit society that supplied a headstone upon death. McKinnon's headstone carries the seal of the order, as well as a tree cut in half, symbolizing a life cut short. There was the 22-year-old Anna L. Foster, whose scandalous forays over the hill into Los Angeles ended in tragedy when she was trampled to death by a blacksmith's horse. And there was the equally tragic Reed family, who all seem to have succumbed to the dangers of the West, including an accidental drowning.

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New findings may tell another, more troubling part of the immigration story. In 2011, it was discovered that in the back right-hand corner of the plot, around the strange ghost ship, are the unmarked graves of over 60 people. The recent discoveries of death certificates have confirmed that many Mexican citizens, including some who had only been in California a few days, were buried at Morningside during the early 1900s. In the 1930s, a woman who collected epitaphs from the graves reported that she had examined all of the graves, "except the Mexican section." This and other evidence have led many to believe that the area around the ghost ship may have been the so-called "Mexican section." It may have been a potter's field, like the one at Evergreen Cemetery, where the city of L.A. paid the owners of the cemetery to bury the poor and indigent. More research is needed to confirm any of this speculation.

In 1923, the San Fernando Cemetery Association dissolved. The remaining 3.8 acres was soon bought for a paltry $10 by sole Valley mortician Will G. Nobel. It has been reported that a wildfire during the '20s ripped through the graveyard, burning many a wooden cross. Nobel died in 1932, and his family continued to run the cemetery for a time. In 1939, the state of California passed stringent new laws that made graveyard ownership much less desirable. The last burial at Morningside occurred on August 25, 1939. After that, the cemetery and those buried beneath, were inexplicably and totally abandoned.

Photo: Hadley Meares


Midnight Activities

Vandals have all but destroyed the cemetery. Tombstones are toppled and broken, children ride horses through the weed covered plots and local residents use the site as a free dump. Most gravestones have been stolen for patio, fireplaces and private statues. A water valve must be dug up and reburied after each use to prevent destruction by vandals. People don't seem to realize it's a cemetery or they could care less. They treat it like a vacant lot.
--Los Angeles Times, May 26, 1969

For the next 20 years, the cemetery grew with weeds so high no gravestones could be seen from the road. Neighbors remembered seeing children on horses lasso gravestones, pulling them to the ground. Heavy granite markers were stolen for use on patios and to weigh down cars used in drag-racing. The city took no responsibility for the cemetery, citing a law that stated that they were not required to care for any burial ground under ten acres. Families may have moved some loved ones during this time. Finally, in 1958, the San Fernando Mission Parlor of the Native Daughters of the Golden West became involved, after concerned citizens alerted them to the cemetery's sorry state. In 1959, Nobel's family deeded the property over to the Native Daughters, a charitable historical society of "little old ladies."

'Mrs. McPhee and Mrs. Keith Swaner, Native Daughters parlor president, examine vandalized open grave' | Los Angeles Times, May 26, 1969Led by chair-woman Carolyn Riggs, the Native Daughters began the slow process of cleaning the cemetery and attempting to identify graves. They were constantly set back by lack of funds. Their hours of weeding, clearing, hauling and watering were constantly undermined by vandals and grave robbers who left gaping holes on plots marked by stones or a simple cross. The women found a ledger in the possession of the Noble family, which they believed to be a list of over 600 people buried at the cemetery. This list would lead to many of the false legends surrounding the cemetery. The Native Daughters had difficulty locating relatives of the presumed interred, and the few who were reached declined to contribute to the cemetery's upkeep.

The Native Daughters persevered. On April 30, 1961, the newly christened Pioneer Memorial Cemetery was declared State Historical Landmark No. 753. But, despite their triumph, the Native Daughters met with setbacks at every turn. They would raise a hard won flag pole, only to find all the pole's ropes cut two days later, ruining the flag pole's dedication. According to elderly volunteer Ethelwynne Fraisher, "We would plant bushes and trees one day and they would be stolen the next." 1. Since there was no fence, gardening tools had to be carted to and from the cemetery on every visit. By 1969, the Native Daughters were ready to give up. "We're a bunch of old ladies who can't possibly keep it clean," Mrs. Keith Swaners sighed. "We have no business trying to run a cemetery" 2.

But these resolute ladies retained ownership. During the 1970s, youth groups worked with the Native Daughters on various projects in the cemetery. But the bad luck continued. The 1971 Sylmar earthquake crumbled headstones and bent the poor flagpole. In 1979, a fence was finally donated by a local developer. In return, he was allowed to build the condos that now flank Pioneer on each side. Trouble continued in 1983. A neighbor reported the cemetery was an eyesore, with weeds up to her waist. A construction truck crashed into the fence and sped away. A woman, whose father was buried in the cemetery, was chased by a motorcycle gang as she drove through to pay her respects. A restful spot it was not.

Things finally began to turn around in 1986, when the San Fernando Women's Club adopted Pioneer as a Civic Improvements Project although the cemetery was still owned by the Native Daughters. The Chamber of Commerce donated money, and substantial improvements were made, including the installation of an irrigation system. The cemetery's most tireless champion was an elderly woman named Edith Reber. After the irrigation system was damaged, Edith could often be seen individually watering each of Pioneer's 50 plus trees. In 1993, Edith's efforts were rewarded when the City of Los Angeles declared the cemetery a historical-cultural monument. "It's always one thing or another," she said of her fight to restore the cemetery. "But we are getting there little by little." 3

Photo: Hadley Meares


Little by Little

"We'll never know who all are buried here, but we'll give it a good try."
--Jacky Walker, Los Angeles Daily News, May 3, 2011

In 2002, the Native Daughters deeded Pioneer to the San Fernando Valley Historical Society. Some of the society's main goals were to encourage civic involvement, fundraising and grounds beautification. Community projects, like Adopt-a-Plot, were initiated, and the cemetery was opened monthly to visitors. A brick path, inscribed with the names of the 600 people allegedly buried at the cemetery, was installed with the help of a match-grant from the City of Los Angeles. Most importantly, the society decided to turn their attention to what lay below the surface of this long suffering cemetery.

In 2010, the Historical Society, using funds partially collected from ghost tours and other events, hired Geophysicist Brian Damiata to conduct a survey of the cemetery. Using ground-penetrating radar in the height of summer, Damiata painstakingly mapped the entire graveyard. His results, announced in 2011, were astounding. Only 214 graves were found in the entire cemetery. It appeared much of the land had never been used, and several gravestones had clearly been moved, since they were not above a burial. Damiata also discovered the cluster of graves in the back under the unfinished recreation area, and a large ditch that could possibly be the resting place of victims of some mass disaster. A core sample of earth is needed to confirm if this ditch is indeed a mass burial site. This test has not yet occurred.

Using ground-penetrating radar to survey the cemetery, 2010 | Photo: Courtesy of the San Fernando Mission Historical Society

Courtesy of the San Fernando Mission Historical Society


The Society now faced a problem. What was this list of 600 dead that they had in their possession? Through careful research, they now surmise that it may be a compilation of clients of former owner Will Nobel's mortuary. Painstakingly, researchers began to uncover death certificates of those buried at Morningside. So far they have found around 200 certificates. Over forty are new names that have not appeared on any previous list. Many of the names are Latino. Society leaders believe that there may be ledgers at Nobel's mortuary, which could contain complete burial records for Morningside Cemetery. Luckily, the mortuary still exists and is now owned by funeral industry giant Dignity Memorial.

Over the years, some of Pioneer's lost headstones have found their way back home. In 1992, 32 years after it was stolen, the gravestone of the Ansley family was found in the parking lot of the Glendale Adventist Hospital. The note attached read, "Return to Pioneer Cemetery." After Damiata's findings were made public, two gravestones were returned to Pioneer. One reading simply, "Mother," was given back on Mother's Day, 2011. The grave of Valley pioneer Emiele Prouty, born in 1841, had been found by a man in a rented house in North Hollywood. Loath to let it be dumped, he carried it from home to home for years, until a friend told him about Pioneer Cemetery.

The Historical Society's Pioneer Cemetery Committee, headed by Jacky Walker, valiantly continues in its quest to uncover the many unsolved mysteries of Pioneer Cemetery. Local Boy Scouts and other civic groups help with improvement projects. A local man tends to the plants and trees. There is a large Memorial Day ceremony and other civic events. But more researchers, volunteers and funds are needed. Who knows what the next chapter of this strange plot of hallowed earth will bring? One thing is for sure, it most definitely will not be boring -- or easy.

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Special Thanks to Jacky Walker of the San Fernando Mission Historical Society.

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1 "Cemetery renovation proposed by chamber" Los Angeles Times, March 15, 1966
2 "'Old Ladies' want to give up job" Los Angeles Times, May 26, 1969
3 "Requiem for a Graveyard" Los Angeles Times, November 22, 1993

About the Author

Hadley Meares is a writer, actress and singer who traded one Southland (her home state of North Carolina) for another. Her debut novel "Absolutely" is now available on Amazon.
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