Reported in The Valley Times
March 7, 1999

Reviving the spirit of
pioneer graveyard


Photo: Kendra Luck/Times
SUSAN JUNK sits next to the century-old marble tombstone of her great-great grandparents, John and Sabina Marianna Jackson. The marker now rests in the yard of her father, Bill Junk.

Photo: Kendra Luck/Times
MERILYN CALHOUN, a descendant of two Livermore pioneer families, holds a rubbing from her great-aunt's tombstone. Behind Calhoun is the Oak Knoll Cemetery that was closed in the early 1960s.

Reviving
the spirit
of pioneer
graveyard

A neglected cemetery where many of Livermore's settlers were buried should be treated with respect, say some of their descendants

By Bonita Brewer
Times Staff Writer

LIVERMORE - The grave sites of the pioneers who were buried at the abandoned Oak Knoll Cemetery have suffered all the indignities of nature, vandalism, war and official city acts.

Some descendants and longtime Livermore residents are hoping something can be done to honor the dead still buried there, neglected.

Though all the tombstones were removed more than three decades ago, "the remains are still up there and nobody's taking care of anything," said Bill Junk, whose late wife's great-grandparents are buried at Oak Knoll. "It's not the right way to treat people."

Junk's daughter, Susan, said that when the city closed the cemetery in the early 1960s, it should have at least put up a plaque listing the people buried there.

"We're not sure at all where our relatives are buried; we just know they're somewhere on the hill," she said of her great-great grandparents, John and Sabina Marianna Jackson.

Susan Junk fears she'll never find a permanent resting place for their century-old, 1,000-pound marble tombstone, which sits in her fathers front yard after being moved three times.

"People are kind of temporary, but tombstones are forever," she said.

The Junks are trying to see if they can have the tombstone moved to an East Avenue cemetery where other family members are buried, but they aren't optimistic.

The old Oak Knoll Cemetery, on a hilltop near Stanley Boulevard and Wall Street, became so desecrated over time by floods, earthquakes and vandals that the city closed it in 1963. The tombstones were removed, and most were given to descendants or historians, while some were taken to the landfill.

Initially, the abandoned graveyard was turned into Pioneer Memorial Park. But that, too, fell by the wayside after budget cuts in the late 1970s. Even a plaque the city put up, generically recognizing all the "pioneers" buried at Oak Knoll, has disappeared.

 

And despite recent beautification efforts, including the Livermore-Amador Valley Garden Club's planting of daffodils on part of the hillside, the area today is littered with trash and broken glass.

Adding insult to injury, Susan Junk said, is the cemetery's widespread nickname, "Boot Hill." That was the term used for Wild West-era cemeteries where men "who died with their boots on" were buried ­ such as those who died in gunfights.

"It sounds so negative," she said. "My relatives weren't dirt poor, and Livermore didnt have gunfighters like in the movies. Some important people in Livermore's history were buried there. These were upstanding citizens, like doctors and politicians."

The first official burial there was that of Wiffiam Mendenhall, who died in 1873 and was the father of Livermore's founder. Others included Henry Clay Smith, considered the 'father of Alameda County," who died in 1876. The last person to be buried there, in 1931, was Dr. William Stewart Taylor, an area physician for 46 years.

Mendenhall's great-grandson, Jack, said he's not optimistic anything will be done to remember the dead at Oak Knoll because many of the descendants dont live in the area.

"Nobody around has got interest in it," he said.

Oak Knoll is held by three landowners: the city, the Livermore school district and resident Annie Rees, according to the City Clerk's Office. And this presents a big problem, said landscape maintenance supervisor Ed Murdock

 

Photo: Kendra Luck/Times

THE TOMBSTONE of John Jackson and S.M.A. Jackson reflects local history that remains lost and buried at Oak Knoll Cemetary.

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PIONEERS
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We have three different agencies, and no one wants to take the lead," Murdock said. "The city is not willing to go beyond its scope."

Some tombstones have found homes at local history centers, including that of Merilyn Calhoun's great-aunt, Sallie Teeter, who died in 1882 at the age of 2.

Calhoun said it would be nice to reinstitute a park at Oak Knoll. But she cited tight budgets, limited volunteerism and inadequate parking for visitors.

"It's a shame this happened. For a while, it really was quite a nice place for people in the area to go up and have lunch."

City officials cite legal obstacles to a long-term solution, since it was discovered that the 1 1/2-acre parcel on top of the hill is privately owned and the city has never resolved efforts to take title to it. Some land at lower elevations is owned by the city, some by the Livermore school district.

The city plans to build a $15,000 retention wall to keep mud from spilling onto the sidewalk during heavy rains. And the Livernore Beautification Committee hopes to raise funds for landscaping and to install a plaque commemorating various service organizations and providing a history of the cemetery and park.

Committee Chairwoman Loni Frankland said she likes the idea of listing the people known to have been buried at Oak Knoll.

"We had definitely hoped to incorporate the history," Frankland said. 'This is our original pioneer cemetery It would be fun to come up with a cute little area with a wrought-iron fence around it with some tombstones that could be returned to their proper place."

Local historians say the cemetery started decaying in 1889, when Chinese ceremonies using fire burned much of the hill. Later, floods eroded the eastern hillside, unearthing some graves, and the 1906 earthquake toppled several monuments. Then, iron fences around the family plots were melted down for metal during World War 11. Over the years, vandals broke many of the stones and the land became littered.

At least 87 people are known to be buried there. But at the time the cemetery was abandoned, there were many unidentified grave sites, and many markers were indecipherable and broken, according to former Livermore Public Works Director Dan Lee, now retired.

Lee said a plaque with the names of people buried there was never erected because of inadequate records.

March 4, 2001
Updated: April 1, 2001