One year ago, the lower lot of the Sierra Mountain Cemetery in Truckee was filled with rotting crosses, a scattering of could-be headstones, and more than 60 shallow depressions — unmarked reminders in the ground that someone forgotten was lying beneath the pine needles.

It wasn’t until a Truckee teen named Hudson Verbeck decided on the cemetery as the centerpiece for his Eagle Scout service project that the graves of the cemetery finally received the care they deserved, in the form of 50 handcrafted and painted wooden crosses.

Verbeck was looking for something different than the usual Boy Scout project, and with the help of Chaun Mortier, president of the Truckee Donner Historical Society, he found it.

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What started as a conversation about repairing the cemetery fence evolved into a project to repair the crosses, and eventually culminated into completely replacing and personally installing 50 crosses and a wooden obelisk, during the course of 218 hours, and one work day in the cemetery.

“By collecting donations of wood, sealer, primer, and paint and asking local woodworkers to make five to 12 crosses each, I was able to collect 50 crosses using 280 feet of redwood,” Verbeck said in his project report. “This allowed us to replace all 34 of the old, rotted crosses and put new crosses on graves that were previously unrecognized. Instead of repairing and repainting the old crosses, the new crosses will last for about 30 to 40 years, and they look beautiful.”

The crosses themselves were handcrafted by woodworkers and volunteers Verbeck contacted during his project. The woodworkers included Steve Ohran, Chris Rutz, Ira Kessey of Kessey Art Services, Steven Rembert of Truckee Sash and Door, and Mike Fornier. After replacing the headstones of the marked graves with freshly painted and sealed crosses, Verbeck and a small team of volunteers guessed at the sites of the remaining graves by simply looking for human-sized indentations in the ground.

Verbeck enlisted the help of fellow scouts to assist him. Some were skittish about working in a cemetery, he said, but the owner of Truckee-Tahoe Mortuary, Joe Murray, eased them into it.

“Everyone was scared to pick up a rock with ants on it, but Joe comes up and just says, ‘Be a man, boy scouts,’ and picks it up,” Verbeck said.
A Cemetery Divided

The lower lot, also known as the Old Catholic Cemetery, was reserved for those who were rejected from the exclusive upper lot bought in 1873 by the Freemasons and Oddfellows.

“With the Oddfellows and the Freemasons, being a society like they were, the Catholic church would not allow their patrons to be buried in that newly formed cemetery,” said Mortier. “We don’t know exactly how many people are buried there, but we do know we’re up to 60 names.”

Many Catholics, as well as minorities and those too poor to afford a cemetery plot, were instead buried with wooden headstones. These headstones would eventually deteriorate, leaving many of the deceased in perpetual anonymity.

Mortier is currently writing biographies of some of the deceased resting in the cemetery. She has been compiling a record of as many histories she can dig up, and has a detailed list of about 60 names.

Of those who are buried in the cemetery, she has a special affinity for a Brazilian World War I veteran who was shipped back to the states in a casket only six months after he left, as well as a botanist who catalogued various local plants, knowing their habitat was about to be logged.

Other inhabitants of the century-old cemetery include children who died during a short-lived cholera outbreak and a murder victim who was only buried in the plot on a temporary basis. He was supposed to be moved to the upper lot after the snow melted, but when the time came he was forgotten and no one could find his remains. His exact location is unknown but it is entirely possible one of Verbeck’s crosses came to rest above him.
“For him [Verbeck] to come in here and honor that by putting in these crosses was pretty amazing,” Mortier said

Author

  • Sage Sauerbrey

    Sage Sauerbrey recently graduated with a journalism degree from Sierra Nevada College, and was rescued from the throes of post-college-what-the-hell-am-I-doing-with-my-life-blues by the good folks at Moonshine Ink. Now he's happily walking the news and sports beatwhile daydreaming about new climbs, lines, and fishing holes.

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