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Gilpin Historical Society resurrects the stories of those who passed on

crawl_group28th Annual Cemetery Crawl held at Russell Gulch Cemetery

by Patty Unruh

The Russell Gulch Cemetery was the setting for the 28th Annual Cemetery Crawl on Saturday, August 27. Guests were connected with Gilpin history as names on gravestones became the faces and life stories of real people. About 200 attendees visited the site, located about two and a half miles southwest of Central City.

The much-anticipated event is presented every year by the Gilpin Historical Society (GHS) at one of Gilpin’s eleven cemeteries. The proceeds support GHS in its efforts to keep alive the stories of Gilpin residents from times gone by and to promote Gilpin’s rich history in general.

The event got off to a slightly late start, as an accident on Highway 119 delayed a number of those who were on their way to the cemetery. GHS representatives calmly accommodated the latecomers while pleasing the crowd already gathered. Accordionist Jimmy Stewart kept the crowd entertained with lively tunes, while cookies and autographed copies of the book Chronicles of the Unexplained were made available.

GHS President Deborah Wray welcomed the visitors. “Most of you have come before, and you know that we do a different cemetery every year. All of the spirits and guides are volunteers; without them, we couldn’t do this.”

Ten “spirits” of persons buried at the cemetery or visiting from other area sites “returned” to tell their stories through GHS actors. Nineteen other volunteers served as guides, moving groups along from one vignette to the next.

Central City Mayor Ron Engels introduced himself as the “gatekeeper to the underworld.” He explained that the cemetery was established in 1878 by the Independent Order of Oddfellows (IOOF), one of many fraternal organizations in the area. The group provided financial care for widows and orphans of miners who died.

A host of volunteers was needed. The spirits were portrayed by Gary Huffman, Chuck Roberts, Brenna Schembri, Robin Schneider, David Wacker, Tom Matthew, Randy Schneider, Jennifer Roberts, Mike Keeler, and Delaney Grant. Guides were Brice and Sue Young, Bill Cavanaugh, Natalia Segent, Pat Raney, Roy and Janelle Ince, Margaret Grant, Nicki Friedeck, Gail Keeler, Alisa Reynolds, Suzanne Matthews, Micah Meyer, Gail Maxwell, Jim Crawford, Jan Doell, Robbie Zmuda, and Jimmy and Colleen Stewart. Ray Wilber of the Bonanza Casino shuttled the crowds back and forth from the Tabor House lot. Jennifer Hughes and LeAnna Jonas presided over the ticket booth. Gilpin History Museum Executive Director David Forsyth and Jim Procheska also represented GHS.

GHS participants were dedicated to performing their roles authentically, even if it meant growing a beard or dying hair for the occasion. Many had scoured old trunks for costumes or created their own. Each actor did research on his or her character.

Attendees learned that Gilpin County life in the 1800’s was not for cowards. Many young men took on dangerous jobs as miners and were fortunate if they lived to be 30. Safety practices were non-existent. A miner might have to carry a leaky powder keg past open flame candles. One misstep could cause an explosion, killing the miner and those nearby. Dynamite misfires killed more miners than anything else. Men drowned when they fell off ladders into water in the mines. Cave-ins could seal miners off from the rest of the workers, and men would suffocate or starve.

Monte Salisbury (1901-1971) was a notable exception to the rule of early death. Salisbury lived to see his children and grandchildren, but died of silicosis, a disease caused by the inhalation of fine, sharp dust particles from the mines.

Men had it rough, but women’s lives were no cakewalk, either. The spirit of Grace Bray (1859-1934), who had been married to a miner, related the heartbreaks of child mortality. One daughter died of cholera at four months of age. A boy died at two months of pneumonia. Another daughter, named Millie, died at age three when she drowned in a creek while her mother was tending to her many chores. The following year, Grace’s son Paul died of scarlet fever at age seven.

Since doctors were kept busy with mining accidents, the women were expected to doctor their own families. They prepared mustard plasters, utilized turpentine and kerosene as worm remedies, dried pig dung and brewed it as tea to cure the measles, and set bones. If a woman’s husband was injured in an accident and expected to live, he was transported to Denver in a horse cart. If he was not expected to make it, he was brought home for the wife to care for. If he died, the mining company laid him on his home doorstep, and the wife prepared him for burial.

Grace’s spirit declared, “I made my own soap, canned food, kept the family going, and prayed hard.”

Guests also discovered the meaning behind many of the symbols on the graves. The spirit of Absalom Mellow disclosed that his tombstone was in the shape of an obelisk. Originally constructed by Egyptians to worship the sun god, an obelisk faced the east. Mellow’s spirit explained that in the Christian religion, a headstone faces east to await the second coming of Christ. Another symbol was the three linked chains of the Oddfellows, standing for friendship, love, and truth. A hand pointing down indicated the hand of God. A lamb symbolized a child. A shield denoted the Knights of Pythias. The Shriners and the Masons were also represented with their organizations’ designs.

Other characters described being killed in a knife fight over a poker game, surviving four tours as a biplane fighter pilot in WWI only to die of influenza, being murdered by an unfaithful husband, and dying of stroke after a prominent career in politics and philanthropy.

Upcoming events are the Stroehle House tea on September 10 and the Creepy Crawl, held throughout October. Visit www.gilpinhistory.org or call 303-582-5283 for more information.

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