When a 200-unit apartment complex was proposed in March for the 900 block of Florida Road adjacent to the Animas City Cemetery, a solemn historic 5-acre burial site south of North College Drive, area residents rallied to protect the boneyard.
Residents were worried that with no gates, fencing or formal borders of any kind, the dense development, called the Sophia Apartments, would lead to intrusions on the cemetery, risking degradation of the headstones and graves and the place’s history.
The city of Durango’s Planning Commission ultimately denied the proposal from developer J Street Cos., and neighbors rejoiced. But there are no planned formal preservation efforts by the city, which is the official steward of the site. Friends of the Animas City Cemetery, an advocacy and research group committed to studying the site’s buried secrets, contends that more needs to be done to conserve the oldest cemetery in La Plata County.
The Animas City Cemetery was established in 1876 and is the final resting place of many area residents’ ancestors, among them Civil War veterans, outlaws, entire families and children.
There are 65 gravestones with 75 names recorded among them at the cemetery and more than 100 unmarked graves, and it is possible more unknown graves are out there, said Julie Pickett, a member with Friends of the Animas City Cemetery.
About 37%, or 54 graves, belong to children, which is an indicator of the high mortality rate of the late 1800s, according to data she compiled several years ago.
Iris flowers, vibrant but hardy and drought-tolerant plants found in bunches across the cemetery, are dead giveaways of unmarked graves, Ruth Lambert, another friend of the cemetery, said. Once planted, they spread like rhizomes or grasses, and were placed around graves in the cemetery long ago.
Pickett became involved with Friends of the Animas City Cemetery in 2008. Ever since she was a child she had been fascinated by cemeteries, and she had an interest in genealogy. The cemetery was fairly well researched as far as names and dates of the people buried there, thanks to the late Henry Ninde, but she realized the dead had so many untold stories waiting to be unearthed.
“I started digging for their stories and figuring out who they were, how they were involved with the founding of our community,” she said. “Because really, to understand our community today, you kind of need to understand how (and) why they formed it.”
She has dug through newspaper archives, marriage certificates, and other clerk and recorder records to figure out where people buried at the cemetery came from and how their journey ended, she said.
Through her efforts, she managed to solve what she considers one of the cemetery’s biggest mysteries – the life and death of Mr. Tilghman (whose name was misspelled “Tilman”) and the lost identities of two of the cemetery’s first bodies buried there.
“For decades, maybe over a century, it was passed down that the first burials were Mr. Tilghman and two others. That was all we had to work with,” she said. “I was able to get the research together to figure out who Mr. Tilghman was and who the two others were.”
Pickett chronicled the story of “the two others” and Mr. Tilghman on the Friends of the Animas City Cemetery’s Facebook page, which she uses as a blog of sorts to share her research with the world.
She said she discovered Mr. Tilghman’s full name, James Henry Tilghman, who was a traveling preacher who died on Nov. 3, 1877. His unmarked grave was among the earliest documented deaths and burials at the cemetery, aside from the “two others.”
She searched state newspapers and finally found leads about who the “two others” might have been in the Golden Weekly Globe and Pueblo’s The Colorado Daily Chieftain, she said.
They were Israel Doty and Shepherd Clark, and they were murdered on the San Juan River in Conejos County 10 miles north of Pagosa Springs on or about the date of Sept. 3, according to the Nov. 17, 1877, edition of the Golden Weekly Globe.
Doty, a sheep herder, hired Clark of Parrott City to help him drive his sheep home. But they never reached their destination alive.
Pickett said Doty previously hired three men to herd his sheep under the poor employment agreement that if they were to leave before their contract was up in a year’s time, they’d forfeit all their wages.
The hires, among them Antonio, a Navajo man, decided they had had enough. They told Doty they were done working for him and demanded their wages. But Doty refused, and the men swore vengeance, Pickett wrote.
Long story short, Doty, fearful that Antonio and the others would carry out their threats, recruited a miner in Parrot City to join him and Clark. The three were found shot dead, Doty’s cocked gun lying in the dirt beside him, she said.
She said she was never able to confirm who the trio’s killers were. But she did discover in an 1883 Durango Herald Daily article that Clark was buried at the Animas City Cemetery, and it is extremely likely that Doty is the other man.
“Thus ends the stories of two single men who sought their fortunes in southwest Colorado, but whose lives were cut short at the murderous hands of others. May they rest in peace,” Pickett wrote.
Another mystery Pickett believes she may have solved is that of a missing headstone. There are several gravesites within the cemetery that have small iron enclosures around them, placed there as decoration. One of the enclosures is for a Lambert family (Ruth Lambert said she suspects they might be relatives, but she doesn’t know for sure.) But another enclosure is empty – the headstone is gone.
Pickett said she came up with the theory that the site was the original resting place of Sarah Wickline, whose husband was a constable of Animas City.
“They were popular, well-loved, well known,” she said. “But I had nothing to prove it (was her grave).”
She said she was taking a stroll through Greenmount Cemetery one day when she came across a headstone for Sarah Wickline with a date that said 1881. She knew that was wrong because Greenmount Cemetery wasn’t established until 1887.
Some time later, Durango Public Library invited Pickett to help test search functions for digital archives that were being converted from microfilm. One of the first things she searched was Sarah Wickline and Animas City Cemetery.
Sure enough, she found a newspaper article from around 1913 that said Wickline was disinterred from Animas City Cemetery and moved to Greenmount, which was the new popular place to be buried, she said. Her husband was later buried with her, although his grave is unmarked.
“Because of their prominence in the community and their relative wealth, I just have a strong suspicion (about the empty enclosure),” she said.
The ethnic diversity of people buried there is one thing that surprised her early into her research, she said. The graves of people from Denmark, Ireland, Switzerland and England are all found at the Animas City Cemetery. Many of the people buried there are first-generation immigrants to the USA.
Lambert was with Friends of the Animas City Cemetery since its founding in 2004. She said the group was established by a small group of Durangoans interested in the gravesite’s history. She worked with others to photograph and document the graves and headstones, map the site and secure grants to continue research efforts.
She worked with Mona Charles, an archaeologist at Fort Lewis College, to perform remote sensing surveys at the cemetery to identify unmarked graves, which she said are key issues for rural cemeteries in La Plata County. Often, old graves are marked not by formal headstones but with field stones, sandstone or other less prominent signs, she said.
She said several years ago she and a colleague wrote a grant application for a preservation plan to Colorado’s State Historic Fund with the aim of getting the cemetery placed on the state’s historic register.
“Parks and Rec got involved with it and decided that since they were going to put up the match money for the grant (they would submit the application),” she said. “They made some changes and submitted it. And it was not accepted. It was declined. They were going to work with the state and address comments and resubmit and that never happened.”
Being placed on the state’s historical record would be a nice acknowledgment of the site, but that has nothing to do with preserving it, she said.
Really, what the cemetery needs is fencing, controlled access and interpretation signage.
“Safety is an issue, too,” she said. “You have these 100-plus-year-old stones that are standing that could fall over because of the way they’re fabricated. ... Little kids playing around them or riding their bikes around them is a real safety issue.”
That was one concern neighbors had about the proposed Sophia Apartments. Without any fencing, people would certainly wander into the cemetery.
A formalized preservation plan is key to protecting the cemetery, she said. Lambert and Pickett recently toured the cemetery with Durango Parks and Recreation staff to advocate for it, but they’re unsure how high it ranks on the city’s priorities.