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Photograph by Eric "ug" Carlson

Notes From the Underbelly

San Jose's Graveyard

By Eric "ug" Carlson

"Right Wrongs Nobody."
Mountain Charlie

NEAR THE INTERSECTION of Monterey Road and Curtner Avenue, the history of San Jose and environs is carved on the headstones, sepulchers and mausoleum walls of Oak Hill Memorial Cemetery. In 1839, when San Jose was still a puppy of a pueblo, town officials gave permission for San Joseans to be buried beneath the oak trees at the south end of town. The area became known simply as "the graveyard."

In 1848, the graveyard (part of the San Juan Bautista Hills) was surveyed and laid out by Chestor Lymon--25 acres for Protestants and Catholics, and four acres for a potter's field. (Chestor would plot out the beatific town of Alviso the following year--1849). The first recorded burial took place on Nov 22, 1849--a child of Captain Julian Hanks. The child's wooden marker has long since weathered and deliquesced.

Oak Hill is the oldest secular cemetery in California, which goes along with being in the oldest city in California (San Jose was incorporated in 1777). In 1858, San Jose named the graveyard Oak Hill Cemetery, and it remained so until 1933, when it was renamed Oak Hill Memorial Park. The cemetery ended its days as a public graveyard in 1913, when it became a private operation. Business has been steady; very few customers complain.

The Pioneer Section of the graveyard includes many of San Jose's earliest settlers, adventurers and eccentrics. Mention must be made of Grandma Bascom, who ran Flapjack Hall (her kitchen) at the corner of San Fernando and Second streets in the muddy year of 1849. And Charles Henry "Mountain Charlie" McKiernan, the first white settler of the Santa Cruz Mountains, and a man distinguished by having fought a grizzly bear. Charlie survived the tussle, albeit with a 4-inch-square section of his skull bitten out. Charlie briefly wore a silver plate in his head, but when infection set in, the plate was removed, against his will, by Dr. T.J. Ingersoll of San Jose. Ever after, Mountain Charlie wore his hat down low on his forehead, to cover his deformity. He is remembered by his motto, "Right Wrongs Nobody," and would become the Celestial Clampatriarch of the triple-secret Ancient and Honorable Order of E Clampus Vitus society--a going concern. His grave site was rededicated in 1982 and is now California Registered Point of Historical Interest SCL-053. Charlie is now tabulated and filed into history. But not forgotten.

Visiting Oak Hill Cemetery (300 Curtner Ave.) is a rich and sobering experience, and some guidance is helpful. A map of prominent graves, tombs and buildings is available at the office, as is Patricia Loomis' wry and informative tome, A Walk Through the Past. Pat's book is the ultimate guidebook for a stroll through Oak Hill Cemetery. I have seen peacocks meandering among the graves on several visits, and Chuck Hotchkis, the general manager of Oak Hill, assures me the birds still reside on the premises. A source reveals they do stir up hell on occasion.

A gravestone of particular interest is that of Stephen Hobson. The marker is an actual millstone used by Stephen during his lifetime (1800-1885). Close by, A.D.M. Cooper's tiny gravestone is almost lost in the grass, which is a damn shame because the man was one of the most prominent 19th-century painters of Indians, Western landscapes and barroom nudes in America. His work fetched thousands of dollars and still does. A larger and more ostentatious marker for Astley is much in order, and I implore E Clampus Vitus--folks who tackle such lost historical issues--to save the day. I will consult Jack "Jackrabbit" Furlow. (Count me in for $100 and labor.)

Speaking of Jackrabbit, the Clampatriarch of the Mountain Charlie chapter of E Clampus Vitus informed me last night of a foul plan to change the name of King Road--a road named after Andrew Lewis King, who settled in San Jose in 1851--to Martin Luther King Jr. Road. The changing of street names is a surefire way for a city to lose touch with its past and become less interesting. And substituting one King for another is particularly invidious and should make anyone who cares about the soul of San Jose concerned.

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From the October 9-15, 2003 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

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