Drive on Highway 50 past the town of El Dorado Hills and you’re driving right over history. The town of Clarksville once stood here, only to be bulldozed and covered by El Dorado Hills’ subdivisions and shopping centers. Back in the 1840s, the Mormon Tavern provided food and overnight shelter for the hordes of would-be millionaires traveling from Sacramento to the gold fields. Nearby, a small graveyard provided permanent shelter for those who found something other than gold – say, cholera or dysentery or a bullet.
The Mormon Tavern is long gone. The graveyard, known as Clarksville Cemetery, is still there. We found it.
The OZ team enjoyed lunch at a Thai restaurant in a fancy shopping center then set off in search of this mysterious burial ground. Clarksville Cemetery had been a public graveyard, but decades ago it somehow ended up in the estate of its late caretaker and has been treated as private property ever since. It has no access road. That didn’t stop us from searching for it.
We’re not going to tell you where it is – it’s really not that hard to find – but we will tell you we had to shimmy between ouchy strands of barbed wire to get to this desolate place. And it was worth it.
We entered a field of two-foot tall golden weeds. Headstones popped up at random all around us. The day was clear and windy but this little graveyard had a distinctly oppressive vibe. Isolated on top of a hill overlooking the freeway, the silent residents of Clarksville Cemetery seemed to be trapped in time. They could see the world speed by below, but the world paid them no notice at all.
Still, we found evidence of recent activity. Narrow paths had been mowed to every stone, even the poor unknowns scattered far from the clusters of family plots. Oddly, the cemetery gate (about 100 feet from where we entered) opened onto a vast, unmown field. No access road, remember? So how’d that lawnmower get up here?
Odder still were the signs of recent fires at several graves. One pyre contained the charred remains of a small, furry creature. Yes, we were creeped out. If we’d found beer cans and fast food wrappers it would’ve been easy to surmise that the place was a hangout for teenagers, but there wasn’t a speck of garbage anywhere.
A large informational sign, printed on paper and nailed to a board, hung outside the gate. It explained that fewer than eighty tombstones can be identified, and that some graves are most likely emigrants who landed in Clarksville to search for gold but found death instead. The text was matter-of-fact about this sad reality: “Does anyone from the family back home know of their final resting place? Possibly not.”
We tried to puzzle out the large Wilson clan, whose infant twins were buried a few feet away from the rest of the family. We walked down a path between the Fisk and Fitch families, who are facing each other for all eternity. We spotted a few graves from the 1980s and 1990s, anomalies in a place that truly felt as old as the very hill it stood on. We wandered out to the lonesome graves of unknowns. We stood silently as the wind whipped around us, and we took in the views of 21st century California spread out below us. And we got out of there well before sundown.
The weirdly creepy Clarksville Cemetery was a nice place to visit, but we wouldn’t want to be buried there.