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S.L. Cemetery is alive with history
The famous and the humble rest in peace together

Published: Saturday, May 29 1999 12:00 a.m. MDT

It could well be the largest municipal-owned graveyard in America. At 250 acres and containing at least 105,000 occupied graves, the Salt Lake City Cemetery is big enough to warrant its own extensive street system, a grid separate from the rest of town.

Located at 200 N. N St. (about 950 East), this is the state's oldest cemetery and has been around since 1848 -- about a year after the Mormon pioneers arrived in the valley.Jeff Johnson, state archivist, is an expert on the cemetery and said cemetery officials refer to it as the nation's largest municipal graveyard, though he's never found any firm reference to prove or disprove that claim.

He said the pioneers buried their dead that first year of 1847 just west of Pioneer Park -- where they lived in a fort then -- in graves uncovered about two years ago by some construction work. Those are the state's oldest known grave sites outside of Indian burial grounds.

The first person buried near Pioneer Park was a child who drowned in August 1847.

The current cemetery site in the Avenues area was selected specifically because it was away from any water sources. Johnson said the pioneers didn't want water to be contaminated by graves.

Originally, the cemetery was just dirt and weeds, a barren and dry field. Some called it an ugly place for a cemetery. It wasn't until the turn of the century that it began to be treated as a Victorian park. That's when people built homes near the cemetery and irrigation water became available there.

The first two burials in the city cemetery are of two children. George B. Wallace died on Aug. 14, 1848, and his sister, Mary, died on Sept. 27, 1848. Both are buried in a section northeast of Grand Avenue and Main.

Johnson said adjacent cemeteries -- three Jewish graveyards and the Mount Calvary Catholic Cemetery -- make the Salt Lake burial area even larger.

By some accounts, the cemetery may contain almost 114,000 graves, but Tania Tully of the Utah State Historical Society believes there are closer to 105,000 occupied graves there. She's creating a database of all Utah's cemeteries.

Despite its huge size, the Salt Lake City Cemetery looks smaller than it is, with large trees and bushes breaking up the landscape.

The cemetery is a great place for a history lesson, too.

"It gives you a connection with the past," Johnson said

Some of the state's most famous people are buried here. You can find some governors of Utah, a few prophets of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and other VIPs.

Johnson periodically offers 90-minute tours of the cemetery. He did a half-dozen tours last summer and many more in 1997. His interest in the cemetery evolved out of living nearby and through his job in archives.

Many headstones tell a short story of their own.

For example, remember Orrin Porter Rockwell, the Utah version of Wyatt Earp? This legendary Utah lawman is buried in the Salt Lake Cemetery, and visiting his grave is the closest you'll come nowadays to meeting him.

Rockwell was buried there on June 9, 1878.

"He was brave and loyal to his faith. True to the Prophet Jos. Smith. A promise made him by the prophet. Through obedience it was fulfilled," says Rockwell's epitaph.

His marker is an 8-foot-tall pyramid-like structure. It can be found by going north up Main Street in the cemetery to 280 North. There, turn right (east) and go about 100 feet, to the second pine tree on the south side of the narrow road. Rockwell's marker is next to that second tree.

In fact, some of the state's oldest graves are found in this same area, located on the northeast corner of Main Street and Grand Avenue and also adjacent sections. Some are crumbling or unreadable, but they all offer a historic flavor.

Here are some of the other prominent graves you'll find in just this one small area:

Wilford Woodruff, fourth president of the LDS Church, was buried here on Sept. 2, 1899. His five wives are also buried nearby.

Martha Hughes Cannon, the nation's first state legislator, is buried 40 yards south of Rockwell.

John M. Bernhisel, pioneer, statesman and physician, was buried here on Sept. 19, 1887.

Besides such well-known people, there are also some intriguing headstones of lesser-known Utah pioneers found here. For example:

Anthony Woodward Ivins and Elizabeth A. Snow are buried in a grave with a huge old log positioned on top of the marker. They both died in the 1930s.

"A most perfect woman" is also buried in this historic area of the cemetery. Sarepta Blodgett Heywood, who died Dec. 4, 1881, has that heading as her epitaph.

The grave of Sarah F. Tanner, wife of John W. Tanner, is one of those heartbreaker monuments. It reads: "Farewell my dear wife, I bid you adieu, and this our dear babe, I have laid here by you. May heaven's kind angels guard o'er your grave until from its power you are eventually saved." She died on Oct. 14, 1863 -- while bearing a child who died two days later and who is also buried there.

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