Editors note: For a fascinating story of one of a recently returned gravestone from Rose Hill Cemetery, click here.

Ghosts of Mt. Diablo

By William Mero

Once the hustle and bustle of coal miners, narrow gauge railroads, teamsters and adventurous entrepreneurs echoed off steep canyon walls. Now only the wind makes lonely sounds across the deserted foothills of the Black Diamond Mines Regional Preserve. During the 1860's to the early 1900's, the northern flank of Mt. Diablo contained the largest coal mining operation in California. Five lively towns, Nortonville, Somersville, Stewartville, West Hartley and Judsonville supported numerous business men, prostitutes, miners and their families.

Coal mine disasters, deaths from childbirth, diphtheria, typhoid, small pox and scarlet fever killed many men, women and children who had come to the Mt. Diablo mines. The dead needed a place of burial. Protestants were buried in the Rose Hill Cemetery. The cemetery lies between the coal mining settlements of Nortonville and Somersville. It sits high above the valley floor marked by a tiny grove of dark, lonely trees standing stark against bare hillsides. Grief stricken mothers and wives once sobbed as their men and children were laid to rest among these lonely but peaceful hills. In those days rose bushes, irises and ivy grew on the gravesites making the cemetery a peaceful oasis among the arid foothills and dirty, black tailing of the coal mines. The only things that remain today are Italian cypresses, pepper trees and bird of paradise bushes. All else is gone except for the remains of the vandalized gravesites.

A few markers of those buried there are still readable. Those that do remain are a sad but fascinating window into the struggles and heartaches of the early Contra Costa settlers. In the upper part of the cemetery, there is the tiny grave of Robert Anderson, killed at the age of five when he grabbed the tail of a horse in his father's Somerville blacksmith shop.

Barely recognizable, the David Griffith gravesite marks the resting spot of a miner dead from a mine explosion in 1876. Other miners, names lost to the passage of time and vandals, are buried nearby. Now nearly gone, there once was a large brick enclosure holding the remains of miners killed in a Nortonville mine accident. A white, bronze monument erected to their memory vanished long ago.

One of the most interesting inhabitants of the Rose Hill Cemetery has to be Sarah Norton, widow of Noah Norton, the founder of Nortonville. Sarah was reportedly not a very religious person. In fact her reputation was one of a non-believer. An independent soul, Sarah Norton was also known for her prickly personality. What made Sarah important and treasured by the community was her skill as a midwife. She was in high demand and was accustomed to being called out in all kinds of weather and at any hour of the night or day.

Sarah was going to visit a sick woman when her horse bolted and ran. Sarah was thrown from her buggy and killed on October 5, 1879. Newspaper reports of the funeral make for interesting reading. As her body was being brought into the church, a huge, violent storm crashed over the hills causing the horses to stampede, disrupting the funeral and driving the people back to their homes. The next day her friends tried to resume the funeral at the church. Once more a giant storm broke before they were through again causing her mourners to flee from the sacred ground. It was then decided to put Sarah Norton in the Rose Hill Cemetery without a religious service. This time the atmosphere remained calm and Sarah was successfully planted to the relief of the entire community.

Since then her apparition has reportedly lingered in the area. Some whisper that perhaps it is because she lacked a proper Christian burial. The site of her hasty entombment has numerous tales of hauntings. Some claim they have seen Sarah Norton as a "white witch," "glowing lady" or "gliding woman" who roams the night in the hills surrounding the Rose Hill Cemetery. Other sightings of "restless souls" near the Rose Hill Cemetery are reported to include a phantom, a horse-drawn hearse, 13 children dressed in black, and a glowing cross hovering about two feet off the ground (ball lightning?). Boo!!!

Suggested Reading:

1. Anon., no date, "Rose Hill Cemetery" (pamphlet), East Bay Regional Park District, Black Diamond Mines Regional Preserve.

2. Bohakel, Charles A., no date, Historic Tales of East Contra Costa County, Vol. 1, Arata Printing.

3. Waters, John & R. Sullivan, March 1980, Mount Diablo Coalfield, Contra Costa County, in California Geology, California Division of Mines and Geology, p. 51-59.

Go Back