The recent fight over Hillside Cemetery is the latest twist in a long story
STORY AND PHOTOS by Jeri Chadwell-Singley firstname.lastname@example.org
George Williams Cassidy was born in Kentucky in 1836. At 21 years old, he moved to California to mine for gold, before embarking on a journalism career that brought him to Nevada. He later served in the state legislature and the U.S. House of Representatives and, in 1878, as acting governor of Nevada. According to the Biographical Directory of the United States Congress, he was a delegate to the 1892 Democratic National Convention in Chicago. The directory entry states that Cassidy died in Reno, although this seems unlikely since his passing came only one day after the convention concluded on June 23.
Where Cassidy was when he died is a bit of a mystery, but his final resting place is not. He’s buried near the northeast corner of Hillside Cemetery. And his plot was the first that Fran Tryon cleaned when she started her volunteer effort to restore this privately owned burial ground three years ago.
On Aug. 26, a sign was posted on a fence just a few yards from Cassidy’s grave. It was a notice of cemetery owner Drew Lawton’s intentions to disinter Cassidy and hundreds of other people buried at Hillside.
At the bottom of the notice were a toll free number and the link to a website for people seeking more information regarding what Lawton had termed the restoration of the cemetery—a project with far different goals than Tryon’s, who had, on the day the notice went up, received word that her group of volunteers—the Hillside Cemetery Preservation Foundation—had been granted 501(c)(3) nonprofit status.
Tryon and her fellow volunteers spoke with the media and reached out for support through social media, but it seemed their preservation efforts might be done for. The City of Reno issued a statement saying it had no authority over the disinterment, and the Washoe County Health District—which only a few weeks earlier had renewed the permit for disinterment—communicated in a statement of its own that it had no role in overseeing the process other than to ensure public safety.
Then, three weeks after the notice went up, Lawton’s company, Sierra Memorial Gardens, issued a statement saying that the plans had been suspended. Cassidy and the others were to remain undisturbed—at least for the time being.
As the dust settled, questions remained. What gave Lawton the authority to disinter so many people (1,434 by most estimates)? Didn’t the deeds to the plots—which specified that they were assigned to their buyers and those buyers’ heirs “forever”—protect them from being dug up and moved?
It turns out the answers to these questions are hard to find, in part because this was not the first time someone had planned to disinter the people buried in Hillside Cemetery. It wasn’t even the second or third or fourth time.
Lawton’s plan for disinterment was at least the fifth such attempt. And before questions about its legality can be answered, it’s necessary to understand the history of the cemetery and the other four attempts to disinter the people buried there.This side of the grave
In 1875, the State of Nevada granted a patent for 40 acres of land to Wiltshire Sanders (whose name is also spelled as Willshird Saunders in some records). Over the years, Sanders sold more than 80 percent of his land. Some of it became city streets and private property. Other acres became the Knights of Pythias and Grand Army of the Republic (GAR) cemeteries.
But Sanders kept a small tract of land between the Knights of Pythias and GAR cemeteries, as well the nearly six acres from which he sold the burial plots that became Hillside Cemetery. In 1905, he deeded the land to his wife, Margaret. It was the first time the property changed hands.
The details of Margaret’s ownership of Hillside Cemetery and how it was eventually abandoned are vague, but a collection of documents kept by the Special Collections Department at the University of Nevada, Reno holds some clues. The documents are photocopies of original materials collected by Clyde Biglieri during the late 1960s and early ’70s, when—as a member of the Reno City Council—he devised the first known plan to disinter people from Hillside Cemetery.
The earliest documents include letters sent between city officials discussing “the Hillside Cemetery problem” and possible solutions. From these, it’s clear that by the mid ’60s, the cemetery had been abandoned for several decades and had fallen into disrepair. Possible solutions discussed in the letters included condemning the property and turning it into a park, or abating it as a nuisance in the hopes that this would lead to people cleaning up their family plots.
In 1968, the city decided to move forward by ordering a title report in an attempt to figure out who might have inherited interest in Hillside Cemetery. It was eventually discovered that Margaret Sanders had kept the title to the land but had moved to Oakland with her and Wiltshire’s two sons—Robert and John—abandoning the cemetery sometime around 1930.
Attempts were made to track the family down, but an interoffice memo from Nov. 6, 1972 reveals that these had been unsuccessful: “We have attempted to locate R. W. Saunders who wrote a letter … from Oakland, California, in February of 1939. We have contacted the Oakland City Hall, Police Department, [and] Chamber of Commerce with regards to this letter and have been unable to turn up any particular information. … It may be necessary if we get any leads to send an investigator to Oakland to try and run down any heirs of Saunders Family.”
In December of that year, Biglieri introduced a resolution, which the city council passed, stating “the intent of the City of Reno to restore Hillside Cemetary [sic].” The plan was to acquire quitclaim deeds from the heirs to all of the individual plots before disinterring the people buried there and moving them and the remaining original headstones to the unused northern tract between the Knights of Pythias and GAR cemeteries. From there, the city would sell Hillside Cemetery and use that money to “endow the new cemetary [sic] for care” or place it “under the City Park Department for continuing maintenance.”
When the 57th session of the Nevada Legislature convened a few months later, a bill was introduced to clear the way for the city to proceed. Assembly Bill 942 was signed into law by Governor Mike O’Callaghan on April 24, 1973, and the city began holding meetings to gain the support—and deeds—from the descendants and heirs of the people buried in Hillside. On June 26, 1973 the city took control of the Sanders family’s portion of the cemetery after paying the delinquent taxes owed on it to the county.
This marked the second time the cemetery changed hands, but the city’s control of the land was short-lived. Before any of the deeds to private plots could be obtained, Margaret Sanders’ heirs turned up to reclaim their property.
This portion of the Hillside story can be found in the pages of a 1988 United States Tax Court decision in a case that was brought against the IRS by William and Barbara Thornton. The court’s decision—available through www.leagle.com—provides insight into the history of the cemetery, including the third and fourth times it changed hands. According the text, about the same time the city began moving forward with its plans, William Thornton—a local lawyer and one of the owners of Club Cal Neva—“became interested in the Hillside Cemetery as a possible development site for apartments, fraternity houses, or dormitories and launched a search for Margaret Sanders and her sons.”
By June of 1973, Thornton had discovered that Margaret had died, as had her two sons. He was, however, able to track down the two men’s wives—each of whom had one child. Thornton contacted the families and arranged for the grandchildren of Wiltshire Sanders to claim their mothers’ interest in the cemetery. From there, he struck up an arrangement with the heirs. Thornton agreed to advance the money necessary to pay the delinquent taxes and do the legal work necessary to secure the heirs’ interest in the cemetery free of charge. Once the property was back in the heirs’ hands, he planned to help them proceed with the disinterring of bodies and then sell the land—recouping his costs out of the profits before taking a 50 percent share of the remaining money made.
Thornton succeeded in gaining control of the cemetery for himself and the Sanders heirs, and it changed hands for the third time when the city was forced to turn it over in early 1974. However, Thornton’s plan to develop and sell the land was unsuccessful. The bill that the Nevada Legislature had passed the previous year stipulated that only the City of Reno could order the disinterment of bodies buried at Hillside Cemetery, and it’s unsurprising that city officials were disinclined to do so after having their own plans for the property thwarted.
In 1975, Thornton lobbied the legislature to change the law, but the proposed bill died in committee. In 1977, he bought out the heirs’ respective interests in the property for a sum of $7,500 each. And in 1978, the cemetery changed hands for a fourth time when Thornton donated it to UNR by a quitclaim deed.
But Thornton’s involvement with Hillside wasn’t quite finished. With the help of Clinton Wooster—a former state legislator, state legislative counsel, lobbyist and Reno city attorney—whom he’d hired in 1978, Thornton helped the university lobby for yet another change to Nevada Law, this time to allow the “owner of a cemetery to disinter old gravesites and reinter the remains in a separate part of the same cemetery.” Senate Bill 527 passed in 1979, repealing “the special legislation passed on behalf of the City of Reno in 1973” but still requiring that “the city approve an ordinance prescribing regulations governing” any future plans. (The court case that tells this chapter in the cemetery’s history arose when the commissioner of the IRS challenged the half million dollar tax write-off Thornton claimed after donating the land.)
UNR owned Hillside Cemetery until 1996. At one time, there was talk of turning it into married student housing, but nothing came of this—likely in part because of the negative press the university had received from its removal of bodies from the site. Hillside Cemetery changed hands for the fifth and final time on April 16, 1996, when UNR sold it to Drew Lawton’s father, John Lawton, then owner of Sierra Memorial Gardens, for a sum of $10. Five years later, another bill was introduced in the state legislature, seeking yet another change to laws governing disinterment of people buried at Hillside. In 2001, Assembly Bill 402 was passed. It removed the provision of state law requiring a city ordinance be passed for bodies to be removed from a cemetery and seemingly cleared the way for future plans at Hillside Cemetery.
In 2003, John Lawton announced that he was preparing to proceed with disinterment but was met with an outcry from the public and descendants of the people buried at the cemetery, and nothing came of these plans. In the decade that followed, things remained quiet.Part and parcel
In 2014, Sierra Memorial Gardens was issued a permit to disinter bodies from Hillside Cemetery. And in 2015, lobbyist Garrett Gordon attempted to have an unrelated amendment added to a bill concerning permits for cremation facilities. The amendment, which failed to garner support from legislators, would have given a cemetery owner the right to “execute any city or county land use application for all lands included within the cemetery, including without limitation any burial plots not owned by the cemetery authority.”
It would have revoked the rights of plot owners and their heirs and descendants, which have been an essential barrier to previous plans to dig up the people buried in Hillside—and the final obstacle standing in the way of Sierra Memorial Gardens. But this legal obstacle has always been there. Every time ownership of Hillside Cemetery has changed hands, the deed to the property has contained nearly identical language making it clear that individual plots are not included. Take, for example, the language from the 1996 deed between the UNR Board of Regents and Sierra Memorial Gardens, which specifies that the sale excludes “any and all grave lots or parts thereof sold by said Wilshire Saunders to different individuals for burial purposes prior to the date hereof.”
A closer look at the disinterment permit from the Washoe County Health District reveals that it too excludes the individual plots belonging to the heirs and descendants of those buried in Hillside. It is limited to the parcels owned by Sierra Memorial Gardens, and an interactive map on the county’s website shows this clearly. Each separate plot is highlighted in yellow, and each can be selected individually to reveal the name of the person to whom it is assigned. One plot, near the northeast corner, bears the name of George Williams Cassidy.
Now the Reno City Council has once again adopted a resolution related to Hillside Cemetery. On Sept. 28, the council voted unanimously “in support of the City of Reno engaging as an active stakeholder in proposed development at the Hillside Cemetery.” While there are no definite plans in place yet, the move does seem to have brought the state of affairs there full circle—back to the work Clyde Biglieri started more than four decades ago. And if conservation is what the city council has in mind, they’ll find that Tryon and the volunteers of the Hillside Cemetery Preservation Foundation have laid a solid groundwork for it. A visit to the cemetery, where three years of work have gone a long way toward reclaiming this historical landmark, shows that quite clearly.