Damaged by fire, Grand Lake Cemetery continues to tell county’s story
Some graves in the Grand Lake Cemetery date back to the 1800s, just a few years after Grand became a county and Colorado became a state. The tombstones, some now blackened by ash, tell the county’s story.
In Grand, life is bound to the beautiful and sometimes brutal environment around us. That bond is entombed at the Grand Lake Cemetery, which sits just inside Rocky Mountain National Park.
The active cemetery — one of a handful in the country situated on National Park Service land — holds hundreds of graves encased by evergreen trees. While the integration of the forest and the graveyard offers those laid to rest a humbling return to nature, it also meant part of the cemetery sustained damage in the East Troublesome Fire.
Roughly 30% of the graveyard has been burned to some extent. Because it is on federal land but maintained by Grand Lake, the cemetery is subject to strict rules and requires approval for any alterations or additions, including burials, monument placement, excavations and planting.
Mandy Hanifen, chair of the Grand Lake Cemetery Board, has been hard at work to get repairs underway.
The Superintendent Compendium has ordered the cemetery closed through the winter due to safety hazards — mainly falling trees — but Hanifen was able to tour the graveyard with various park officials to get an overview of the needed repairs.
“We truly are working on it, but we’re hung up because certain authorities need to see the damage on the ground before said work can be done,” Hanifen said.
Only authorized contractors conducting the mitigation work will be permitted into the area, and the cemetery can’t accept volunteer help at this time.
The cleanup process will be complex because of the unique situation, but Hanifen said she continues to be grateful for the park’s assistance through this process. She explained how special the cemetery is to the Grand Lake community and beyond.
Grand County pioneers, veterans dating back to at least World War I, homesteading families like the Harbisons and Holzwarths, and many others who played a role in the area’s past are buried at this cemetery.
“We have folks that died or were killed throughout all this time that are up there,” Hanifen said. “It’s definitely a cross section of the timeline of history in our valley.”
According to information compiled by the Grand Lake Area Historical Society, the first grave in the cemetery was that of either Alfonzo R. Warner or George W. Hertel, who were both buried in 1889.
Those resting places do not hold the oldest dates at the cemetery, though.
Before Lake Granby and Shadow Mountain Lake were built in the 1940s, there was a cemetery on the Lehman Ranch. It was situated on land that’s now under the Granby reservoir along with two other cemeteries where Shadow Mountain Lake is now. The graves from those sites were moved to the Grand Lake Cemetery.
Because of that, the markers with the oldest dates belong to 4-year-old siblings Johnnie and Rachael Schaffer, who were buried in 1879. They died the same year as their grandmother, Minerva Simmonds.
Near those graves, one tombstone captures an infamous moment in Grand County history. It reads, “Commissioner John G. Mills, Shooting of July 4, 1883.”
Following a contentious move of the county seat in 1881 from Hot Sulphur Springs to Grand Lake, Commissioner Mills, the sheriff, undersheriff and the undersheriff’s brother ambushed the other two county commissioners. Those two county commissioners were attacked for wanting to bring the county seat back to Hot Sulphur.
All three commissioners died in the struggle. The seat was moved back to Hot Sulphur Springs several years later.
Many of the older graves describe the Grand Lake residents’ struggles with the harsh mountain living all those years ago. The grave of Andy Myers, who died in the summer of 1883, said he was “killed by lightening as he dug (a) well east of (the) courthouse.” Doc Duty was “killed in (a) snow slide at Toponas mine” in February 1883.
Another grave marker belongs to John “Jack” Baker who lived from 1801-1892. Baker Mountain, sitting visible to the north of the cemetery, was named for him.
A tombstone with the name Gregg holds one of the most tragic stories from Grand Lake. In 1905, Mary Gregg killed herself and her four children. The five are buried together in one grave at the cemetery.
Families that have long been a part of Grand Lake and Grand County have plots scattered across the cemetery showing generations of history. Plaques honor those now known as Grand County pioneers.
Those denoting more recent deaths have a subtler tale written: Even through all the struggles, people have remained in Grand Lake. They welcomed summer tourists to one of the most beautiful places on Earth and stuck it out through the winters.
The Grand Lake Cemetery is now scarred with the town’s most recent tragedy, but it still stands. It adds another chapter to the story.
Editor’s note: This story has been updated to include additional information on the Grand Lake Cemetery closure. All photos were taken prior to the cemetery closing. Any future requests for help will be posted on the Town of Grand Lake’s website under the cemetery section when it can occur.
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When the East Troublesome Fire blew up on Grand County, it blew up on all of us.