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Historic California State Park pioneer cemetery vandalized

This is reprinted from the Weekly Digest of California State Parks. It’s a reminder of the problem of cemetery vandalism that occurs across the county, often far more destructive than this case. Many RVers who enjoy visiting cemeteries have come across similar scenes, and we suspect most ask themselves “Why?”

Vandalized headstones found in late November 2020 at Marshall Gold Discovery State Historic Park. Photo from Matt Walker, Gold Fields District.

In late November 2020, California State Park’s Gold Fields District staff made a startling and disappointing discovery at Coloma’s Pioneer Cemetery in Marshall Gold Discovery State Historic Park (SHP): The cemetery was struck by vandals and two historic headstones had been toppled. Unfortunately, there were no witnesses to the vandalism, but, fortunately, neither headstone was damaged.

Vandalism is a constant problem that plagues historic cemeteries. The two fallen headstones in Coloma’s Pioneer Cemetery belong to Henry Mahler Sr. and his daughter, Matilda. The Mahlers were a prominent family in Coloma and El Dorado County for more than half a century, from the early days of the California Gold Rush to the turn of the 20th century, culminating with the election of Henry Mahler Jr. to the State Senate in the 1880s. These toppled headstones mark two of approximately 500 burials in Coloma’s Pioneer Cemetery that memorialize the lives of those who traveled here beginning in 1848 from all over the country and the world in search of gold and a better life.

Gold Fields District, with the support of the State Parks cultural resources program, took drastic measures in the early 2000s to restore the cemetery and prepare for future vandalism. During the course of the project, damaged grave plots were rehabilitated and many broken headstones were restored and placed within a sandy soil matrix. When kicked or pushed, these stones often crack or separate from their base; however, the addition of the sandy mixture provides some flexibility, enabling them to fall without breaking. This sandy base likely saved these most recently vandalized headstones, allowing the two marble headstones to tip on their concrete bases without breaking.

The two vandalized headstones have now been uprighted and reset. Over the past few weeks, district cultural staff worked with the maintenance team at Marshall Gold Discovery SHP to devise a plan to reset the headstones that followed guidelines prepared by the National Trust for Historic Preservation.

With the help of Marshall Gold Discovery SHP maintenance staff, the team made slow but steady progress to surgically hoist and reset the fragile headstones.

This was truly a group effort that provided valuable experience to all staff involved. It is not a matter of if this type of vandalism occurs again, it is a matter of when, and Gold Fields staff gained valuable experience to provide protective and preservation measures when it does.

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