Wednesday, October 10, 2012

Historical Hilltop

Old cemeteries have a strong appeal to me. There is something about the ultimate finality of tombstones that I find fascinating. I especially like the older ones with interesting epitaphs where departed ancestors attempt to speak to future generations.

I went to college in Charleston and have spent a lot of time there for various other reasons over the years. I don’t claim to be a native Charlestonian but I feel like I know our capital city pretty well. However, I had never ventured up to the Spring Hill cemetery. It is partially visible from the Interstate because it sits on a hill overlooking the town, but that was all I knew about it. When Anna and I found ourselves with some time to kill on Sunday morning during the UC Homecoming weekend, we thought we’d finally check out that cemetery on the hill.

It turns out that what one can see from the highway is just a small fraction of this huge cemetery (at about 175 acres, it is the largest in West Virginia). The topography of the area is quite hilly, resulting in the narrow roadways (obviously designed for the horse and wagon era of the 1800s) twisting and circling around in asymmetrical patterns—Spring Hill has no easy-to-follow grid designs like in some large cemeteries on flatter ground. The land is so hilly that many of the grave areas are surrounded by concrete or stone walls, probably in an effort to stabilize the hillsides against sliding down (and possibly exposing the caskets). In fact, upon my return home that night, I went to Google Maps to see overhead shots of the property. All those retaining walls around hillside family plots make a network of small squares throughout the cemetery.

The views from various high points in the cemetery are beautiful, whether one is looking towards the golden Capitol Dome, or the downtown area, or even at the quarry on the backside. The mausoleum has a Moorish architectural style that is rare in West Virginia—at first we thought perhaps it was a mosque. There are lots of interesting tombstones and monuments, engraved with a variety of typefaces. Apparently there was a monument maker in Charleston who was gifted at representing trees—some are horizontal logs on top of tombstones, but others are vertical as stumps or even as taller trunks. There are special areas within the cemetery complex, including a Jewish section and a Confederate soldier section. I recognized some of the family names as being influential in the Charleston area.

Because of the challenging terrain, as well as all the retaining walls, it must require a lot of labor to keep the cemetery in shape. It isn’t conducive to a riding lawn mower—it must demand a lot of hand trimming. I was surprised to learn that the cemetery belongs to the City of Charleston, so tax dollars apparently help cover the high cost of maintenance. I think the people of my hometown need to be glad that our city doesn’t have this expense to contend with!

It is a very beautiful and very reverential place. Although in some spots you overlook the tall buildings of the downtown, there are other spots where the woods and the wildlife make you feel like you must be far out in the country. If you’ve ever been curious about the cemetery on the hill that you may have noticed while whizzing by Charleston, I recommend that you take some time to go up and explore this National Historic District. I hope to get back there someday and explore it further. It is an impressive final resting place.

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