Daggett Pioneer Cemetery in the ghost town of Daggett, California, was the first “real” pioneer cemetery I had ever visited. John was eager to share the whole Mojave Desert with me all at once and to tell you the truth, I was a bit overwhelmed. Being a former East Coast denizen before my sojourn to the desert, I was well familiar with historical cemeteries from that region but had never actually gone to a western pioneer cemetery. It was everything and more I hoped the experience would be.
Sandwiched between Old Route 66 and Interstate 40, it goes virtually unnoticed by passersby. There is a distinct sense of peace among the weathered tombstones and grave markers found here. Even 20 years after my initial visit, there is still an almost palpable feeling of tranquility and it remains one of our favorite cemeteries.
Despite all the numerous times we have visited during different times of the year, we’ve always had the place completely to ourselves, except once. The cemetery always reminds me of the rugged people who settled and whose hands worked the unforgiving desert, etching out a life under the relentless sun and wind.
Trains run about every ten minutes in these parts, and the sound of their long whistle as they approach the town of Daggett never fails to thrill. And yes, John was right. I fell as hard for the desert as I fell for him. Both have rendered an enduring commitment. Gimme wide open spaces, intense heat, dirt roads, abandoned cabins, and of course, pioneer cemeteries, and I’m a happy girl indeed. But I digress.
Whenever we’re at an early cemetery, I always wonder about the stories of people’s lives before they came to their final resting place. Gravestones give only little clues, and unmarked ones keep their secrets close. Newspaper obituaries, however, lay it out succinctly in print. I find them all interesting, but they often bring up questions unanswered because you may wish you had the opportunity to meet them in their lifetime.
Everything from what did they look like, to how they fell in love, to heartbreaks, struggles and redemption. Hopefully, those secrets endure in the memories of their loved ones. People’s lifetimes matter, as they continue to leave their indelible mark upon history, as we continue to learn.
You will notice there’s wooden bed-like frames around some of the graves, evocative of eternal rest. Some of the family plots are sectioned by rails, chains, or outlined with carefully placed stones. Just as in life, there’s no two graves alike. There’s something about being around the dearly departed that makes you feel alive! We never get tired of visiting here and we know you will enjoy it, as well.
Daggett had its first burial in 1888 and is still in use today. The land was originally owned by the Southern Pacific Railroad. More than 300 people are interred in marked and unmarked graves. The cemetery hosts many different types of grave sites. Some have nameless wooden markers and some display traditional crucifix’s, while just a few have modern headstones.
In 1953 botanist Mary Beale’s passion was made into a trail when the Mary Beale Nature Trail at Mitchell Caverns was dedicated.
When twenty-two-year-old Dix Van Dyke arrived in Daggett, California, in 1901, the town was a wild and raucous frontier settlement, with barrooms and brothels, silver mines and land swindles, cattle drives, and shootouts at the Bucket of Blood saloon. Dix, a ranch-boy with no formal education but whose father and uncle were writers, became the town’s unofficial historian.
As previously mentioned, we’ve always been alone at Daggett Pioneer Cemetery except once. We had the honor of attending the funeral of Daggett citizen Brian Vintus at the Daggett Pioneer Cemetery last summer. Most of the townspeople attended. We were affiliated with Brian through the Mojave River Valley Museum in Barstow.
Just a few weeks before, we were proud to have been among a very small group of people from the museum allowed a tour at Alf’s Pioneer Museum and Blacksmith Shop. It is today as it was in 1890, and is a virtual full sized time capsule of the Old West as it actually existed. Until recently, the old shop and surrounding property was locked up, as it has been for many decades. It has been in the same family for more than a hundred years and they are naturally quite proud of their legacy. Brian played a pivotal role.
In his lifetime, Brian was very involved with the cemetery’s preservation and the preparation of Alf’s Blacksmith Shop Museum, built in 1894 to replace an earlier rendition that was destroyed by fire. It is a very special peek into Daggett’s amazing past. Brian’s funeral service was very profound and the celebration of life held afterwards at the Daggett Community Center was deeply touching. It seemed like everyone in the whole community attended. Neighbors shared delicious food and memories of a life well lived. I was blessed to help in the kitchen and serving table. Strangers instantly became friends. It was a wonderful tribute to a man’s legacy who was loved by all, but especially by his wife and children. Rest in peace, Brian. We know you are still watching over Daggett.
Brian’s close friend, Daryl Schendel, and Brian’s family continues to operate Alf’s Pioneer Museum and Blacksmith Shop and tours, located on First Street, Daggett. Call ahead for hours, 760-254-2201.The Historical Society at the Daggett Museum preserves Daggett’s interesting past. The Daggett Museum has reopened on weekends. Call ahead for hours, 33703 Second Street, Daggett, 760-254-2629.
As with all cemeteries, please show respect for those who are buried here. Do not walk or drive on graves. Park only on the dirt road. Please do not remove anything, or mess with anything that’s not yours. Take plenty of photos but leave only memories.
To reach the cemetery, take Interstate 40 to the town of Daggett, which lies about 5 miles east of Barstow. Head east on the National Trails Highway (Old Route 66). The cemetery lies on the north side of the road, just on the edge of town limits. Look for a small sign. Take the dirt road to the gate.
Lat: 34° 51′ 31″N, Lon: 116° 52′ 45″W
For more fascinating history about Daggett, California, please read our next article HERE.