The sleepy desert community of Oro Grande is located on Route 66/National Trails Highway, five miles north-northwest of Victorville, California. Besides being a stop along Route 66, and having one of the finest pizza parlors around, it has the oldest cemetery in San Bernardino County.
The first burial in the almost forgotten cemetery was in 1852, and there are approximately 132 marked graves, as well as an unknown quantity of unmarked, and undiscovered graves. The unmarked graves are believed to be those of Native Americans, the original tenants of the land.
Most of the people interred at the cemetery were miners, cement workers and their families. Oro Grande Cemetery is also known as Oro Grande Historic Memorial Park and as the Manuel P. Rodriguez Memorial Cemetery, in Honor of local citizen Lt. Manuel Rodriguez, killed-in-action in World War II. The Rodriguez family still resides in Oro Grande.
First known as “Upper Crossing,” and then “Halleck,” Oro Grande was later named after the first mine found nearby. The history shows that the town began as a mining camp, but when the railroad came through in 1885, it was named Halleck either after the chemist at the stamp mill or General Henry Halleck, U.S. Army–no one is sure at this point. However, the name could be a misspelling of Hallock, who was one of the investors in the original Oro Grand Mining District. No photos are known to exist of either the chemist, or the investor.
The Halleck post office was established in January of 1881. In 1886, there was a movement afoot to rename the town Marble City for the many marble quarries in the area, but that fell through. During the early 1900s, a cement factory was built, which is still in operation today. Even after the small town became known as Oro Grande, the post office remained known as Halleck through the early part of the 20th Century.
The Oro Grande Mining District was at, or near, Oro Grande. Gold mines were active during the 1880s, in the early 1900s and again in the 1930s. It is also known as the Silver Mountain Mining District. The name Oro Grande translates to “big gold” in Spanish. At the time, and even now, some of the digs in the district included the Apex, Branch, Carbonate, Dents Grandview Lode, Gold Bullion, Gold King, Oro Grande I and II, Sidewinder, and Western States mines.
Oro Grande wasn’t just all about mines and cement though. Even from the beginning, the area grew into a rural agricultural-industrial community. Ranching was done along the Mojave River side of town, where there were “more than a thousand acres of alfalfa and other crops under irrigation” on various small farms. Cattle ranches and dairies followed and, until a few years ago, the area was a major ranch area for race horses during the off season at Hollywood Park and other tracks.
Oro Grande didn’t come easily into the 20th Century. It wasn’t until 1917 that the town had a permanent trail depot. Before that time, all railroad business was conducted out of a boxcar parked on a siding. One night, during a Christmas party at the town hall, the boxcar mysteriously went up in flames.
Witnesses report that a bucket brigade was soon formed, with the goal of putting out the fire. A local dignitary was seen to run up to the budding fire fighters and say, “Folks, look at you! You’re getting your good clothes ruined! And besides that, we need a new depot!” Naturally, this compelled Santa Fe to build a real wood, in-the-ground depot. Sadly, it was demolished in 1969, and there has been no regularly scheduled passenger train service since that time.
Education was not forgotten in the desert village in the early years. After all, there were now numerous families with many children. In 1890, the growing population merited a second elementary-secondary school. It is still being used to this day, only in the guise of a local church. Except for minor upkeep, the building is nearly original.
Finally, On 25 May 1927, the post office was officially renamed Oro Grande, in keeping with the wishes of the rest of the town. Halleck disappeared after that time. There are still a few families living in town, with some having been here for many generations. Often, the cemetery was the last stop for their relatives, and it is still maintained. The last burial here took place in 1963.
If you want to get into Oro Grande Cemetery, you’re going to meet Joe Manners, the Honorary Mayor of Oro Grande. Joe lives just a couple of houses away from the locked cemetery. If you stand at the gate and face Route 66, look for the second house on the left. That’s Joe’s house. It’s fenced and he has a guard dog, but if you call hello from the street, chances are Joe will come out to greet you.
Besides being the unofficial mayor, Joe is the caretaker and tour guide. You can also call Joe at 760-241-6174. But don’t waste your time emailing him; like most folks in Oro Grande, the Mayor has no internet.
Mayor Joe told us that the big cement water tank was the source for the town’s water when he was growing up here in the 1940s and 1950s. He recalled, “We used to bring the cars up from the dealer down on the highway, and wash them with the overflow. Kids would come up and play in the water.”
A lifelong resident of Oro Grande, Mayor Joe is a warm and gregarious man with a wry sense of humor and the physical fitness that belies his mature age. He graciously unlocked the gate for us, and accompanied us throughout the cemetery, regaling us with interesting stories about the people buried there, and the history of the area. Joe personally knew many of the people before they were interred and effortlessly recounted details about their lives.
Mayor Joe explained the gate and fence was built in recent years from a grant the cemetery received. The project cost $8,000 dollars. Ground penetrating radar was used by the fence company on the perimeter to make sure there were no unmarked graves in its path. Our tour continued. We asked Mayor Joe a lot of questions, and he never hesitated answering them. The passion and respect Mayor Joe has for the cemetery and its tiny ghost town is almost palpable.
Mayor Joe told us San Bernardino County gives the whole town of Oro Grande only $4,000 dollars a year to maintain the entire town. Granted, Oro Grande is not a major metropolis, but still that money gets stretched mighty thin very quickly. To make ends meet, Joe offers tours to anyone interested and gratefully accepts donations, which go towards the upkeep of the historic cemetery.
Mayor Joe keeps the gates locked and monitors the cemetery to deter looters and vandals. He revealed that some statues and crosses have been vandalized in years past. Joe declared it wouldn’t happen on his watch. In addition, Joe meticulously maintains the grounds by hand, pulling weeds, picking up trash and other chores.
Mayor Joe said he also offers night tours. He smiled and said, “Kids really go out for that kind of stuff.” He added that most of the young people scare themselves silly before they even walk through the gates of the cemetery. Joe recalled one such instance when he was planning to lead a small group of youths thru the cemetery but realized his flashlight batteries were getting weak.
He pocketed a couple of extra batteries and headed out. As they entered the cemetery, his young guests asked if the ghost stories were true. “Well, maybe we’ll find out tonight,” Joe remarked then added, “I’ve heard that spirits soak up energy from things. That’s how they get around.”
At that precise moment, Joe’s flash light lost power, plunging the frightened youths into pitch darkness. After the shrill screaming stopped, Joe replaced his batteries and the tour continued among nervous giggles from the young thrill seekers.
“We get a lot of interest from bonafide paranormal investigators too,” Joe explained. Although the cemetery hasn’t been featured on a ghost hunters-type television show yet, Joe figured it was just a matter of time.
He added how paranormal investigators who have been there so far bring all kinds of recording equipment and specialized technical gear. After spending the night in the cemetery, they tend to conclude that multiple spirits inhabit Oro Grande Cemetery.
Walking about the cemetery, we’d have to agree. It has a certain heaviness in the air. Something that makes the hairs stand up on the back of your neck. When we first entered the front gate, it was sunny and warm. We didn’t even need light jackets. But as the tour continued, the February skies grew overcast.
By the time we reached the far side of the cemetery, the wind had kicked up. We got a dose of the creepy crawlies while Mayor Joe regaled us with ghost stories. Joe merely shrugged and remarked the weather changes frequently in Oro Grande and if you don’t like it, wait a minute and it will surely change.
Mayor Joe told us that one of the oddest things that occurred at the cemetery was the day PG & E tried to sneak into the cemetery without Joe’s permission and dig a trench line from one side to the other at the back of the property to lay a new pipeline. (Yes, the same infamous PG & E of infamous Hinkley, but that’s a story for another day).
As luck would have it, Joe was home and saw the trucks go past. He walked over to the cemetery and saw them park on the other side of the fence before he approached to inquire about their intent. They explained they could jump the fence to lay lines. Joe patiently informed them there were multiple unmarked graves in the area. Joe made a few quick phone calls and the men were radioed to work on the outside of the fence. “That was a close one,” Joe remarked.
Native Americans occupied the Oro Grande area many centuries before settlers arrived. Joe pointed to a large man-made mountain behind the cemetery, and informed us that it is actually an ancient Indian burial ground discovered by the cement plant in its very early days. It was then covered under tons of rocks and dirt.
The Mayor showed us where teenagers Maddy and Tony were buried within their fenced final resting place. He told us both had been tragically struck and killed by a train and how their families decided to bury them together side by side.
Joe recalled one day some visitors were observing the graves when a nearby train whistle blew. Both were rattled to the core when they heard young panicked voices suddenly cry out, “Quick! The train’s coming! Run!” There was no one else around, except sad memories on the wind.
Mayor Joe explained how it is his understanding that graves face east towards the rising sun. He pointed out how at least two graves face another direction. He suspected they were both “bad men” so the honor of a traditional burial was denied them.
Many unmarked graves are located at the back of Oro Grande Cemetery. Because ground penetrating radar is expensive, this area continues to hold secret its undiscovered graves. Txi Riverside Cement Oro Grande Plant looms in the background. Notice the airplanes on the distant hillside at Southern California Logistics Airport, former George AFB.
Mayor Joe explained the tallest cross in the cemetery, towards the back, is called Boot Hill. Since there were no boots at its commemoration, a friend of Joe’s offered his unneeded ski boots at the base of the cross to mark its dedication. They’ve remained ever since.
We highly recommend you look up Joe and partake in his lively and historic tour of Oro Grande Cemetery. Whether you discover a spiritual presence there or not, you will still have a good time and I bet you will even learn a thing or two. It’s really the best bargain in town. The cemetery depends on donations, since the county does little to help.
Ask Mayor Joe to point you in the direction of the nearby one room schoolhouse with its whimsical Victorian bell tower, then towards “downtown” Oro Grande where Cross Eyed Pizza and all the funky antique stores stretching from one end of town to the other are located. This desert town curls up at 4 p.m., so give yourself plenty of time to enjoy Oro Grande, and all it has to offer.