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December 15, 2018

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In Searchlight, a cemetery offers a window to the past

A Desert Cemetery: Searchlight, NV

Christopher DeVargas

A view of a desert cemetery, established 1906, at Searchlight Nevada, March 14, 2012.

A Desert Cemetery: Searchlight, NV

A view of a desert cemetery, established 1906, at Searchlight Nevada, March 14, 2012. Launch slideshow »

SEARCHLIGHT — A hard wind whistles through greasewood bushes. Tiny columns of dust eddy off the edge of sharp-edged stones jutting from the pale ground. Jane Overy stops and points at the gravestone of Erline Yeager Smith.

“She’s the one who left us part of her estate,” Overy says.

Yeager Smith died March 19, 2009, according to the marker. A few months ago, Overy got a call from an attorney who told her Yeager Smith wanted to bequeath $50,000 to the Searchlight Museum Guild to renovate the cemetery.

The guild recently convinced the Clark County Commission to let them manage the cemetery, which sits atop a dusty knoll at the eastern edge of this unincorporated town 50 miles south of Boulder City.

To most of Searchlight’s roughly 800 residents, Overy has become synonymous with the cemetery. Like someone seems to do in most tiny towns, Overy has become Searchlight’s unofficial historian and caretaker of its past. She is founder of the Searchlight Museum, a satellite of the Clark County Museum.

Some townspeople think of her as some kind of crypt-keeper. The native Kansan, who was raised on a farm, chuckles at that.

“I just think I was born a historian,” she says. “I just wanted to know why people moved here.”

Overy moved here for her health. Thirty-two years ago, doctors gave her a few years to live, surmising that toxins in the Houston environment were killing her. She and her husband, who worked in the aerospace industry, moved to Searchlight because it was known for clean air and toxin-free surroundings.

The move improved her health.

While employed as an office manager at the Nugget Casino, Overy immersed herself in local history. She pored over old newspapers on microfilm and visited the cemetery to see how many of the people mentioned in the articles were buried there.

She realized that the cemetery, founded in 1906, held former residents whose grave markers had disappeared. Over the years, she found the names of at least 54 people buried without markers.

Her fascination with Searchlight goes beyond its dead. She nudges a small stone with her foot and says it likely contains microscopic bits of gold.

“Just about any of the rocks you see here have gold in them,” Overy says. “I’m talking like point-oh-oh-oh ounces. But it’s there.”

Searchlight sprawls over an extinct volcano. The gold is why settlers ever bothered to move to this dry, dusty place just before the turn of the 20th century.

Like Overy, others move here for their health, which drew doctors to the area. She believes that at one time, Searchlight had more doctors than any town in Nevada.

“The early people here were very well-educated mining engineers, doctors from Yale, Harvard,” she says.

She tells stories of the dead. A.L. Mitchell was with his family on a covered wagon in 1911. He shot at a rabbit for dinner but missed. He hopped into an uncovered wagon to get a better view of the rabbits but accidentally discharged the rifle he had rested at his feet, shooting himself.

Searchlight is now known as the hometown of Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid.

The Reid section of the graveyard has no elaborate markers. Reid’s father, Harry Sr., has a simple brass plaque inset with “1913-1972” and a pick and shovel found on numerous markers, denoting his life’s work as a miner. Next to the headstone is a large rock with the initials “HR” carved into it. The grave of Reid’s mother, Inez, is nearby.

The grave of another Reid relative, Frank M., is next to that of William T. Pridgeon. The two 23-year-olds died Sept., 20, 1935. They were mining, Overy says, and were blown up by “some unsteady dynamite.”

At Mark Reid Ballinger’s grave, a cowboy hat made of iron is pegged into the earth.

Further away, two simple wooden crosses bear the names “Peter” and “Konnie.” Nothing else.

They don’t mark graves, at least not yet. The crosses are claims of a sort, staking out where Peter and Konnie want to one day be buried.

Yeager Smith has a name also tied to Searchlight history. The Yeagers moved here from Texas in 1935, according to “Searchlight: The Camp That Didn’t Fail.” The family opened the Texas cafe and bought the Mine Operators Hospital.

At the center of the 4.45-acre cemetery stands an old flagpole with a T at the top. At its base is a monument explaining the cemetery’s history and noting that some are buried without markers. It lists some of them. Adjacent to the monument is the heart of the cemetery, where several crosses made of rebar (the wooden crosses Overy had erected there years ago were stolen) are stuck into the earth.

With the money from Yeager Smith, the Museum Guild will build a fence around the unmarked graves. It will also build a gazebo and raise a new flagpole with a solar-powered light so a flag can be flown at night.

Walking to the gazebo site, Overy tells a companion not to worry about stepping on an unmarked, soft earth.

“I’m pretty sure there’s no one buried right there,” she says.

The sign at the entrance to the Searchlight Cemetery is made from two light poles hauled there by state Sen. David Parks at Overy’s request. A utility crew dug holes for the poles as a favor to Overy.

“That’s the way we do things out here,” she says, smiling.

Before the County Commission voted to turn over control of the cemetery to the guild, someone joked about rumors of bodies buried there without coffins and how guild members should be careful not to dig up any of them.

Overy doesn’t have much good to say about the county’s management of the cemetery.

“They never did much,” she says.

That doesn’t matter now. The caretaker of Searchlight’s past will be sure the dead get their due.

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