Las Vegas Sun

November 19, 2018

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Lots of history buried in century-old cemetery near downtown Las Vegas


Steve Marcus

A tombstone marks the graves of Civil War veterans at Woodlawn Cemetery Thursday, Aug. 8, 2013. Opened in 1914 on 10 acres of donated land, Woodlawn, the oldest cemetery in Las Vegas, is coming up on its 100th anniversary.

Woodlawn Cemetery in Las Vegas

A view of Woodlawn Cemetery Thursday, Aug. 8, 2013. Opened in 1914 on 10 acres of donated land, Woodlawn, the oldest cemetery in Las Vegas, is coming up on its 100th anniversary. Launch slideshow »

Not far from downtown Las Vegas, a simple stone marker between two old shade trees marks the final resting place of Jack “Diamondfield” Davis.

Well, maybe not so restful. The busy traffic along Owens Avenue and Las Vegas Boulevard that border Woodlawn Cemetery might cause Davis’ spirit some anxiety.

A gun-slinging outlaw and cattleman, Davis narrowly escaped the hangman’s noose at age 33 after being convicted of killing two Idaho sheepherders in 1896. Pardoned by Idaho’s governor in 1902, Davis came to Nevada, where he made a fortune in the risky and dangerous profession of gold and silver mining.

After surviving a number of brushes with death, Davis’ luck finally ran out in 1949 where, at 85, he tried to cross a Las Vegas street and was struck and killed by a taxicab.

With Woodlawn Cemetery turning 100 years old in March, surely the spirits of Davis and other Las Vegas pioneers — politicians and gamblers; lawyers and indigents; farmers and Civil War veterans, both Union and Confederate — will rise once more to be recognized.

In that century, Woodlawn has expanded from a 10-acre parcel — a gift from the Union Pacific Railroad to the city specifically for the town’s first municipal cemetery — to a 40-acre spread where the 28,288 people have been laid to rest, either in caskets or urns. The perimeter of the tree-lined grounds is marked by tall stone pillars and black wrought-iron fencing.

The cemetery, which is listed on the National Register of Historic Places, was expected to reach capacity in 2020, but because of the trend toward more cremations, its life expectancy, as it were, has been extended to 2025.

“Woodlawn is important in today’s environment, where the old is done away with like storied casinos that are imploded to make way for bigger places,” said James Mullikin, who manages the cemetery under contract with the city of Las Vegas, which owns the property. “Yet, you can come to Woodlawn and see the preserved final resting places for people who died 100 years ago and the colorful people who built Las Vegas, and in your mind drift back to relive those wonderful days gone by.”

Although the first bodies were not buried at Woodlawn until early 1915, city fathers approved acceptance of the railroad’s gift on March 4, 1914, Woodlawn’s recognized birth date.

The beauty and charm of Woodlawn has been preserved over its many decades, as the cemetery is well-manicured. However, the blistering desert sun and powerful streams from jetting sprinklers have faded the etched words on some headstones.

The design of the headstones offer their reflections of the times — wide, vertical tombstones looking like miniature surfboards dating back the longest; tall and wide granite monuments reflecting better times; and today’s efficient, flat headstones, making it easier to mow the grounds.

The etchings on the headstones say much more, in various degrees of eloquence:

On one: “A damn good man.” On another: “Dad, may God allow me to be half the man you were.”

Among the notable Las Vegans at Woodlawn: Las Vegas Mayors Fred Hesse (1925-31) and William “Bill” Briare (1975-87) and prominent attorney Harley Harmon.

Nick “The Greek” Dandolos ended up at Woodlawn after gambling an estimated $500 million during his lifetime. When Dandolos died penniless on Christmas Day 1966 at age 83, his good friend, then-Las Vegas Sun Publisher Hank Greenspun, paid for Dandolos’s funeral expenses.

Longtime valley farmer Bill Tomiyasu, one of the first Asian-Americans to settle Southern Nevada, is buried at Woodlawn along with several members of his family.

Among the eight known Civil War veterans buried at Woodlawn are Union veteran William Boone Keith and Confederate Joseph Moore Graham, who were interred in side-by-side plots.

Keith, an infantry private originally from Iowa, and Graham, a cavalry private originally from Virginia, met in Las Vegas after the war and became good friends. When Graham died in 1917 at age 78, Keith buried Graham and the cremains of Graham’s wife in plot 410 — one of two gravesites Keith had purchased.

Keith died on Dec. 20, 1920, at age 80 and was buried in plot 411.

Ed Koch is a retired Las Vegas Sun reporter.

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