SPRING HILL CEMETERY
1555 Farnsworth Drive (Superintendent’s House)
Charleston, WV 25301
Bella Morte Rating: 2 Tombstones
Spring Hill Cemetery was established in 1869 after the city’s municipal cemetery, located closer to the town of Charleston, was filled to capacity.
The original 20 acres was purchased for $2,118.02 and was surveyed by Thomas Matthius and designed by A.J. Vosburg. This section occupies what is presently known as the Old Circle Section which is, not surprisingly, ringed by Old Circle Drive.
In 1905, the city of Charleston demolished a former “contagious hospital” and subsequently sold the land it once stood on to Spring Hill. As the cemetery continued to expand, it grew to include several other burial grounds so that today, the entire complex (the largest cemetery in West Virginia) includes five cemeteries: Spring Hill, Mountain View, B'nai Israel, Lowenstein and Mount Olivet.
For those interested in such things as Civil War history or the history of the area in general, there is plenty to be discovered at Spring Hill. At Bella Morte, we are inclined to the more bizarre branches on the tree of life and thus, the things we found to be of interest within the grounds are slightly different. We highly recommend you print a walking tour map off the internet or stop in the office to collect one before setting out to see the graves we consider to be of greatest note.
Your first stop will require no map. We are referring to the Spring Hill Mausoleum. The 103-year-old building is of Moorish design and boasts a new red-tile roof which replicates the original. It was designed and built by Charles Abbitt in 1910. Inside, 505 crypts line two vaulted corridors. All but 10 spaces are currently “inhabited” and the remainder are already sold.
The mausoleum was owned and operated by the Charleston Mausoleum Company until 1969 when the owners went bankrupt and Spring Hill bought the building for $500. Ever since that time, poor management and threadbare funding has resulted in the gradual deterioration of the once-stately structure.
Indeed, the only thing new about the building is the roof, the rest of it has fallen into disrepair and has been declared too dangerous for entry. Visitors or relatives of those within are currently unable to go inside. The doors are sealed and, by the sound of things, won’t be opened any time soon. Severe water leakage, according to Superintendent Jerry Cox, is the main problem. This has been exacerbated by the removal of the back windows by a well-meaning former employee who assumed the ventilation would be helpful. What he didn’t consider was that the openings would also invite wind-driven rain into the crypt area. Rainwater also finds its way inside through seepage. The one-inch-thick marble slab walls are beginning to separate from the wire backing. Some have already given way. And the same predicament has affected a number of crypt-fronts.
Then there was the derecho.
Don’t feel bad if you don’t know what that is. We didn’t either. Apparently, it is a particularly strong and long-lived windstorm accompanied by severe thunderstorms.
When the derecho came through Spring Hill Cemetery in 2012 it had a significant impact on the mausoleum. As Mr. Cox stated, “The tiles are wired together. It lifted it up and shook it like a blanket and set it back down. The roof was already leaky, but it sure didn’t help.”
Well, in a manner of speaking, it did help since insurance money was responsible for the installation of the new $335,000 tiles. Unfortunately, the gorgeous new roof hasn’t stopped the infiltration. Some hope for restoration remains, however. Spring Hill is on the National Register of Historic Places and as such, is eligible for financial aid. But, while the cemetery is seeking to obtain a $100,000 grant to assist with repairs, competition is stiff and the grant money wouldn’t be sufficient to cover the cost of even the most basic exterior repairs, let alone the interior issues with the marble facing.
For now, the future looks grim, though cemetery officials assure those interested in such things that every avenue is being explored by way of obtaining the necessary funding.
Moving down Old Circle Drive you will find the graves that were of greatest interest to us.
The first stop is the mausoleum of Mary Watkins. Ms. Watkins was the daughter of a prominent family who made their fortune in the steamboat business. Her final resting place is notable both for its literal prominence as well as the lovely trees that flourish around it, but, for our taste, the spectacular Art Deco doors, fashioned to resemble two angels, are the real treasures. (#12 on the walking tour)
Moving on, you will reach the grave of Miles Vernon Dixon who made a rather grand entrance to the cemetery. It seems young Miles, who was 22 at the time of his demise, dreamt of something more than the dull labour he performed as a bank teller at the Kanawha Valley Bank. Glen Clark’s Seaplane Flying School (photo of a 1935 seaplane) seemed like his ticket out of the small town doldrums, so he signed up for lessons and by all accounts was doing quite well. Of course, he needed to pass a test to get his pilot’s license and like all those who tend to get a bit anxious about tests, he decided to take a practice flight beforehand…and that is where things went terribly wrong. As he flew over Spring Hill Cemetery one of the wings tore off the plane and young Miles plummeted to earth, smashing into the ground right next to the cemetery’s mausoleum. Not to make light of the situation, but it would have been fitting for him to be entombed within the walls he very nearly destroyed. Alas, that was not to be. He rests in the ground at the farthest point of the circle. (#13 on the walking tour map).
Just a little way past Mr. Dixon’s resting place is the monument of Harry F. Cotton. Though nothing seems to be recorded about his life, his monument, depicting an angel standing in an attitude of reverence beneath a large cross, was hand-carved in Italy. Its twin stands in Hollywood Cemetery in Richmond, VA. (#14 on the walking tour map)
Continuing along the same road, you will come to the Donnally Family Plot. Andrew Donnally Jr. was the best-known among the clan, being both a politician and owner of one of the largest salt mines in the Kanawha Valley. When visiting, you will notice all of the markers which lie flush to the ground are surrounded in cement and clearly once stood upright. Their current position is not due to vandalism or the ravages of time. Instead, they were placed in this manner after those resting beneath were exhumed from the former (1830) cemetery and moved to the presumably more desirable new cemetery. (#16 on the walking tour).
Next is the Thayer Family plot which is notable for the truly grand main monument. It is composed entirely of zinc and surmounted by a kneeling angel. In front of this marker, the three family members lie, their caskets guarded by equally-lovely upright zincs. Although unsubstantiated, local lore has it that during Prohibition the panels in the main monument were unscrewed so that bootleggers could conceal liquor within. (#17 on the walking tour)
Spring Hill also has a Potters’ Field where, according to legend, hangings used to take place with the aid of the mighty arms of an ancient oak tree. Ghost hunters and some visitors report hearing the sounds of panicked strangulation near the tree’s base. We’ll leave it to you to stop and have a listen for yourself…
While not an award-winning cemetery, Spring Hill is certainly worth a visit if you happen to be in the area. Be sure to take advantage of the unparalleled city views if you go. Please browse our gallery for examples of other noteworthy images from Spring Hill.