Remembering those buried at Charleston’s Spring Hill Cemetery Park fills us in on the day-by-day building of our state.
Miles Vernon Dixson worked as a teller at Kanawha Valley Bank in Charleston in the 1930s. What he really wanted to do, though, was fly. As a young man he took lessons at a seaplane school on the Kanawha River. But during a practice flight over Spring Hill Cemetery, one of the wings came off of his plane and he crashed beside the mausoleum. He’s buried in the cemetery he died in.
Dixson’s short tale is sad. It’s also a colorful thread in the tapestry of Charleston’s history. And when you come to know a little about the lives of some of the others buried in Spring Hill Cemetery Park—the founders of Kanawha Valley Bank, for example—you start to see how they intertwined to make the city and state we know today.
“Some of the names on the streets that you drive on here in Charleston—Quarrier, Dickinson, Summers—those folks are here at the cemetery,” says longtime superintendent Perry Cox. “We have people here from all walks of life. And every one of them has a story to tell.”
The ridge overlooking the Kanawha Valley first served as a burial ground at least as early as 1818. The city of Charleston took on its management in 1869. Today the complex of public, private, Catholic, Jewish, and other plots totals some 175 acres, the largest burial complex in the state. Estimates say it holds more than 100,000 interments, though records have been found for only about half of those. The property is also a carefully maintained arboretum with five miles of paved roadway, a contemplative place to stroll or relax.
The Friends of Spring Hill Cemetery Park has created two self-guided walking tours highlighting personalities who’ve come to rest there. “We divided the cemetery into sections and said, ‘Let’s pick out the 25 most interesting people we can in each section,’” says Kaaren Ford, a member of the Friends and also of the city commission that oversees the cemetery and park. “You can get a pamphlet out of the kiosk, look at the map, people are numbered, you look inside and say, ‘Oh, he was so and so.’” Here are just a few:
Old Circle History Walk
3.) Firsts ran in the blood of Dr. John P. Hale (1824–1902). His maternal ancestors founded the first white settlement west of the Alleghenies. He studied medicine but, in 1847, went into the booming salt manufacturing business instead and ran possibly the largest salt works in North America; he led in forming a salt trust, the first trust in America. He was instrumental in having the capital of the new state of West Virginia moved from Wheeling to Charleston. He introduced the first brick-making machinery and is said to have paved the first brick street in America, right in Charleston. He also helped start Charleston’s first theater and first steam ferry business.
8.) Boone County native Caroline Evelyn Gentry (1870–1939) spent a decade in Hollywood working as an editor and writer. She co-wrote the screenplay for the 1920 silent film The Key to Power, since lost. She wrote and directed the 1928 documentary film The River of Doubt, based on Theodore Roosevelt’s account of his harrowing expedition on an uncharted tributary of the Amazon River.
11.) The leather tanning innovations of Sanford A. Hickel (1816–1887) were recognized by the patent offices of both the Confederate States and the United States of America. He especially wanted to be remembered for his great cold liquor quick tan, patented in 1865, and his 1866 waterproof enamel for leather, steel, and wood.
13.) Bavarian immigrant Moses Frankenberger (1835–1902) founded Frankenberger’s clothing store in Charleston, which operated from 1860 into the 1980s. He sided with the Union and was imprisoned for three months, losing a large part of his fortune. He helped organize Citizens Bank in Charleston and served as its president. He also played a role in the establishment of Temple Israel on Kanawha Boulevard.
19.) As a senator from Fayette County in the 1908 Legislature, William S. Johnson (1871–1942) became known as “Pistol Bill.” He successfully sponsored legislation to require state residents to have permits to carry firearms. He also served as superintendent of Fayette County Schools, West Virginia state treasurer, and executive secretary of the West Virginia Crippled Children’s Society.
6.) William H. Davis (1849–1938) served in the Union Light Guard that encamped at the White House and provided mounted escort and guard service for President Abraham Lincoln from 1863 to 1865. Later, as a school teacher in Tinkersville, now Malden, just upriver from Charleston, he taught Booker T. Washington. Davis was nominated to run for governor in 1888. In 1937, he was an honored guest at an anniversary celebration for Washington at the Tuskegee Institute in Alabama.
13.) Banker and saltmaker John Quincy Dickinson (1831–1925)—we know him as “J.Q.” today—went to the Kanawha Valley in 1865. He repaired the family salt works that had been established by his grandfather, William Dickinson Sr., but damaged by the great flood of 1861 and by the Union Army. Later, Dickinson and his brother, father, and others associated with the salt industry established the Kanawha Valley Bank. Dickinson served as its president for 43 years. Many Dickinsons are buried in a family plot here. Seventh-generation descendants of William Dickinson have recently revived the salt enterprise as J. Q. Dickinson Salt Works in Malden.
18 & 19.) Brothers O.T. Thayer (1835–1900) and W.T. Thayer (1831–1901) operated, with others, a steam ferry across the Kanawha River where the current South Side Bridge is located. They also founded and operated the South Side Foundry and Machine Company. Legend has it that, during Prohibition, smugglers hid liquor behind a removable panel on O.T.’s zinc monument.
Spring Hill Cemetery Park is more than a cemetery, Perry says. “People can come here, take a walk, relax, collect their thoughts; they can study and see wildlife and trees. And it’s also a history book.”
Ford agrees. “If you spent the day, you’d have a brief history of the state.”
The Friends group is working on a couple more walking tours. And every couple of years for FestivALL Fall, the group organizes a living history event at the cemetery. “We had Dr. Hale, who’s ‘Mr. Kanawha County,’ this past year, we had Moses Frankenburger, and a couple others,” Ford says. “We hope to do it again in 2019, the cemetery’s 150th anniversary.”
photographed by Zack Harold