Pioneering a legacy: explorers, immigrants and entrepreneurs lie at the heart of Grand Canyon's past and present

The Pioneer Cemetery on the South Rim of Grand Canyon National Park is closing because of a lack of space. The National Park Service is encouraging anyone with plot reservations to contact the park.

Photo/NPS

The Pioneer Cemetery on the South Rim of Grand Canyon National Park is closing because of a lack of space. The National Park Service is encouraging anyone with plot reservations to contact the park.

The Old West is full of colorful pioneer characters and traditions, and Grand Canyon Village, at the heart of one of the country’s national treasures, is no exception.

Rugged mountain men, explorers, entrepreneurs and immigrants from all walks of life came to the canyon in search of opportunity, each leaving their mark on the community that sprang up around them. Their legacy is cemented at the Grand Canyon Pioneer Cemetery, which recently closed to new burials because of a lack of space.

The small cemetery is tucked into a clearing next to Shrine of the Ages. It is the only cemetery located in a national park, and one of very few with an American Legion post assigned as co-caretakers of the dead. John Ivens Post 42 has been looking after the Pioneer Cemetery since 1928, erecting the large, rustic gateway that sets it apart from the surrounding pines and placing a memorial dedicated to Grand Canyon residents lost in World Wars I and II.

A walk through the headstones tells the story of a community carved out of an unforgiving landscape. Well-known residents like John Hance and William Wallace Bass, the Verkamps and the Kolbs, lie next to former park rangers, Native American residents and the communal resting place of 29 unidentified victims of a 1956 plane crash. There are many more burials that are no longer, or never were, marked.

The Pioneer Cemetery was established in 1928, decades after the first explorers walked the rim. Men claimed by the canyon were often buried where they met their end, including the well-marked grave of Peter Hansbrough, who died on a Colorado River survey expedition in 1889. Many of these residents were later disinterred and moved to the Pioneer Cemetery, including John Hance, the cemetery’s first official resident.

Ron Brown, and interpretive ranger with extensive knowledge of the cemetery and its residents, gives tours of the cemetery dressed as legendary tall-tale-teller Hance.

“Literally, every person out there had a value to this place,” Brown said.

Hance is considered to be the first non-native resident of Grand Canyon. A failed asbestos miner, Hance was one of the first to make the world below the rim accessible to visitors. He built a lodge near what is today Grandview Point and carved a number of trails down into the canyon. He was also a celebrated yarn-spinner, Hance died in 1919, just a few months before Congress created Grand Canyon National Park. Although he was buried in the wilderness he loved, he was disinterred and moved to the cemetery in 1928, his tall, natural stone headstone placed at the center.

Just a few feet from Hance lies William Wallace Bass and his wife, Ada. Bass established Bass Camp, a tent camp about 25 miles west of today’s Grand Canyon Village. He fostered a friendly relationship with the Havasupai Tribe living deep within the canyon, and together, they built an expansive system of more than 50 miles of trails below the North and South Rims of the canyon. Bass even built a cable tramway crossing the Colorado River, making a rim to rim journey possible as early as 1891. His wife, Ada, was the first white woman to raise a family on the rim. Bass’ monument, placed next to Ada’s is only a headstone — his ashes were spread over Holy Grail Temple after his death in 1939.

Prospectors and explorers weren’t the only intrepid travelers who came calling at the Grand Canyon. John G. Verkamps was one of the earliest entrepreneurs at the canyon, establishing and operating a small curio shop on the edge of the canyon that still stands today at the heart of Grand Canyon Village. Verkamps started his business from a tent in 1896 before building a permanent store front in 1906. The family, which continued operating the store for more than 100 years, turned the store over to NPS in 1998. Verkamps and several members of his family and extended family are buried together in a corner of the Pioneer Cemetery.

Emery Kolb, a photographer with a penchant for adventure and a gift for finding the perfect shot along with his brother, Ellsworth, is also laid to rest with his family in Pioneer Cemetery. The Kolb Brothers came to the Grand Canyon in 1902, establishing a photography studio that still clings precariously to the rim overlooking the Bright Angel Trail. The brothers are responsible for documenting life and adventure (and danger) in the early days of the Grand Canyon community, and successfully filmed their journey running the Colorado River in 1911.

Aside from the founding families and individuals, the graves of many other residents lie among the pines. Veterans from nearly every conflict rest there, beginning as early as the Spanish American war and continuing through present day. Although many of their graves aren’t marked, Native American residents share a memorial. Former Harvey Girl Bette Rich Swanson lies near the place she called home for decades, and former NPS park rangers and superintendents are interred in the land they worked to preserve and celebrate.

Nearly 90 years after it was established, the Grand Canyon Pioneer Cemetery will no longer accept new burials because of space limitations. In 2010, the NPS funded a study which employed ground penetrating radar (GPR) to survey the cemetery and determine the exact location of the burials. GPR uses electromagnetic energy to detect disturbed layers of soil and objects buried in the ground.

Ellen Brennan, the park’s cultural resource program manager, said the study revealed a lot about burials in the cemetery.

For instance, a geographical information systems analysis of the cemetery found a high concentration of unmarked burial mounds and rock rings used to mark gravesites in a portion of the cemetery once marked for the indigent. The study also mapped the other features of the cemetery, including the root systems of the towering Ponderosa pines, which could affect burial sites in the future.

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