Not all of Bakersfield’s history is within the confines of the county museum or the library’s history room. Much of it lies buried 6 feet under the hallowed grounds of the Historic Union Cemetery at the corner of Potomac Avenue and South King Street in east Bakersfield.
More than just the final resting place for many of the community’s early settlers, city fathers, outlaws, cowboys and other colorful characters, Bakersfield’s oldest cemetery welcomes the community to visit what it calls “a storybook of the American West.”
In the mid-19th century, when Col. Thomas Baker, the city’s namesake, moved to the area, he chose his plot there as the place where he wanted to “lay my bones.” His burial in 1872 marked the beginning of Union. The two blocks at the southwest portion of the property known as the “Pioneer’s Section” was later declared a historic place by the local Preservation Commission.
A visit to the historic graveyard might not be at the top of someone’s “get out and explore Bakersfield” to-do list, but it most certainly should.
“We want people to come out here and get educated,” said Manager Jose Leyva. “It is fascinating. I’ve been here 20 years and I still get sidetracked when I walk the property.”
Union’s website, unioncemetery1872.com, features biographies of its residents as well as a downloadable map for self-guided walking tours.
“Just about everybody who died between the 1880s to 1935 is buried out there,” said historian John Codd, who has been leading free daytime tours for five years. The names engraved on the headstones and crypts read like a who’s who of the area: Curran, Bimat, Banducci, Holtby, Rankin, Bertolucci, Harrell and Wickersham to name a few.
Besides Baker, whose plot is unremarkable given his prominence compared to the more stately monuments, others in the oldest section include Paul Galtes, who built a small grocery store into one of the most successful ones in town. St. Francis Church got its start in a back room of the business.
There are more than 100 Civil War soldiers who died after the battle buried there, as are two congressmen – including oil tycoon Charles Barlow, whose downtown home is now the Guild House. Bakersfield’s first banker Solomon Jewett, its first postmaster George Chester and Kern County Land Company manager Henry Jastro are also interred at Union.
The tour also highlights the resting places of early California explorer Capt. Elisha Stephens, who brought the first wagon train over the Sierra; Alexis Godey, who was a guide for the Fremont Party; Kern’s first Superior Court Judge Benjamin Brundage; and Faustino Noriega, who was part of the Basque immigration to this country and who, along with Fernando Etcheverry, established the famed restaurant and hotel.
There are still a few remaining wooden markers to be seen on “Boot Hill” and one gets a deeper sense of the connection the descendants of prominent local pioneering families have for Bakersfield.
“The headstones tell you a lot. There are many family groups there,” Codd added.
Beautiful, serene, and a must-see for natives and newcomers alike, make plans to visit Historic Union Cemetery and take a stroll through our rich, local history. ￼
Opinions expressed in this column are those of Lisa Kimble.