A few miles west of Carbondale, half a dozen tombstones are scattered in a stand of scrub oak.
Some graves bear artificial flowers or a plastic wreath, but most are adorned only by wild roses and weeds. Under winter snow, autumn leaves or a cloudless midsummer day, the overgrown cemetery is heartbreakingly lonely and desolately beautiful.
The first interment dates to 1891, the last to 1911, chronicling the brief history of the coal mining towns of Marion and Spring Gulch, which were once home to hundreds of workers and their families. The valley at the edge of the Thompson Divide where the towns once stood is called Jerome Park, after Jerome Wheeler, the owner of the mines, although the name is rarely used except by the ranchers who graze cattle there. Frank Edgerton’s homestead is a ruin where people set up clay pigeons for target practice. Cross country skiers occasionally run across the foundation of the Spring Gulch tipple, but otherwise just the cemetery remains of the towns.
It is a place where absence speaks volumes.
Edgerton, a veteran of the American Civil War and the Battle of Shiloh who homesteaded in the area even before the mines opened, has no grave there. A few years after recording Jerome Park’s contributions to the 1888 election — 32 for Harrison and 8 for Cleveland — he moved to Crystal City and then died of gangrene in Denver in 1900.
Absent, too, from the tombstones are the old or even middle aged. Alexander McDonald, 26, is the oldest person with a marked grave. The rest belong to children, although the handful of plots adorned only by a wooden cross or a collapsed fence may hold another tale.
Covered in wild roses, surrounded by a wire fence and topped with a rusty tricycle, the headstone of Alfred and Josephine Eccher bears a simple phrase of defiance to more than a century of ruin and decay:
“Gone but not forgotten.”
Katherine Eccher was three months’ pregnant when she buried 6-month-old Josephine in October 1896. She and her husband, Joseph, were both from the Tyrolean Alps on the border between Italy and Austria and had come directly to Colorado after passing through Ellis Island. By the time their son Alfred died in 1906, apparently of eating poisonous berries, the first Marion mine had already shut down and Spring Gulch was already in decline, having peaked in 1902 with 223,574 tons of coal.
William Eccher, their eldest surviving son, helped burn down the cabins at Spring Gulch as a teenager, sparing departing residents the burden of property tax. The family settled down on Silt Mesa, and William, despite only having an eighth-grade education, helped oversee the construction of mines in South Canyon.
Katherine outlived her husband and three of her children and never strayed far from home again.
“My grandmother lived there until she died,” reflected William Eccher Jr. “I don’t think she walked two miles. We used to go see her every Sunday.” Katherine and Joseph Eccher are interred at Rosebud cemetery in Glenwood Springs.
William, now 82 and living in Centennial, Colorado, still recalls visiting both Rosebud and Marion for Memorial Day.
“It was an annual event. Every year we went with the folks and walked around the graves,” he said.
He hasn’t been back to visit his aunt and uncle’s grave since the late 1930s. “It the later years we didn’t go back to Marion,” he observed. “The kids have scattered. It’s not like it used to be, when people stayed together,” he observed. “By the time I had children, we were long gone from there. A lot of that history has faded for the younger generations.”
Joseph Alfred Eccher, 75, named after his grandfather and his uncle, also moved to Denver, but joined the extended family in a picnic at Marion in the late 1970s. The last time Joseph visited the cemetery he had trouble locating it. After reports of vandalism and high school parties on the site, the current property owners fenced it off.
Joseph hopes to make another try at finding the grave this summer.
“It’s kinda touching to go up there,” he said.
His older brother William echoed the sentiment.
“I think about ‘em a lot,” he said.