by Rich Wright
Posted on March 21, 2008
Despite Concordia's claims to being El Paso's boot hill, the Smeltertown Cemetery is the graveyard that shows the greatest abject, genteel, decrepitude. Concordia is a restoration of an historic cemetery, but the Smeltertown Cemetery represents the decaying embodiment of authenticity. Wooden crosses lie fallen on piles of stones. The lettering on some headstones is worn smooth by wind and sand and time. Even the chain link fence that surrounds the graveyard show signs of being from a previous era.
The road starts near the intersection of Executive and Paisano, where a little street called San Marcos peters out into gravel and climbs up the hill of brown dirt tinged with gray undertones, before coming to a pair of pipe gates. The gate blocking the road is white and locked with a chain and five locks, like links, so that a key to any one of the locks can open the gate. Through the yellow gate (open, the day I visited) the turn leads to a flat space that may have been cleared to function as a parking lot for the cemetery that lies just beyond it. A short chain link fence runs on the shelf on top of the cut.
El Paso has other iconic cemeteries. Concordia, in the psychological center of town, where John Wesley Hardin lies behind bars, under a gated canopy and a lately carved granite headstone. Evergreen, on Alameda, the final resting place of Mexican president Victoriano Huerta, and the graveyard where the Night Stalker Richard Ramirez went to nurture his demons. Huerta's body was moved to Evergreen from Concordia, apparently to get away from the gambling and gunslinging riffraff. He may rest more comfortably with other politicians, but I wouldn't.
The Smeltertown Cemetery was launched in 1882, according to the dates on the steel archway over the gate to the cemetery proper. El Paso wasn't a lot, then, the year after the railroad arrived, and the smelter was a respectful distance out of town. The smelter's employees saw no reason to make a commute to the city, and so founded the little community known as Smeltertown near the base of the smokestacks. The river provided water, and the smelter provided work and a company store for comestibles and sundries. In time a church was built and cemetery sanctified to care for the Smeltertown's otherworldly needs.
The Smeltertown Cemetery is small. Your average athlete could probably throw a rock across its width, and it might take two or three throws to clear its length.
I took a date to the Smeltertown Cemetery. We rode our mountain bikes through the hills behind UTEP and threw them over the gate on the bridge over the freeway, and then rode into the graveyard at sunset. A girl like that is a keeper.
Ruben Escandon lives at the mouth of La Calavera, or Skull Canyon, the last existing Smeltertown neighborhood, a little arroyo lined with houses, parallel to Executive Center, between Paisano and the freeway. His is the house that, until a couple of years ago, was behind the shed illustrated with the most iconic of La Calavera's landmarks. The image of the skull and crossbones, lifted from a loteria deck, that decorated the shed was one of the most filmed and photographed murals in El Paso, and lent a graphic element to many histories and fictions of the city's sinister side.
The shed is burned down now, torched by vandals about two years ago.
“I've been trying to get my brother to come down and paint another one,” Ruben said via telephone. “We'll see.”
Ruben's father is buried in the Smeltertown Cemetery, under a polished slab of pink granite.
“It was in that miniseries Kingpin,” Ruben says. “That actor, I forget his name, put his foot up on the granite.”
Kingpin was a fictionalized account of Mexican drug gangs, filmed in and around El Paso, under the authenticating supervision of a former DEA agent. The skull and crossbones of Ruben's shed ran at the start of every episode.
“Texas Rangers are buried up there,” Ruben tells me, “but the markers are gone now. They were wood, you know, like in the movies. By the time I was old enough to read, most of the names were worn off. But I could read the last name on one, and it was Thompson. And there was another one with the name John on it. So when me and my friend would play cowboys, I was always Mr. Thompson, and my friend was John.”
The cemetery is bleak, now, and the desert is trying to reclaim it with greasewood and thorny mesquite. Most of the graves are marked with simple crosses of wood or concrete or pipe. The popular folklore holds that the informal guilds to which the dearly departed belonged would craft these monuments from the materials with which they were handy, that is, a plumber would get a cross made from pipe, and a cement worker from concrete.
The markers are gone from a lot of the graves, and their existence is only evident by a pile of rocks.
The corner of the cemetery closest to the smelter is dedicated to the graves of children. The deaths recorded at La Capilla de Santa Rosalia y San Jose, the Smeltertown church, in 1900, illuminate the crisis of infant mortality. Of the 78 deaths listed, only 18 were people older than 18. The causes of death tell a story, also. Chicken pox, dysentery, and fever claimed the bulk of the children, while the adults died from causes as diverse as pneumonia and “dismemberment by train.”
I asked Ruben if he'd ever seen ghosts at the cemetery.
“I used to ride my horse home from the stables by UTEP,” he said, “over by where the soccer field is now.” This was before the freeway was built, when Paisano was the highway into town. “And if it was getting dark when we got close to the cemetery, I'd just close my eyes. The horse knew the way home.”
El Paso has other iconic cemeteries. But the Smeltertown Cemetery is the one untouched by historic preservationists and revisionists. Concordia is the Disneyland of historic cemeteries. Smeltertown Cemetery is the real deal.
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