Cemetery Day: Boulder City Cemetery

Written by Charli Mills

Charli Mills, a born buckaroo, makes literary art accessible at CarrotRanch.com. She writes about the veteran spouse experience and women forgotten to history.

October 24, 2015

1023151545Half way up the narrow strip of road that winds in and out of carved gullies, I realize what determination miners have. Already we’ve forged access into a deep draw in the Cabinet Mountains of northern Idaho, following tens of thousands of years behind the wake of a massive glacier that gouged the bedrock and littered the canyon with boulders like giant gravel. The creek we cross is aptly named Boulder Creek. It’s difficult terrain and we have a 5-liter engine and 4WD. Yet miners came up here with horses, mules and oxen pulling wagons. What they lacked in trucks they made up for in guts.

The Hub shouts out loud, startled by the drop to his left. I cringe in response because he’s rarely rattled by a road.

“It’s not up here,” he tells me. Already we’ve found the town site of Boulder City. Ironic that in a region of nothing larger than a town the one place on the map that boldly states “city” is nothing more than rock-lined cellars and board rubble. What might have been a mine is now simply a large cement foundation that provides shelter for a rock campfire ring. If it was ever a city, it’s now a ghost town, and a faint apparition at best.

“It could be like Elkhorn. The cemetery was beyond the town and mines.” Elkhorn was my second stab at a historical novel and is also a silver mining ghost town. I worked on it as an independent project in college and wandered the buildings that still stand and the cemetery, wondering and imaging the life of a woman stranded in that town as a recent widow to an ill-fated miner. How would such a woman survive? I shelved the project after graduation when I went to work.

We continue to climb through a dark forest of cedar, larch and pine. It’s hard to discern boards of buildings from dead-fall of trees and amazing that anything can cling to these incredibly steep mountain slopes. Determination. Miners had to be to find silver in this place. The road opens up to a point on the ridge that overlooks the Kootenai River far below in the valley where Bonners Ferry is located.

To our left is a huge log from an old pine. The Hub perks up. We have our chainsaw and firewood permit and that 2-foot diameter log is fair game. I look around for some sign of a cemetery — fence, stones, crosses. Nothing but that log, a campfire ring and the road turning east toward Montana, paralleling the river from this mountaintop. I admit defeat and say he might be right. We could have missed the cemetery below, closer to the rubble and creek.

All the way down I look, hopeful. No headstones but a million boulders the size of giant pumpkins. At the creek we let the dogs run and swim in the crystalline water that reflects the blue of minerals, almost as if it were liquid silver. Maybe just my imagination. I poke around at a rock or two and Todd reads the forest service map where I saw the Boulder City Cemetery marked.

“You know, maybe it was by that log.”

I know the real reason he wants to go back up is to stick his Husquavarna in the wood of that huge pine. But looking at the map and where Boulder Creek meets the Kootenai, it is where the cemetery is marked. How likely is it to be 2,000 feet higher than this ore-bearing, glacial-scarred creek bottom?

Likely enough that I should have gotten out of the truck the first time. We find it — 4 marked graves, one anonymous and several indentations that hint at more. Only, the fence and markers are of the same gray wood of the fallen buildings and dead-fall of the forest. It blends in unlike cemeteries with wrought iron fences and granite markers.

Now I’m going to show you how a historical novelist makes the best use of a Cemetery Day.

  1. Take photos of markers to collect names and dates.
  2. Notice the age and gender.
  3. Look for any clues or anomalies.

What I notice is that the anonymous grave has several gifts from visitors — a couple ofย  weathered animal figurines of modern make, a tarnished penny and faded plastic flowers. I leave a blue shard of glass that I found, sharing my treasure of the day. The names of the four marked graves read Last, First which is unusual and the Hub points out that it’s “military.” Those buried are not, but is it possible that this tiny resting place was preserved by the Civilian Conservation Corps? After all, it is on national forest service land.

I also note that the four died between 1918 and 1922. Here’s where imagination and history collide. I start thinking about what was going on in the greater world at that time — WWI, flu epidemic, women gain the right to vote. So what was life like in this steep canyon with homes barely wide enough to straddle land along mining claims? One grave is that of a baby, another a young woman with an interesting name — Mathilda Fatland. None of those buried are related. The other two are men, one aged 70 and the other 36.

Now I research. Some might research first before the outing, but I prefer the element of surprise. I want to discover connections or curiosities I might miss if I think I already “know” about the place or people. For research, I use local history websites, census records, Find A Grave and vital records. I subscribe to Ancestry.com to research their vast database of archives. For example, I can go there and search “Boulder City, Idaho, 1920 Census.” I search 1920 because of the death dates. I know the “city” was active in that enumeration year.

I discover that between January 2-6, 1920 Harold Askevald took census in Boulder “precinct” as is is listed (not “city”). He is also the first person listed on the census record, thus he lived there and I read that he is 52 years old, divorced and a native of Norway. He is a carpenter for the railroad. Could he have built some of the town? I note that his script is good penmanship, but that his printing is precise and square. Interesting. Maybe as a carpenter, he likes to square up things? Look! I already have the beginnings of a character profile.

Next, I want to know the population of Boulder. The census record is only three pages long. Counting what Harold did, there were 127 residents of Boulder in 1920.

Now I jump to Find A Grave. I want to see if they have recorded Boulder Cemetery (it’s a volunteer organization). I find Boulder Creek Cemetery listed! They claim that 12 people are interred on that point above the creek and Kootnai River. Of the 12, ten are men. That has me curious about the gender breakdown so I go back to the census record. Of 127 residents, 31 were women. What catches my eye is a 33-year-old widow who is making her way as a cook. This is similar to what I imagined of a character in Elkhorn. Her name is Margaret Buffmuen and she was born in Australia to a German father and an American mother. How did that happen, I wonder. She’s living in the household of Fred Schmidt who is a German immigrant and a lumber manufacturer. He must have the largest home in town because 12 men are boarding there. No wonder he needs Margaret to cook!

Yet, I see something interesting in the census record — the industry listed for occupations of the residents is predominantly “logging.” This was no mining town; it was a logging camp! Yet a mine is listed on the map. I’m fairly certain we saw the remains of Fred Schmidt’s boarding house and what I thought was a concrete mine feature, the Hub now thinks it was a foundation for a mill or even hooking logs down those steep slopes. As he points out, “You can use gravity to get those high mountain logs to the lumber mill in the valley below.”

So what about our cemetery and those who rest there? The first person buried is presumably John Gorman because he died in 1898. All I know of him is that he was “killed in an accident” in Leonia. What I’ve read locally about Boulder City is that it was founded in 1910 by J.M. Schnatterly, who owned Idaho Gold and Ruby Mine. He would bring investors to Bonners Ferry by train, up the Kootenai River by boat to Leonia, and up a private road by horse and buggy (buggy? on that road?). Yet someone from the river town below is buried on this mountaintop 12 years prior to its “founding” and 10 years after that, it’s a logging camp.

Back to the census records. Boulder existed in 1900 before it was “founded” by J.M. Schnatterly. It only had 52 residents and most worked for the railroad; three were miners; none were J.M. Schnatterly. Who is this guy, I wonder. I go to the 1910 census. He’s not there, nor are all the railroad workers. 60 residents and they are all “general farmers.” This is an evolving place! It reflects what we call the boom and bust cycle of the west — railroad provides good jobs and moves on; a mine opens up and closes; farms are bought and lost; logging camps cut until they move to another camp. And as to our founding father, I can’t locate him in the census record. I can follow up at the history center in Bonners Ferry and go over their collection of document archives.

Before I leave this town, I want to find out how long it survived. In 1930, the census shows a mix of farming, mining and logging with 160 residents. Maybe that’s maximum capacity for the canyon! In 1940 there’s 120 residents, mostly farming and logging. I’m not sure how anyone farmed that steep, rocky terrain. I see a few working for the CCC or forest service. Perhaps they are the ones who kept up the cemetery.

And of the four graves that remain marked and fenced?

Mathilda Fatland was born in 1898 in Washington state to Norwegian immigrants. In the 1920 census, the only Fatland living in Boulder is Annie Flatland and she’s 30 years old, single, living as a boarder and working as a laborer in the logging camp. Were they sisters, cousins? Mathilda’s parents lived for 30 years in Kitsap, Washington. How did these two Fatland women come to a place like Boulder? Why? How did Mathilda die at the age of 20?

Nothing else is revealed on those buried in the Boulder Creek Cemetery. This was just an initial look; a fun excursion to fill the well for ideas and local history. I’ll let it all stew and perhaps do some flash fiction and see what develops. Here’s a slide show of the day.

Yes, the Hub tackled that pine and we went home with 1/2 a cord. I counted tree rings on that pine and it was over 250 years old. That means, it was witness to the city of Boulder in all its manifestations and stood sentinel over the cemetery until it died and blew over in a big wind. Now it will be firewood. I’m sure those who are buried by this tree will understand. After all, they were most likely loggers or lovers of such men. Determination lives on in this basin.

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  1. C. Jai Ferry

    Fabulous! You got my mind churning with questions and visions of Boulder City as well. I want to read the stories of these people…please!

    • Charli Mills

      That it turned out to be a logging camp has completely set my imagination on fire! I want to read their stories, too…ha, ha! I guess I’ll be writing about them. I love the idea of women working in the logging camp. Hmm…sounds familiar to me these days!

  2. A. E. Robson

    Finding history and sharing the life is an incredible chore. It piques the interest and demands to know more. I look forward to reading the next part of the saga.

    • Charli Mills

      Finding history is like uncovering the diary of a place. It’s why I get silly-excited about cemeteries! I look forward to digging into this one. Living here, I can probably find old-timers to interview, who worked in that logging camp. Certainly the story of the Fatland women is remembered. If not, I’ll make it all up. ๐Ÿ™‚

  3. TanGental

    Blimey you take this seriously don’t you? I just go and have a gander at a few tombstones and move on. Whew! I do have a lot to learn.

    • Charli Mills

      Ha! I’m a bit obsessed with reading history in cemeteries. Good thing I have an outlet for it. ๐Ÿ™‚ You have great names to glean from your tombstones, though! All kinds of level of research possible.

      • TanGental

        True enough. You’d never leave London if we ever get you here, given the size and antiquity of outer cemeteries. They’ve just unearthed one building a new underground line at Bedlam, a poor house come asylum which was closed in the mud 19th century. From what I can gather it is fascinating as you usually don’t get such well preserved graves of paupers, to be able to assess ages, diets and live styles.

      • Charli Mills

        Oh, wow! Oh, the stories in there! Yes, I’d be that weird American refusing to come out of the cemeteries.

      • Sherri

        Haha… Geoff, I was so glad to find in Charli someone as obsessed as I am by gravestones and the stories they tell when I first visited the Ranch! That’s fascinating about Bedhlam, I hadn’t heard about that…wow!

  4. jan

    What an interesting glimpse into the mind of a writer of historical fiction. Fatland may be a misspelling of Flaten – which is a common Norwegian name (also happens to be my great grandpa’s last name.)

    • Charli Mills

      Thanks for that tidbit on the name! It might help in tracking down these women. Maybe some long lost kin? ๐Ÿ™‚

  5. jan

    Could be – there were a lot of Flatens – also the name Voxland. Often names were interpreted by custom’s officials wrong. Good luck!

    • Charli Mills

      Name evolution via immigration is both tricky and fascinating!

  6. Irene Waters 19 Writer Memoirist

    So much history. Hope to hear more about the results of your future investigations into Mathilde’s early demise. It is so difficult following these people as the spelling does change as Jan said and the people didn’t seem to worry too much about changing their own names to make it simpler or too add on a thankyou name and the like.

    • Charli Mills

      It seems that people were mostly accepting of how their name was translated and many often wanted their names to reflect the new country. I’m happy to have a new mystery to unravel! Already, I’m struck by how one mine investor/con artist (Schnatterly) left his mark on history though not one of his miners actually lived in Boulder City. I did find that the miners lived in Leonia which was “down” the mountain along the Kootenai River and it is also a ghost town.

      • Irene Waters 19 Writer Memoirist

        Better than reading Nancy Drew. Have you got a lot of ghost towns around you Charli?

      • Charli Mills

        There’s several around, more to the south of us. Lots over in Montana, and the most well-preserved ones are in Nevada. We had dinner with a good friend and he told us about finding an intact mill (logging) on a creek in the mountains while hunting. He said it looked like they just shut the door and no one had been there in decades. I hear that Leonia is only accessible by the river. Might try in the spring!

  7. paustinelf

    How fascinating. Lots of people research their own ancestors, but I’d never thought about researching the lives of others to learn THEIR story! You about got me there with the sharp drop on the side of the road. I’ve become quite timid in mountain terrain over the years and now would rather READ about trips like yours than experience them myself.

    • Charli Mills

      Ha! I think the heart does grow weaker with those mountain drops. I hadn’t heard my husband exclaim like that on a 4WD trail before! When it was my turn to see those drops, I actually got dizzy! But I was so determined to find that cemetery. Yes, I have all kinds of family trees not my own on Ancestry.com!

  8. Annecdotist

    Thanks for sharing your research process, Charli. I could really feel the excitement. And while, like Geoff, this seems far too studious for me to emulate, I do connect with what you say about getting the feel of the place before you do your factual research.

    • Charli Mills

      I’d hit overload in the UK. Maybe it works out west where people and cemeteries are still few and far between. And yes, I do get excited. I wanted to show that it doesn’t take much to find a story in a graveyard.

  9. Bob Mueller

    Wonderful writing and wonderful story. Genealogy and history are hobbies that I never have enough time to indulge, and I really have to work to restrain myself from rabbit holes like this. But maybe I can cheat. After the series I’m working on now, my plan is to start a police procedural series that’s going to involve some cold cases.

    • Charli Mills

      Thanks, Bob! These are definitely rabbit holes, but if I come out on the other end with a story, I feel like I found treasure down there. Your interest in genealogy and history will serve you well with a police procedural series. Going into records with a curious mindset allows one to see points others often miss. You might even solve a cold case! I read a great book called, “Breaking Blue” by Timothy Egan, and it’s about a cold case solved by a grad student who was curious to research the lineage of sheriffs from his hometown in northeastern Washington. It might contain history that relates to your series, too.

      When I was researching “Rock Creek” I came across reference to “the third degree.” Police back in the early to mid 1800s often used harsh methods to get suspects to confess. I was puzzled as to why the person I was researching was such a “bully.” He often punished his neighbors who did wrong in his estimation. Turns out he used to be a sheriff and he set himself up as “adjudicator” in his pioneer community. What seems like bullying tactics to us was part of the third degree to him. But think about that legacy and how we perceive law enforcement today. I look forward to reading more of your series!

  10. Jann @ AustinDetails.me

    I love your methodology! Cemeteries fascinate me, tooโ€”we can always make up stories with the merest of tidbits. Love how you supplement it with research to stoke the imagination. And how you wrangle a chain saw, too.

    • Charli Mills

      All it takes is a tidbit or two and the imagination comes up with all kinds of stories. ๐Ÿ™‚ That chainsaw is heavy! I like skidding the logs and driving the truck with the big 50 foot chain attached to a 60 foot log.

  11. noelleg44

    What a wonderful history! You clearly had fun researching the site!

    • Charli Mills

      And it continues to “haunt” me; I’m captivated by those two Fatland women and what their story is.

  12. Sherri

    So glad you found a cemetery up there at long last Charli! As with Anne, I was pulled in by your excitement at such a find and all you have already discovered from doing a bit of research. Fascinating information, thank you for sharing this with us and giving us some pointers as to how to go about it! I’ve never gone as far as you with this, but as you know, I am always intrigued by the stories behind the names and dates. Great post, loved reading about your day in the mountains…and I love your last line… “Determination lives on in this basin.” Yes ma’am…it sure does ๐Ÿ˜€

    • Charli Mills

      One day you’ll have to show me your favorite cemeteries and the stories you’ve discovered! Determination continues! ๐Ÿ˜€

  13. Norah

    This was wonderful reading, Charli. Getting a glimpse into your research process, while hearing the history, was doubly fascinating. I could read the excitement at what you were discovering in your words. You do definitely “dig” history. What a wonderful place you live, surrounded by beauty and history. I probably just need to open my eyes to see what surrounds me here, though my suburb is young.
    I enjoyed the slide show. It adds so much more to the post. A picture is worth a thousand words they say. I’d probably rather take your thousand words than a picture any day!

    • Charli Mills

      Aw, Norah, that’s a sweet thing to say about my thousand words! ๐Ÿ™‚ <3 I think that we can find history and beauty anywhere there is dirt. Some is easier to spot, of course. And yes, I dig history!

      • Norah

        But honest too! ๐Ÿ™‚

      • Charli Mills


  14. Kevin Norwood

    Lived in Boundary County for many years, was exploring Boulder City and Leonia for many years (since the 60’s), Schnatterly is a very, very interesting person.. well worth exploring further on him.. great story

    • Charli Mills

      Hi Kevin! I’d love to have a cup of coffee with you sometime and learn more about Schnatterly and both towns. Thanks for reading!

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