Monday, July 10, 2006

Letter to the Editor - San Gabriel Valley News

The following letter was sent for publication on July 8, 2006:

Re: Saving cemetery a tricky proposition; Fred Ortega, July 8, 2006


The El Monte Cemetery Association is reportedly considering ceasing to do business as a cemetery association and is looking to find an appropriate entity to take over the control of the cemetery. After reviewing the available facts of the cemetery's history and use, it is my opinion that the legal title to the cemetery vested in the public long before the year 1900.

The title vested through operation of an 1872 law which provided a legal title to the public as a result of the public's use of the land for cemetery purposes. It certainly vested many years before the El Monte Cemetery Association (early on also referred to as Savannah Cemetery Association) which only incorporated sometime around 1920.

According to an advisory opinion of the California Attorney General in relation to a cemetery in Contra Costa County, once the title vested in the public through operation of this law, no later deed or other instrument was of any effect as against the public's legal interest. At the time that the title to the El Monte (aka Savannah) Cemetery did vest in the people, the cemetery was located in the unincorporated territory of Los Angeles County. Therefore, the board of supervisors was mandated to have the jurisdiction for its management and control. This occurred through another section of the statute, Section 3109, also enacted in 1872.

Section 3105 of the former Political Code (Statutes 1872) that provided the public with a legal title to the cemeteries used by it, also provided a prohibition against the use of the land for any purpose other than as a "public cemetery." That the El Monte Cemetery Association has been operating this public property as a private enterprise seems to violates the letter and spirit of the law.

When the City of Rosemead's incorporation was finally approved by the voters back in the late 1950s, it was the County's policy at the time to provide that "parks and certain other facilities that are part of an incorporation or annexation be turned over to the city involved." (Los Angeles Times, April 24, 1977, p. SG4.) Based on this county policy, when the City incorporated and the area that included the El Monte (Savannah) Cemetery was placed within the city's corporate limits, the city became the mandated successor to the county for the legal jurisdiction over this public cemetery. That it failed to act on its authority does nothing to take away from the fact that the legal title remained (and remains today) in the public.

One suggestion proffered at the recent meeting held at the cemetery was that the City of Rosemead would remove the grave stones and put the names of those buried on a wall or plaque, supposedly establishing it as a Pioneer Memorial Park. Because of the fact that the title did vest in the public, if the City of Rosemead should determine to try to establish the cemetery as a Pioneer Memorial Park, it will do so without statutory authority. The California Health and Safety Code sections 8825-8829, which authorize cities and counties to establish pioneer memorial parks from abandoned PRIVATE cemeteries, is not intended to be used on publicly owned cemeteries.

The city would, however, have the authority to close the cemetery to future burials, honoring the plot sales made by the El Monte Cemetery Association if it so chooses, and providing for its continued maintenance and care thereafter. But it does not have the authority to plan for the removal of grave stones and markers (which are considered to be the personal property of those buried and of their descendants), unless such markers are in such a dilapidated condition as to constitute a hazard or threat to the public.

The Savannah Pioneer Cemetery was used by the early settlers of El Monte and Savannah. Savannah is said to have preceded El Monte (once called "The Monte" by early residents) and the cemetery began to be used because it was on higher ground than much of the boggy surrounding terrain.

Mr. Ortega's article quotes Anna Guess Pick, great-granddaughter of John Guess, as saying that Mr. Guess "was one of the early settlers in the area." The fact is that John Guess was the FIRST to settle at Savannah. Although not yet verified by my research, it has been said that Guess donated land for the cemetery.

There is some published documentation that supports that in Guess and his wife deeded a 1 1/4 acre parcel to Los Angeles County that was stated to be "near Savannah Cemetery." (Los Angeles Times, Sept. 27, 1893, p. 3) If that acreage were immediately adjacent to the existing public cemetery, it may be it is this transaction that provides the information that Guess donated land for the cemetery as the county paid only a dollar for the land.

Graves are reported to have existed at this location in 1846 when the land was in the control of Henry Dalton. When Dalton sold off portions of his land grant to others, such as John Guess or a predecessor of Guess, the land on which the graves existed created a prime location for an emerging community to continuing using it for their community cemetery. The public has used this cemetery from as early as 1846 and it may well be the oldest non-Catholic cemetery in the San Gabriel Valley.

It is my opinion that aside from the many important pioneer citizens who are buried in the cemetery, it is the last vestige of the area's history as the terminus of the Santa Fe Trail. I doubt there are any other historic resources remaining in either El Monte or Rosemead which could claim a greater historical or cultural value than Savannah Cemetery. The names on the tombstones read as a Who's Who of early Southern California settlers. It undoubtedly will be eligible for listing on either the National or State Register of Historic Places.

The City of Rosemead should treat this cemetery as the treasure that it is. It is a "living" history book of the area's exploration and settlement. The Savannah Cemetery should be protected and preserved in its present state and maintained by the City of Rosemead. It would be nice if the City of El Monte and the County of Los Angeles chipped in a little funding to ensure it is well maintained. Ultimately, though, it is Rosemead's responsibility according to the law.

It has been my experience that cities and counties love to have new development come into an area. They love to grow and prosper with the influx of new citizenry. But they give no thought whatsoever of what to do with that citizenry when people expire.

They give even less thought as to what to do with the old cemeteries that have performed exemplary public duty over the decades. They are not renewable resources. You cannot recycle old grave yards. You can only stand idle and allow them to deteriorate and decay or you can step up to the plate and take care of it as it has taken care of your predecessor citizens.

It's time for Rosemead to step up to the plate for the Savannah Cemetery. It's full and it's tired. Care for her lovingly and let her rest in peace.

Sue Silver, State Coordinator
California Saving Graves

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