Columbia Cemetery on 9th Street and Pleasant Street is an oasis of peaceful quiet surrounded on all sides by the busyness of everyday life.
Neighbored by an elementary school and located just a few blocks away from the bustle of campus, this cemetery—Boulder’s first cemetery—holds the key to much of the community’s early history.
Mary Reilly-McNellan, project manager for the cemetery’s preservation, said that Columbia is on the national registry of historic places, and that it is an important resource when learning about Boulder’s past.
“It’s sort of like a ‘Who’s Who’ of the pioneers and early people that have helped to make the city what it is today,” Reilly-McNellan said.
Columbia sits on about 10.5 acres of land and nearly 6,500 people are buried there, according to the Boulder Parks and Recreation website. It is the final resting place of many notable figures, such as Tom Horn.
Horn worked with the Pinkerton Detective Agency and, according to Linda Wommack’s, “From the Grave: A Roadside Guide to Colorado’s Pioneer Cemeteries,” was later hired by the Swan Land and Cattle Company of Wyoming as a horse breaker whose actual task was to track “rustlers and encroaching homesteaders.”
As a hired killer, Horn was paid $600 for every life he took. He did this for years until he was accused of killing a 14-year-old boy who he apparently mistook for the boy’s father. Horn was hanged for the murder in Cheyenne on Nov. 20, 1903.
Many of the people interred at Columbia were pivotal figures at CU. Mary Rippon, who is buried in the northwest section of the cemetery, was the first woman faculty member at CU.
Wommack writes that Rippon fell in love with one of her students and soon became pregnant. The two were secretly married, and Rippon moved to Germany for a year to give birth to the child before returning to her teaching post at the university.
Andrew Macky was a pioneer who, according to the CU website, came to Colorado in 1858 and eventually founded the First National Bank in Boulder. Macky, the site says, bequeathed $300,000 to the university after attending a Colorado-Nebraska football game in 1905.
CU lost 18-0 in that game, but Macky—apparently impressed by the team’s enthusiasm—donated the money to go toward an auditorium.
Reilly-McNellan said that, along with viewing prominent pioneers in Boulder’s history, visitors to the cemetery can see the changes and trends in the community over time by observing the different headstones.
Symbolism on the stones can provide information about community interests, such as fraternal organizations, Reilly-McNellan said.
She said that visitors can also learn about economic and medical factors throughout time, as larger stones typically denote wealth and several deaths within a short amount of time can indicate an epidemic.
Andrew Abalos, a 25-year-old senior majoring in math and economics, said that he finds the historical value of the cemetery interesting.
“It’s another place where you get a sense of how long Boulder has been a community,” Abalos said. “I feel like a lot of people are here for only four or five years, so they don’t get a sense of history outside of the school.”
In addition to historical information, Columbia also provides other educational opportunities.
“I always tell teachers you can learn about any subject in a cemetery,” Reilly-McNellan said.
In the past, the CU geology lab course has incorporated the cemetery as a tool for identifying rock types.
Geology lab instructor Elizabeth Frank said that the cemetery is useful because of its diverse assortment of rocks.
“The variety helps the students learn to distinguish between igneous, metamorphic and sedimentary rocks outside a classroom setting,” Frank said. “Most are polished to some degree, allowing the students to get a good look at the mineral composition.”
Frank said that some students are initially unsettled about wandering around in a cemetery.
“I just tell them this lab has been done for decades and that, as far as I know, no students have run into a ghost,” she said. “The students like being outside, so they get over it pretty quickly.”
The peaceful quality of the outdoor environment is something that Reilly-McNellan said has always made cemeteries good places to visit.
“They’re really some of the early getaways—places where you could really just breathe and relax and refresh your spirit,” Reilly-McNellan said.
Abalos said that Columbia is the closest thing to a park within walking distance of the university that he can enjoy.
“It’s a good place to go whenever the campus feels too busy,” Abalos said. “The cemetery has a meditative quality about it.”
Mike Koshmrl, a 24-year-old master’s candidate majoring in journalism, said that he lives close to the cemetery and likes going there on nice days to read or study.
“Because it’s a historic cemetery, I don’t think it’s disrespectful,” Koshmrl said.
Reilly-McNellan emphasized this concept of respect in the cemetery. Columbia has seen a lot of vandalism in the past, with damages sometimes costing hundreds of thousands of dollars.
“One thoughtless act can cause so much heartache for the families and cost an awful lot of money just to repair,” Reilly-McNellan said.
She also said that, while visitors are welcome to walk their dogs in the cemetery, dogs must be on leashes. The cemetery, Reilly-McNellan said, is very fragile, with some headstones that will crumble just by touching them.
“It’s a great artistic resource, it’s a great historical resource, but first and foremost it’s a burial ground,” Reilly-McNellan said. “It is deserving of respect.”
Click here for more information on the Columbia Cemetery.
Contact CU Independent Staff Writer Kaely Moore at Kaely.firstname.lastname@example.org.