Grave Hunting at Santa Cruz's Evergreen Cemetery
Updated: Mar 16, 2021
It's no secret that for those of us who travel for a living, Covid has made our lives A LOT more difficult. This is probably the longest I've gone in the past decade without boarding a plane and it's certainly the first time I haven't had a trip planned and I'd be lying if I said my mental health wasn't starting to suffer a bit. This is why, two weeks ago, I decided to embark on a solo road trip from Los Angeles to San Francisco. My mission was to have a head clearing and inspiring socially distanced getaway where I would be spending more time around the dead than the living. Was I successful? Yes. So here is my first report on the first of three graveyards I had the privilege to grave hunt - Evergreen Cemetery.
Grab a glass of whatever you're in the mood for (today it's hot chocolate with wine for me) and join me virtually as I hit the road to uncover stories buried 6ft under.
*Note - From here on out whenever I travel, I will be including travel tips for ladies traveling solo.
It's been a long standing tradition in the Miglino-Wolf household to leave for road trips at the crack of dawn with coffee in hand. There is nothing I love more then rolling up to a coffee shop while it's still dark to get my coffee for the road, so after grabbing my Peets, I headed out of LA on the 5 North. Roughly 3 hours later, on my journey off of the 5 heading towards the 101, I was approaching my first site; the James Dean memorial where on September 30th, 1955, actor and 50s heartthrob James Dean lost his life at the young age of 24 in a horrible car crash at the intersection of Highway 46 (then 466) and 33. Just a short ways down the road from the tragic site, is a memorial surrounding a tree next to a VERY random roadside diner called Jack's Cafe. Of course I had to stop and I'm glad I did.
LADY TRAVEL TIP - Be aware of your surroundings!!! When I got to the memorial it was still early which meant there was almost no one around except for one man and remember, this site is literally off the freeway in the middle of nowhere. Since I was also filming, he was paying extra attention to me and I could see him continuously trying to get my attention and start to get closer to me which is why I parked my car as close as possible to the memorial, had pepper spray in my purse and if I had to, could have jutted right back into my car with ease. This is something I will touch on again but this is a prime example of how I try to constantly be aware of who is around me when I am traveling solo.
Evergreen Cemetery. Santa Cruz, CA
Santa Cruz is no doubt one of the most beautiful cities along the California coastline but it's a place I've only ever just passed through until now. For years at this point, I've wanted to visit Santa Cruz's historic Evergreen cemetery. Not only is it supposedly haunted, it was founded in 1850 and is full of pioneering gold miners, debaucherous characters and the scenery? My God, this cemetery is built into the hillside stretching way up until you reach a grove of fallen evergreens. If you want to talk about eerie? This place is it. But, it's the story of a somewhat infamously tragic working lady that really brought me there.
The story of Marie Holmes, the England native who moved to America in pursuit of a better life only to end up in prostitution is at first glance not a unique one, but upon further investigation, her story ends up getting a lot more interesting. For starters, her name wasn't Marie Holmes, no one in Santa Cruz ever ended up knowing her true name and to this day, we still do not. What we do know is that she started on the East coast, somewhere in the middle of the country she had a daughter and left her there and then made her way to California where she fell into prostitution at the age of 21. According to testimonies from the other women at the brothel, Marie kept to herself, never spoke of her life before coming to Santa Cruz except that she was "regretful" and "depressed at what her life had become." 1898 would be the last year Marie walked this earth. The depression and sadness over leaving her daughter became too much for her and she drank an entire bottle of carbolic acid one night while walking the streets only to die in front of a saloon. Her funeral and services were paid for by the only people who knew her there, the brothel keeper and fellow prostitutes, although even they only loosely knew her.
The story gets more tragic when letters are uncovered by her daughter to Marie's mother reporting that she'd finally found the grave of her mother and that, "their search was over." This says to me, that despite Marie having abandoned her daughter, the love was still there.
114 years later, because this story just has to get more sad, a homeless hiker stumbles upon the original marble headstone (pictured on the right) 12 miles north of the graveyard. Historians assumed it was lost forever and were thrilled to be able to return it to its rightful place.
It was such an amazing experience to finally visit her grave, to see that people still leave flowers for this sad young woman who took her own life and I have to be honest, It always amazes me to find historic graves with flowers on it so whoever is bringing her flowers and taking care...well done.
Marie is by far not the only interesting or notable burial in this cemetery. In fact, the first known burial is that of 17 day old Julia S. Arcane who's family along with the Bennett family is the reason Death Valley has its name.
In December of 1849, the Bennett-Arcane party made their way into California with Gold Rush fever following what they thought was the old Spanish Trail with some 100 wagons. They were not on the trail and got lost for weeks which resulted with them burning some of their wagons in order to cook some of their own oxen on a historical site now called "Burned Wagons Camp." When they finally emerged from their lost-edness; one of the women in the party is said to have turned back and said, "Goodbye, Death Valley," and that my friends is supposedly how the valley got its name.
I'd mentioned that this cemetery is allegedly haunted, and although I am not a ghost hunter, I was curious if I would feel something while there. To be honest, the graveyard did have a creepy vibe to it but it wasn't until I reached the grave of Emily Frances Clark Vestal did something truly feel.....off.
Her grave sits 3/4 of the way up the stone staircase leading into the hillside on the right side. Her headstone caught my eye because although it was cracked in half with a literal piece missing, someone had taken the care to right it again. I literally had turned to walk towards it when my entire body was engulfed with goosebumps and that sensation of "you shouldn't be here" over came me. I stopped in my tracks and although I'd planned on cresting the staircase and exploring the fallen trees crowning the top of cemetery, every part of me told me to go no further. I didn't recognize her name nor had I previously read anything on Emily Vestal so naturally, when I returned home I started researching and well, there may be a mystery on our hands.
Turns out this Amherst, New Hampshire native was the second wife of Richard Kilbee Vestal, a Police Justice in Santa Cruz for 30 years before dying in Los Angeles in 1900 at age 74. Most interesting though is none of his three wives make it to age 40. His first wife, Rechel B. Moore Vestal died in 1851 at just age 22 from unknown reasons, together they had two daughters, Rachel who goes on to live and marry and another, Ianthe M. Vestal who may or may not have died as an infant since there is no death date or census's with her name on it nor any marriage records. Our girl, Emily died in 1883 at age 39 after suffering from, according to her obit, a "slow and painful illness." What was this illness? Finally his third wife, Matilda Anna Newell Vestal dies at age 37 in 1876 and she has two children already by a man unknown to even HER children.
From what I can find, Richard takes care of her two children as his own as they both took and kept his last name but why is it none of his wives make it past 39? Also, why in the hell is there no recorded reasons of death for two of his wives? I'm not saying theres foul play,I'm just saying the man was a Police Justice who had THREE wives and none of them lived long or had apparent or detailed reasons for death.....like a said, a bit of a mystery.
LADY TRAVEL TIP - Always listen to your gut! Whether it's just the heebees, an actual paranormal experience or some living danger; if your gut is telling you to get out of somewhere, do it. I was bummed to not finish grave hunting the top portion of Evergreen but it was more important for me to be safe.
From pioneers to ladies of the night to possible scandals, Evergreen cemetery was everything I could have hoped it would be. I'm amazed by how many messages I've received from locals who watched my instastories talking about how fondly they think of this cemetery and how they actually visit. You would be shocked to know how many people in any given town or city have never visited their local historic cemeteries but it seems as though this is not the case with Evergreen. In fact, local historians even give guided tours of the graveyard and you can find a downloadable self guide tour book here.
I will always champion historic cemeteries and I am honored to have gotten to grave hunt this one. Till next time Evergreen. ❤️
Have you visited Evergreen cemetery? Tell me about it in the comments below!