The Grave Markers of Centennial Flat
Every time I drive out to my desert areas I pass this cross. I always assumed it was just another memorial to a tragic car accident but on my last trip curiosity compelled me to stop. And stumbled onto a forgotten corner of history. In fading letters carved into the weathered board are two names: Lorenza McKellips (died-in-infancy) and Larkin McKellips (4-years-old).
I poked around the internet on returning home and came up with two contradictory stories but seeing as the lengthier account purportedly came from a cousin four times removed, I’m inclined to trust its accuracy more.
“Lorenza McKellips and her brother Larkin were in a pioneer family coming to California by covered wagon,” says the first account. “Who died along the way, and were buried by the road side.” (Source) I’m not sure if this is unfortunate phrasing or if the writer actually meant the whole family died here. If the latter, the absence of their parents makes this account dubious.
However, I did find this passage from the distant family member mentioned above, which I quote in its entirety:
“In the 1870s, the McKellips ran a way station near the
current gravesite. Managing a way station was usually a family affair.
The wife of the manager would prepare food and lodgings, while the
manager would tend to the animals and any repairs to the stages and
wagons. The children would help whichever of their parents they could.
In January of 1874 a dreadful sickness came into the valley
[Diphtheria, we think] and entire families took ill at the same time.
There was none left well to care for the sick. Larkin & Lorenza
McKellips died and of necessity had been buried very close to the house.
After the family had gotten well, they must have carefully tended the
little grave sites. The father had the dreadful chore of carving their
names and dates into a grave marker. When the time came for the family
to leave the area, the way station was no longer needed, the mother’s
heart must have been heavy with anguish.
For over half a century the graves laid forgotten. In 1947, Bill
James, who leased the “White Swan” talc mine was wandering over the
desert and found two grave markers. It was impossible to discern what
was originally carved into the worn and weathered wooden boards. The
mystery intrigued Mr. James and by inquiring with all of the old-timers
in the area he was gradually able to piece together the story of the
children and their untimely deaths. Mr. James carved new markers and
the James family and the Wallace Campbell family of Darwin maintained
the graves until the road department crew took over.” (Source)
Interestingly, I had stumbled across some original claim paperwork for White Swan #1 in the hills near the graves on a previous trip. It’s dated 11 years after Bill James had worked it, however. The lessee in 1958 was Fred Smith. Would be interesting to know if Fred took over for Bill or if there had been multiple turnovers in the interim.
Still, fascinating bits of history slowly piecing themselves together as I continue to putter about the backlands.