Mary Casey, late of Hamilton, NV

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The grave of Mary Casey, Hamilton NV ghost town cemetery
The grave of Mary Casey, Hamilton NV ghost town cemetery

During my time in Las Vegas I was subject to a fortuitous convergence of circumstances that afforded me easy means & ample time to explore the interior West with a level of detail no vacationer’s pace could afford. In every direction was a destination of renown, of mystery, of geologic interest, of the sort of desolation one finds only in places on which even the economy of man has turned its back.

To the east was the geological Louvre of the West: the complex of National Parks in southern Utah and northern Arizona. Beyond was the vast, accessible Navajo nation; replete with cliff dwellings, talking res dogs, and the clear-channel hum of KTNN-AM in your fillings. Echelon north to Monument Valley, south to the Barringer Crater, or straight on to Shiprock, the ‘rock with wings.’

To the south was Tucson and the bloody mining camps of Arizona, amid the country of the Apache & the Tohono O’odham –’the desert people’– whose lifeways substantially inspired one of my cornerstone books Gathering The Desert by Gary Paul Nabhan. Beyond lay all of Mexico, featuring inaccessible Baja and the thousand tiny private beaches at the mouth of every arroyo.

To the west the impenetrable cordillera of the Sierras, among whose coyote-haunted folds the eye always seems to find some remnant of man. To the north the strongholds of the Paiutes, the wild basin & range country, and on to the land of the Western Shoshone. Scattered across this landscape were thousands of abandoned structures: from the line cabins of summer cowboys to mining camps to nascent cities nipped in the bud by the Silver Panic of 1873, or snuffed at last by the Panic of 1893. Four-story brick hotels given over to cows, roofless, staring blankly up at the stars through crisp, unblemished desert air. A cabin with a calendar on the wall dated 1917, the solitude  an echo of a young cowboy’s answer to his nation’s call. Tin cups hung on hooks, ten miles from good water.

As a cemetery photographer my eye is accustomed to lonely places, indeed seeks such places for the untrodden nature of the grass: an eyewitness to the onrush of time and blood. Save the cows and visits from Mormon genealogists no foot bends the bunchgrass; no one speaks the names there, inviolate before time. Even the illegible tell a tale: two tall graven planks, now split and weathered to standing splinters, leading five little crosses in a row.

It was to the north, on a cool, foggy daybreak at Mourner’s Point –the cemetery of the ghost town of Hamilton– that I encountered the snow-white grave of Mary Casey, late of Cambridge, Massachusetts.

in memory of
Died June 13 1870
A native of
Cambridge Mass.
Aged 18 years

Erected in her memory
By her esteemed friend
Isaac Phillips

I was made part of the sad little procession of mourners for an out-of-town girl, born in an immigrant city with an immigrant name two years after the end of the Civil War, who had somehow in the flower of life arrived in a desert boomtown only to succumb to an unknown menace and be memorialized in expensive, blazing white marble by a man whose connection to her –indeed to Hamilton itself– is lost in time.

By the time Mary Casey passed away Hamilton was already in decline. Where in its heyday:

By 1869, Hamilton had grown to a population of around 30,000 and boasted of having some 22 lawyers, 101 saloons, 59 general stores, churches, banks, a soda factory, breweries, stage station and a morning newspaper by the name of the Daily Inland Empire along with many other businesses.

From Wiki:

It was soon discovered that the local ore deposits proved shallow. Subsequently, by 1870, less than two years after its founding, the community was already in decline. Once the shallow nature of the local ore deposits became known, many of the mining companies left the area. Hamilton’s population and economy began a rapid decline. At the census of 1870, the population was 3,915, less than a third of what it had been estimated at the previous summer. On June 27, 1873, a large fire spread throughout the business district and caused an estimated $600,000 in damage, a huge sum at the time. Most businesses that burnt down were abandoned, and not rebuilt. By this time, the town’s population was estimated to have shrunk to only 500.

Mary Casey’s demise was coincident to the decline of Hamilton. Did the economic shock of realization the silver was played-out send once-profligate townsfolk into a flurry of divestiture, sending her onto the street? Was an East Coast schoolteacher no longer needed in a town without children? A simple victim of dysentery, a lovelorn suicide, or might she have met her end at the hands of one of the countless rough, drunken miners in town to assuage their frustration in bars? Sadly the town records of Hamilton (and indeed all of early White Pine County) were destroyed in a fire in 1885, so further official documentation of her life and passing is unlikely to surface.

To me the greatest mystery is represented by the character of Isaac Phillips. You can see how an esteemed citizen could fit into any of the pat possibilities listed above: a former employer, an appreciative townsman, a lovelorn suitor, or can we by the absence of an interment in his name at Mourner’s Point presume he was among the river of townsfolk flowing northeast to Ely or west to Fallon and on, leaving her heartbroken in his wake? The sheer expense of the marble memorial let alone 151 custom-engraved characters and a vivid floral motif instantly establishes an expectation that their relationship must have been very close, or at least closely obligated. The absence of other such memorials at the Hamilton cemetery observably renders what would be a high-class memorial in the burying grounds of San Francisco or Boston a defining gesture of opulence on a lonely, windswept hillside in Nevada. Did Isaac Phillips stand at Mary Casey’s grave as I had in astonishment at so fitting a tribute, or was the inscription dictated but not read from an armchair in San Francisco or Denver and delivered later on a lone southbound buckboard, itself soon retiring to the north before the onrushing silence?

If a deliberate hand is the hallmark of a photographer, it is the deliberate eye that reveals not a moment in time but a component of eternity. I’m not suggesting this blurry, grainy scan-from-print image represents an intentioned aesthetic. Rather being on that hillside in the clouds with Mary Casey a thousand miles from nowhere was the intentioned aesthetic act. As Archibald MacLeish implores, “A poem should not mean, but be.” So too a photographer, an inmate of the road.


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