Nancy Brown of Apache Creek, New Mexico, has generously allowed us to include her story of locating the lost grave of her Grandfather, W.A. Place, who died while building the railroad from La Junta to Creel. Nancy, who is 80 years old (2003) first contacted us in March, it was several months before we had a time to search for the grave. After reading countless faded tombstones, my Tarahumara wrangler, Jose Frias, came from a newer section of the graveyard and told me he thought he had found the grave. A chill came over me when I went with Jose and looked down on the grave that had been lost for almost 100 years. Read on and see what Nancy has to say about her Grandfather and her feelings on learning of his grave.--doug
One of the greatest thrills of my life was in finding exactly where my grandfather, W.A. Place, is buried in Miñaca, State of Chihuahua, Mexico. One day, when browsing through the Internet, I looked up the Copper Canyon area and found the Rail Road log from the city of Chihuahua to the coast. My grandfather and father worked on this railroad and grandpa was killed during its construction.
I kept being drawn back to one particular person who really interested me. I couldn’t tell you why, but each time I would look at these pages, I’d end up by going back to Rancho del Oso and Hotel Paraiso del Oso, in Cerocahui, Mexico. Both were run by Doug “Diego" Rhodes and his wife, Ana Maria. I finally emailed Doug to tell him the story of my grandfather’s death and how I longed to find his grave. With my description of the incident of what my father had told me, Mr. Rhodes became very interested. I really didn’t think I’d ever hear from him, but one day here was an email saying he would put out feelers and as soon as he had some spare time, he’d start looking.
What I didn’t know was that the place where Doug and Ana Maria live is about a five-hour drive to Miñaca.
Doug and I corresponded back and forth for a couple of months. Finally, one day I was checking my mail and here was an email that said, “We found it”! Sure enough, they had found grandpa’s gravesite. I think Doug was as excited as we were. Doug sent me two pictures of the gravesite. I immediately wrote and thanked the Rhodes’s for their dedication in finding the grave and for sending the pictures. I told him that I was sure a higher power had guided my fingers to his website. I really feel that was the case. A trip is planned in Spring, 2004 with Doug to take my daughter, my son and myself to my grandfathers gravesite and to show us some of the country we've heard so much about. We can hardly wait.
This is a gravesite I am sure you will not just accidentally stumble on to. Unless you know the place and circumstances, you’ll never see it. This is my paternal grandfather’s grave and it is many a step from Keokuk, Iowa to Miñaca, Chihuahua, Mexico.
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William Atherton Place was born in 1853 in Keokuk, Iowa. He was the son of a lawyer and a Union soldier in the War of the Rebellion. His mother died when he was very young and his father remarried, but he seemed to dislike his stepmother. As soon as he could, he left home. Each move he made, he seemed to be heading toward the west; Tennessee, Kentucky, Illinois, Kansas, Colorado, New Mexico and finally Arizona. Arizona was his last move until he went to Mexico. While in Arizona, my grandfather practiced law and farmed in the Gila Valley.
I don’t know how he happened to go to Mexico and take a contract building a railroad, although he had worked on the laying of the tracks on the Southern Pacific railway through parts of New Mexico and Arizona. Ah ha, yes, now I do know! In recently reading the history of the Southern Pacific and the Santa Fe railroad, I found that Bill Garland was one of the subcontractors on the Southern Pacific. My grandfather, I knew, worked for him, hauling freight. Bill Garland had built railroads in Mexico. The two of them were good friends, so I am sure he encouraged my grandfather to go down there to work.
Grandpa had a contract to build a section of the Kansas City, Mexico and Orient railroad. He finished one section then contracted another section near Miñaca, in the State of Chihuahua. My father and his two-step brothers were working on the railroad too.
One day the old Mexican powder man loaded the shot holes with dynamite and lit the fuses. As he counted each blast, he realized that one charge had misfired. He went to camp to tell my grandfather. My grandfather was sick in bed with flu and pneumonia, but he told the old man that he’d get up and go tend to it. He got dressed and went to the site and found the misfired hole. As he was digging the hole out, the tamping stick hit the blasting cap causing it to detonate. The stick came up and hit grandpa behind the ear, taking off the mastoid bone. Although the blast blew him 60 feet over an embankment. He was still alive when the men hurriedly took him to camp.
My father rode 115 kilometers to get a doctor. My grandfather lived three days, but he was blind from the blast. The old doctor stayed until my grandfather died. There was nothing the doctor could do but try to keep my Grandfatherh comfortable until the end.
My grandfather had preached many funeral services in his lifetime; he always said that when his time came, there would be no one there to preach his service. Those were prophetic words as there was no one there but the family and the workmen when he died. The grave was dug just outside of camp, within seeing distance from the railroad. Miñaca Mountain stood in the background. An old American outlaw knew one verse of “Nearer My God To Thee” and he sang it without aid of music. The Mexican workers stood with hat in hand, bowed their heads and made the Sign of the Cross. It was a sad day for my father who had loved his father dearly.
The Good Lord willing, my daughter, Arlena, my son Ernie and I will travel to Miñaca to view this gravesite first hand sometime soon. It will be quite a thrill to stand in awe at the foot of the tomb of someone we have heard so much about.
Miñaca, the lion, has stood many years guarding this hallowed place. Rest in Peace, Grandpa.
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