by Paul R. Spitzzeri
It was just a coincidence, but as my colleague Robert Barron invited me yesterday to see some repair and repainting work done at El Campo Santo Cemetery, it occurred to me that it was the anniversary of the tragic death of William Workman’s brother, David.
As related before here, David, who’d moved with his wife, Nancy, and three sons, Thomas, Elijah and William Henry to Rancho La Puente in fall 1854, went to work immediately for his brother transporting cattle and sheep from the ranch to the gold fields of the “southern mines” in the Sierra Nevada Mountains in Tuolumne County, where the towns of Sonora and Columbia were centers of mining activity.
On 27 June 1855, David set off in the dark in search of a stray animal and he fell down a steep embankment a couple hundred feet to his death. It took some time to recover his body, transport it back to the ranch, and prepare it for burial. In mid-November, David Workman’s funeral, amply covered in the Los Angeles Star, was the first documented burial at El Campo Santo.
And, here we were yesterday, 163 years later, seeing the latest improvements to the burial ground. The project started off because the original iron gates to the cemetery needed some adjusting because they were getting harder to lock. This involved a welder coming to remove and reattach a staple through which the lock was attached.
Once that was done, it was clear that the paint on the gates was fading and so was that on the decorative iron balls on top of the pillars to which the gates are attached and the balls that are atop the cemetery’s walls (three of which are rebuilt using older brick and done in such a way that they appear to be as original as most of the front, or west-facing, wall is.) One of the balls on the front pillars also was removed and reattached because it wasn’t quite centered. Additionally, decorative security doors, added in the late 1970s/early 1980s restoration of the site, at the entrance to the Walter P. Temple Memorial Mausoleum also were in need of a repainting.
The work to the gates, front wall and mausoleum has been completed in the last couple of days, with the balls on the remaining three walls to be done in subsequent days and the crew from Square Root, which does the landscaping and maintenance for the Homestead, have done a great job putting all of this together, as the accompanying photographs show.
When Robert brought me down to look at the project, he asked me if I knew that the iron staves on the gate were stamped. Actually, although I’ve been at the Homestead a staggering thirty years, it was only about ten years ago that I noticed the stamps, which read “Chillington Best.” At the time, I did some research and found that the Chillington Iron Works opened in 1822 (the year William Workman left England for the U.S.) at Wolverhampton, not far from Birmingham, in what was, at the time, the world’s biggest steel-producing area in the West Midlands of England.
Workman’s sole visit home to Clifton in the north of the country in 1851-52 may well have inspired his decision to establish, or improve, El Campo Santo (some sources suggest the cemetery was established in 1850 just before his trip.) In any case, how he came to order gates with Chillington staves is unknown, though perhaps he saw the firm’s handiwork at the famed Crystal Palace Exhibition at London in 1851.
Chillington, incidentally, suffered significantly during the financial panic of the first half of the 1870s (the Depression of 1873 in the U.S. occurring at the same time). In 1876, the year the Temple and Workman bank failed, Chillington decided to abandon the iron-working business and move into tools and horse shoes. Later, horse shoes were phased out and the firm reorganized in 1892 as the Chillington Tool Company. It still operates today at Willenhall, east of Wolverhampton.
It is assumed he ordered the gates from England, which would have cost a princely sum, but, then, Workman was making a fortune in the very trade of selling cattle in the gold fields during which David died. The building of the brick walls could not have happened prior to 1852, when the first fired bricks were manufactured in Los Angeles, so the gates were obviously purchased and installed later.
By late 1856, traveling artist Henry Miller made sketches for a chapel, William named St. Nicholas’ after his wife, Nicolasa Urioste, and the structure’s cornerstone was dedicated by Roman Catholic Bishop Thaddeus Amat the following spring (the event was recently covered here) and completed by about the beginning of the new decade.
Visitors to the Workman’s homestead at La Puente were likely very impressed with the ornateness of El Campo Santo, especially given the rural environment of the time. The chapel, the cast-iron family plot behind it, the brick walls, and the substantial entrance gates reflected the wealth and standing of the Workman family and showed how far William had come since he left England about thirty years before the cemetery was established.
This week’s work gave a much-needed facelift to the entrance and mausoleum at El Campo Santo, which, as the oldest private cemetery in the area, is one of the many notable elements of what makes the Homestead a particularly interesting place to learn about the history of greater Los Angeles during the transformative century between 1830 and 1930.