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A History of the Virginia Exempt Firemen's Association Cemetery
Virginia City, Nevada

Although a firemen's section had been laid out in the Pioneer Cemetery on Flowery Hill years before, in May of 1868 the Virginia Fire Department purchased a section of the Silver Terrace Cemetery for its use from undertakers Charles M. Brown and Josh W. Wilson for $50.00. The Virginia Board of Alderman had sought other property for a firemen's cemetery. But after investigation of suggested property, First Ward Alderman T.M. Adams, and Fourth Ward Alderman Laurence Bass deemed the area unfavorable since it was located too close to buildings in Virginia City. So purchase of the Silver Terrace property was concluded.

Members of the family of John Giandoni, a member of Knickerbocker Engine Co. No. 5 had already been buried in the cemetery prior to the fire department taking over the property.  In April of 1869, the Virginia Fire Department made what is believed to be its first interment with the death of Joseph McClellan.  The 32-year old Pennsylvania native and member of Knickerbocker Engine Co. No. 5 was killed in the catastrophic fire at the Yellow Jacket Mine in Gold Hill on April 7, 1869.

Through 1876, the Virginia Fire Department continued to allow members of the department and their family members to be buried in the cemetery, although not all members of the fire department were buried there.  Membership in the Virginia Fire Department was fluid; so many members left the area to seek fortune in other mining camps.  Still other members were buried in cemeteries maintained by their fraternal lodges, such as the Knights of Pythias, California Pioneers, Odd Fellows, Masonic and Order of the Redmen.

Following the disastrous fire of October 26, 1875, the Virginia Fire Department membership declined.  The volunteer engine, hose and hook and ladder companies began to disband, and the new Virginia Paid Fire Department was authorized by the Nevada Legislature.

In 1877, the former members of the Virginia Fire Department organized the Virginia Exempt Fire Association with a membership of up to 150 members who had at least three consecutive years service in the old department, or who had been granted “exempt” status during their membership.  On February 18, 1977, the Trustees of the Virginia Exempt Fire Association were “directed to receive and record the deed from the officers of the Virginia Fire Department for all books, papers and records of the Virginia Fire Department, also a piece of ground known as the “Fire Department Cemetery.”  The trustees of the association were empowered to grant the burial of any exempt member of the Volunteer Fire Department or relative of any member of the association.

In March of 1880, the dwindling membership of the Virginia Exempt Fire Association voted to sell a portion of the cemetery to Joseph A. Conboie in order to provide funds for continued maintenance of the Exempt cemetery and fund association needs.  The western section that had been sold became known simply as the Conboie Cemetery, or the West Cemetery.  The Irish-born Conboie had purchased the Sunset Hill Cemetery south of the Sacramento City Cemetery in 1869, and operated a drug store in San Jose in 1876, with other holdings in Placer County, California. Conboie's Virginia City funeral parlor was successful and he remained on the Comstock for a number of years.  He successfully ran for the Nevada Assembly representing Storey County in 1895.

When the last member of the Virginia Exempt Fire Association passed away after 1913, the Virginia City Volunteer Fire Department assumed stewardship of the grounds.  Major efforts were made to clean overgrown brush from the Virginia Exempt fire Association Cemetery as well as adjacent cemeteries in 1937, and again in the 1960's.  In 1981, the Comstock Firemen's Museum of the Storey County Volunteer Fire Department-Virginia City District, took a more active role with the Virginia Exempt Fire Association Cemetery as well as the Conboie or West Cemetery.  Inmate crews from the Nevada Division of Forestry were brought in annually to clean the cemetery and perform minor repair work, and a few graves were selected for more extensive work.  A concentrated effort was also made to identify and mark graves in both cemeteries.  This work has continued with past Virginia City Fire Chief and current Comstock Firemen's Association Board Member Steve Frady representing the fire department on the board of directors of the Comstock Cemetery Foundation.

To date, there are documented 115 burials in the Virginia Exempt Fire Association Cemetery of which 40 are unmarked, although recent ground penetrating radar results indicate there are many more.  The burials also include eight children, the loved ones of members of the old Virginia Fire Department; Virginia City firefighters who were elected to municipal office as well as serving in the Legislature.  There is even an adult female buried in the cemetery whose connection to either the Virginia Fire Department or the Virginia Exempt Fire Association remain as mysterious as her death.  And, there are three fire chiefs buried in the cemetery.  Meredith R. “Riff” Williams, was member of Nevada Hook & Ladder Co. No. 1 who served as chief of the Virginia Fire Department, 1865-1866.  He died on October 20, 1872, as a result of the effects of fighting the 1869 Yellow Jacket Mine fire.  George W. Hanbridge died on May 25, 1884, after breaking his neck in a fall in the Virginia Gas Works.  Hanbridge served as Chief of the Virginia Paid Fire Department in 1883, but had also served in the old Virginia Fire Department with distinction as a member and officer in Knickerbocker Engine Co. No. 5, joining the engine company's hose company, Neptune Hose Co. No. 5, as a torch boy. John A. “Jack” Long, a native of England, died on July 8, 1890, as the result of falling from the roof of firehouse of Lincoln Hose Co. No. 3 in Gold Hill while attempting to put up the flag for the Fourth of July celebration. Long has served as chief of the Gold Hill Fire Department in 1881, and was a charter member of Eagle Engine Co. No 3, of the old Virginia Fire Department.  His grave remains unmarked.

By: Steve Frady
Fire Chief, 1980-87
Virginia City Volunteer Fire Department

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