Tujunga’s Abandoned Cemetery
Recently I accompanied the Historical Society of the Crescenta Valley on a tour of the Verdugo Hills Cemetery in Tujunga. This cemetery was abandoned in the late ’70s, and has been maintained by local volunteers since then. It’s currently under the loving care of volunteer Herrold Egger who opened the normally padlocked gates to our group for a private tour.
The cemetery sits on a beautiful semi-wooded hillside, providing an incredible view of the San Fernando Valley in front and the majestic San Gabriel Mountains behind. It’s a beautiful and peaceful site for a cemetery, yet its recent history has elements of the sick and macabre.
Its history starts in 1922 with the death of a longtime Tujunga civic leader Parson James Wornom. As the aged minister lay dying, he begged for a local cemetery to be established so he could be buried in the town he loved so dearly. A parcel of land was quickly dedicated and a road to it laid out. The old reverend died and thousands turned out for his funeral. His body was carried in his old horse-drawn itinerant preacher’s wagon along the winding road to the new graveyard. That road today is named Old Parson’s Trail. Over the next several decades hundreds of Tujunga and CV residents were buried there, but ownership of the cemetery passed to absentee landlords and maintenance began to suffer.
In 1978, the cemetery gained international notoriety when a gully-washer rainstorm flushed about 100 bodies into the neighborhoods below the cemetery. Long decayed corpses and body parts were strewn everywhere. Attempts were made to ID the bodies, but it was hopeless, and eventually the exhumed remains were buried in a mass grave, and the county spent hundreds of thousands of dollars to shore up the hillsides. The cemetery owners walked away from this mess and the cemetery stood abandoned at the mercy of local vandals. Many headstones were stolen, and there were several media-covered acts of vandalism in which bodies were dug up and desecrated or left in gruesome tableaus. In the ’90s, local volunteers began to watch over the abandoned graveyard, and a fence was erected. The locked gates are only opened now for relatives, historians and volunteer groups wishing to help maintain the sacred ground.
The cemetery today is in remarkably good shape given its recent history. The grounds are neat and orderly. There is a single small crypt building and a handful of gravestones scattered about the rocky soil. Recently a Boy Scout troop came in with metal detectors and located many bronze headstones that were buried under several inches of soil. According to sparse records, there are hundreds of burials, yet most are unmarked, their headstones buried, stolen or washed away.
A few Historical Society members had humorous memories of the graveyard from years past. One older woman remembered a Halloween night when she was entertaining her teenage daughter and a group of her friends, and made the ill-advised offer to take them to the “spooky abandoned cemetery.” Arriving at the graveyard, they encountered the newly erected fence. Not wanting to disappoint the kids she led them over the fence. Suddenly bright lights flashed on and they were apprehended by volunteer guards. Incredibly one of the female guards recognized her by name as their former Girl Scout leader, and so she was allowed to skulk away, greatly embarrassed.
Another guy remembered being a kid in 1978 when the bodies were washed out, and being employed by a mortician to ride his bike through the affected neighborhoods and collect body-parts, getting $1 per part. He said he made $20, but quipped that if he’d been smarter, he’d have broken the fragile body parts into smaller pieces to make more money.
Today Herrold Egger maintains a lonely vigil each weekend, pulling weeds and raking leaves. He hopes more volunteers will step forward to help him identify the unmarked graves. It saddens him to think that so many names are forever lost. His vision is to restore the old burial ground and to memorialize the dead that are, for now, forgotten.