Columbia Cemetery Conservation Corps

Volunteer with the Columbia Cemetery Conservation Corps (CCCC). This cadre of professionally trained volunteers was established in 1999 to assist with simple grave marker repair and conservation tasks. The group has spent thousands of hours documenting, cleaning, and resetting the markers, landscaping, providing educational outreach, and performing minor repairs.

Some of their skills and accomplishments include:

  • Proper grave marker condition assessment and documentation
  • Appropriate cleaning techniques for grave markers
  • Safe use of appropriate equipment for moving and setting grave markers
  • Proper excavation techniques for partially buried grave markers
  • Resetting unstable grave markers
  • Trimming/pruning of vegetation
  • Research on persons buried in Columbia Cemetery
  • Public education and outreach
  • Photographic documentation of the grave markers and conservation work

Formerly "A Disgrace to Boulder"

Throughout its history, Columbia has suffered from neglect, apathy and vandalism, and more recently, the infirmities of old age. As early as 1909, Columbia Cemetery was reported as “a disgrace to Boulder” in the local newspaper. When the City of Boulder took over Columbia Cemetery in 1966, much of the historic cast iron perimeter fence was damaged or missing and the grounds were overgrown. The site was used as an unofficial campground, a location for illegal activities, and was a favorite spot for midnight parties and destructive behaviors.

Fortunately, historical accounts also chronicle a number of concerted efforts to maintain Columbia Cemetery. Cemetery sextons, seasonal workers and Parks employees have all contributed to the upkeep of this wonderful resource. Organized groups, including Historic Boulder, Inc., neighborhood associations, scout groups, various fraternal organizations, and other volunteers have all donated time, effort and money to help with Columbia Cemetery preservation.

Preservation in Progress

In the 1990s, preparation of a Columbia Cemetery Preservation Master Plan was funded by the Colorado Historical Society’s State Historical Fund. This plan outlined a preservation action plan for the rehabilitation, restoration and conservation of the Cemetery. Additional grants from the State Historical Fund, along with cash match monies from the City of Boulder, Historic Boulder, Inc. and private donations have enabled completion of a number of the recommendations outlined in the Preservation Master Plan. These have included:

  • Restoration of the historic cast iron perimeter fence
  • Professional conservation work on several hundred grave markers
  • Re-roofing of the historic tool shed
  • Construction of a new informational entry way sign
  • Inventory and digital photography of each of the nearly 3,000 grave markers
  • Preparation of a Columbia Cemetery Conservation Plan
  • Establishment and professional training of the Columbia Cemetery
  • Conservation Corps volunteers

Grant monies have permitted more technical repairs by professional grave marker conservators. Intensive outreach efforts have been undertaken to educate the public about the importance of preserving this cultural treasure. Hundreds of grave markers have received conservation work, the beautiful iron fence has been restored, and the Cemetery continues to shine as one of Boulder’s premier historical resources.

Columbia's "Endangered" Grave Markers

For many, part of the charm of an old cemetery is exhibited by the collection of weathered tombstones, all leaning at appropriately precarious angles. Although this may seem fitting for an old graveyard, gravity eventually takes its toll, causing many markers to topple and break.

Many of the early grave markers were placed in Columbia with no thought to the idea that they may someday become targets of vandalism, or casualties of settling soil.

Hundreds of grave markers have been stolen from the grounds, the victims of theft and pranks. Others bear chips and breaks that indicate repeated toppling. Still others exhibit damage inflicted by Frisbees, balls and other projectiles.

Fragments and corners have broken off many markers that were originally attached to bases by iron pins and sulfur adhesive. The pins rusted and expanded, exerting pressure on the stone. Sulfur chemically reacted with the environment, leading to the formation of corrosive sulfuric acid.

Even such a seemingly innocuous activity as grave rubbing has taken its toll on grave markers. Many of the stones are quite fragile, and can be easily toppled or damaged by rubbing. In addition, wax is sometimes left behind by careless rubbing. Volunteers have discovered that the wax marks are nearly impossible to remove. For these reasons, as well as for public safety, grave rubbing is not permitted in many historic cemeteries, as well as Columbia.

Grave Marker Repair and Conservation

Grave markers are private property, and owners are accountable for repair and maintenance. Some family members have faithfully overseen the upkeep of their loved ones' graves for many years. However, as families have moved away, and relatives have passed on, a number of graves have been neglected.

A great deal of professional and volunteer conservation work has been performed on those neglected grave markers that are considered endangered. Those markers that have received attention were selected by considering several factors, including public safety, potential for further damage, potential for theft, and historic and/or artistic significance. Some markers have been removed to an off-site location for safe storage until they may be appropriately repaired.

Much has been learned about proper and effective grave marker repair and conservation. Many early repairs have now been found to be quite damaging to grave markers, and more information is being discovered each year about how to best preserve historic graveyards.

In general, the philosophy of grave marker conservation in Columbia Cemetery has been one of minimal intervention. Stabilization and repair have been the primary goals, rather than attempting to make the markers look brand new. Cleaning of grave markers is rarely an "emergency."

Conservation efforts involving cleaning for appearance's sake have been minimal, primarily because the stones can be easily damaged during the process. When cleaning has been undertaken, it has usually been effective to use plain water and a soft bristle brush (never a wire brush.)

For advice on appropriate procedures for repair, cleaning or conservation, please contact the Columbia Cemetery Preservation Project Manager.

Columbia Cemetery Conservation Corps received first “Betty Chronic Preservation in Action Award”

The City of Boulder Parks and Recreation Department’s Columbia Cemetery Conservation Corps received the first “Betty Chronic Preservation in Action Award” during Historic Boulder, Inc.’s annual membership meeting and awards ceremony.

If you are interested in learning more about the Columbia Cemetery Conservation Corps, please contact the program coordinator at berubesmithc@bouldercolorado.gov.

Help preserve Columbia Cemetery!