For some time, I’ve been aware of the dilapidated state of a cemetery in Northwest Atlanta but haven’t had the courage or companion to visit it. Located inside the I-285 Perimeter at the intersection of Hollywood and Hightower Roads is Hollywood Cemetery.
Because this area is known for its rough edges, I’d been told not to go alone. In addition, the place is so often overrun with vegetation, the best time to go is from late November through March. Not exactly prime weather time.
But last week, my friend and fellow cemetery hopper Cathy and I met up so we could visit Hollywood together. She brought her machete (for cutting away vines and our personal protection) and we headed over.
Hollywood Cemetery opened sometime in the early 1890s, lauded as a picturesque alternative to Oakland and Westview Cemeteries. It featured a terraced landscape and was easily accessible by streetcar. The neighborhood was considerably more well heeled at the time.
The story of how Hollywood went from a grand cemetery to a ruin is complicated and I don’t know all the facts. It’s currently owned and “maintained” by Lincoln Cemetery, who also owns the adjacent Magnolia Cemetery (in poor shape but still mowed) and Monte Vista Cemetery (which is well maintained and still sells plots). You can read more about that in this article.
To put it in a nutshell, much of Hollywood’s history is shrouded in rumors and question marks. What is clear is that it’s a big mess.
Cathy and I spent the first few hours negotiating the terraced level of Hollywood, which is easy to navigate compared to the jungle-like areas across the street. Some graves are broken, others knocked off their bases. Some are hidden from sight. This picture of a stairway can give you a glimpse of what it might have looked like in better days.
It’s not until we went over to Gun Club Road and up into the woods that we saw how truly bad things are.
Hiking through the vines, thorns, trees and fallen branches was no easy task. I can’t imagine what it’s like during the summer when it’s hot and insects are in full throng. I’m thankful neither one of us encountered a snake or stepped in a hole (although we did see a decomposing deer carcass).
But it was when we encountered this monument amid the trees that we both stopped in stunned silence.
Inscribed on the grave of 19-year-old Van Wallace Duke are these words:
How soon fades the tender flower,
But love’s remembrance lasts forever.
Died in St. Francis Dam break Calif.
After we finished up and had lunch at nearby Hotty Hawg’s Smokin’ BBQ (which I highly recommend), I headed home and hit the Internet. Thanks to Ancestry.com, I was able to find out quite a bit about Van Wallace Duke and his older brother, J.R. (whose granddaughter gave me permission to share her photos and family stories).
Van was the youngest son of John (J.R.) Duke, Sr. and Maxie Isala Wallace Duke. Maxie died in 1910 when Van was still a baby. J.R. was a freight train conductor in Atlanta and died in 1917. Obituaries state that both parents were buried at Hollywood but their graves have not been found.
Van’s older brother J.R., Jr. lied about his age and joined the U.S. Cavalry, serving with General John J. Pershing from 1916 to 1917. Family history states they were pursuing Poncho Villa into Mexico when they were called back by the start of World War I.
By 1928, J.R. was working as a foreman for the Southern California Edison Company. He invited his younger brother, now 19, to come out and join him. Van, in Georgia living with older sister Leona and her husband, jumped at the chance and headed to California by himself. He rode his bike or caught rides, working his way across the country alone.
When Van arrived in California, he must have been awed by the newly constructed St. Francis Dam. As a curved concrete gravity dam, it was built to create a large regulating and storage reservoir for the City of Los Angeles and was an integral part of the city’s Los Angeles Aqueduct water supply infrastructure. It was located in the San Francisquito Canyon of the Sierra Pelona Mountains 40 miles northwest of Los Angeles near the present city of Santa Clarita.
As the Duke brothers toiled for Southern California Edison, they were quite familiar with the dam since the work they did was just below it. The dam’s chief engineer and general manager was William Mulholland, a native of Belfast, Ireland who garnered much respect for his experience. At 600 feet long and 185 feet high, the dam had a 12.5 billion-gallon capacity.
On March 12, J.R. laid off many of his workers (including Van) because their work was almost finished. However, instead of leaving, most of the men stayed a final night to play cards and relax. Van was one of them. That decision would cost many of them their lives.
Just a few minutes before midnight, the St. Francis Dam broke. J.R. barely escaped by riding a tent above the waves, jumping to the shore and clinging to it with all his might. He told his family later that he was stripped of all his clothes and his fingernails were torn completely off his fingers.
As the dam collapsed, 12 billion gallons of water surged down San Francisquito Canyon in a dam break wave, destroying everything in its path. The water flooded parts of present-day Valencia and Newhall before turning west into the Santa Clara River bed. It continued west through Santa Paula in Ventura County, emptying victims and debris into the Pacific Ocean at Montalvo (54 miles from the reservoir and dam site).
When the surge reached the ocean at 5:30 a.m., the flood was almost two miles wide, traveling at a speed of five miles per hour. Bodies of victims were recovered from the Pacific Ocean, some as far south as the Mexican border. An estimated 600 people were carried away by the flood, including Van Wallace Duke. (Note: When I wrote this post in 2015, 600 was the estimated death toll. As of 2022, the estimated death toll was closer to 450.)
According to his family, J.R. had the heart-wrenching job of identifying the dead bodies of his workers and his brother. Many bodies were never recovered.
The collapse of the St. Francis Dam is considered to be one of the worst American civil engineering disasters of the 20th century and remains the second-greatest loss of life in California’s history, after the 1906 San Francisco Earthquake and fire.
Van’s body was brought home to Atlanta and he was buried in Hollywood Cemetery. J.R. spent the rest of his life in California with his wife, Bernice, and they had one daughter. He died in 1984 and is buried in Visalia Public Cemetery in Visalia, Calif.
As I pondered the story of the Duke brothers, I thought of my recent posts on the Bios Urn and the potential composting of human remains. Those are exciting prospects for some people.
But when you stumble upon a piece of history such as Van Duke’s grave stone, which tells about his life in a few simple words, a window to a moment in time is opened. A life ended by a dam’s collapse thousands of miles away. The fates of two brothers from Georgia, determined by a hand unseen, but whose effects were felt for decades afterward.
This is why cemeteries matter. Even if they are hidden under a mass of leaves and vines.
What other amazing stories rest unknown and unseen in Hollywood Cemetery?
Wright Mitchell said:
As a cemetery buff and history lover, I thoroughly enjoyed this piece. Meticulously researched. Well done!
Thank you! I value your opinion a great deal so that means a lot to me.
Now, that IS a wonderful blog post. Absolutely fascinating. Thank you.
Ann Mprris Fulton said:
Very Good I am in a class now on before Martha Berry was a Collage up here in Rome Ga Wish my Father was alive he could tell you more about this.
These are the stories that it is so important to save and share. Thank you for your efforts, and sharing what you found. It is fascinating!
Thank you, Kathleen! I always enjoy discovering stories like this one.
Jean Boling said:
As a cemetery researcher, I find the stories I discover the best part – and I’ve gotten two books out of them, which benefit my local historical society! Great story!
Jean, I love the stories, too!
Great post! And yes, I would be happy to go out to a cemetery with you sometime!
v. korporal said:
Thank you so much for researching this fascinating life story. I love old cemeteries and often think of all the stories we will never know.
As a child, my grandmothers lived on two side of a cemetery. The swimming pool was pn the third. I grew up crossing the cemetery fascinated by the potential stories behind each stone. I.still love them. Thank you for this one you “unearthed”. 🙂
Lewis Baumstark said:
Great article, Traci! I passed it on to our neighborhood FB group and they loved it.
I’m so glad you guys liked it! Thanks! 🙂
It’s always neat to find out the story of someone’s life! Fascinating.
Lucille Renfroe said:
This is truly a great story and I could hardly wait to read the next line in it. Thanks for finding and writing about it for us to enjoy.
Janice miller said:
What a great story and a horror as well, the cemetery I mean. There is almost nothing sadder than a cemetery left to ruin. How can we help to fix this situation?
I wish I had the answer. Unfortunately, it appears the owner gave up on it years ago and is concentrating on the two cemeteries he can make money from (Monte Vista and Lincoln). To truly clean it up and restore it would cost quite a bit.
Michele Jackson said:
Two things. One, I’m a Duke descendant. Although, I’ve never heard this story or knew about Van and his brother. Thank you for sharing it! also, I’m cemetery obsessed and have recently come on board with a local group of Sons of the Confederate Veterans (SCV) who look for cemeteries to honor. Many groups do yearly projects. SCV, DAR, Eagle Scouts, Civitan groups. Look for some! Also, nothing like organizing a clean up day! Go small! do one small section first. We just recently did underbrush clearing with the SCV and it was a 6 hour project, with 2 chain saws, 7 people, a back hoe and the cooperation of the township to haul away what we cleaned up. Sometimes it just take some pressure from people to get them to help out.
I love this story and again, thank you for sharing on behalf of my own part of the Duke family. 🙂
908 gregg said:
Outstanding work! Definately a book and hollywood movie in that material.
My mother had some relatives buried at Hollywood Cemetery. I found a deed somewhere in her papers after she died in l979. Never new where this was.
Laurie Diamant said:
I applaud you for cleaning up the cemetery. If more people chipped in, how great would that be? There are 2 errors to clarify. First, the city north of Los Angeles is called Santa Clarita, California (not San Clarita). Second, I think that JR might be buried in Vahalla Cemetery in North Hollywood/Burbank. The Visalia cemetery is located in my town, Visalia, California where I see the family had relatives.
Hi, Jan! Thanks for the correction on Santa Clarita. But J.R. is definitely buried in Visalia Cemetery. There’s a picture of his marker there on Find a Grave. Also, we have not done any clean up ourselves, just some poking around.
I have an ancestor buried somewhere in Hollywood Cemetery – she died in the 1890’s, so I’ve assumed she is in the section that is overgrown. Looks like it was a beautiful place once.
Liz Schult said:
Thank you, interesting story. I always took my Mother to cemeteries to do her research on the families. She throughly enjoyed it, and paid for a couple of cemetaries to be cleaned up, one from the ate 1700’s.
Paula Powell said:
My great grandmother and grandfather are buried in Hollywood Cemetery. My sister and I tried to locate it but we couldn’t. I was getting nervous, so we left.
Joel Portwood said:
Crest Lawn cemetery has a grown up spot back in the back, and from top of the hill is a great view of Atlanta
Are you talking about Casey’s Hill? That area is very interesting. Crest Lawn technically does not own it (I was told) so they don’t have to maintain it. The residents living in the newer homes that back up to it have done a great job cleaning it up and making it a nice place.
Connie Hanie Callihan said:
Thanks I didn’t know all that….. ..In 1959-1961 in the parking days,We use to park up there,but it has got so bad over there til;l I hardly go back there. .that’s very interesting ..ty
Hi, Connie! Yes, it has gotten bad. That’s why I would never go by myself. Just saw on the news last week about another shooting just down the street. It’s not worth the risk. I will go back in the late fall when the bugs/snakes/thick vines are gone.
juanita black bonds said:
Thanks for posting this about theHollywood cemetery,My grandmother and,grandfather are both buried there.We are trying to get some of the family to go with us and try to find their grave.I know that it is on the lower level close to the street[ Hollywood rd]
Have you looked them up on http://www.findagrave.com? There are a Mary and Jerry Black buried in that lower section according to the site. There’s a photo of their grave. That’s the one section that gets taken care of somewhat frequently.
Faye golden said:
I lived and grew up on Hollywood
Road as a child. We passed the cemetery all the time. I never knew if it’s history or anyone buried there.
Moved out of state for 5 years, moved back but not in the Atlanta area… My
Cousin and I take a trip about one a year back to the old neighborhood ,
But never stopping or getting out
To explore … Lots of good memories
Growing up in Atlanta… My grandmother lived across the street
From John Cary school … Really enjoy
Reading you adventures of places
I grew up at…..
Alan Pollack said:
Thanks for your great article. I am happy to tell you that the quest for the St Francis Dam National Memorial is still alive. We have gotten the bill reintroduced by our Congressman Steve Knight and are currently working on getting the bill out of the House Natural Resources Committee for a full vote in the House. To everyone reading this, if you would like to be a part of this effort, we would love to have a letter of support from you to send to the Congressman. For details: http://www.scvhistory.com/stfrancis.htm
Alan, thank you for posting this update. I will add your link to the blog post. Great to hear it’s moving forward again!
Great article….Hollywood Cemetery needs a good cleanup!
Hi, Eddy! Unfortunately, Hollywood Cenetery is huge. Cleaning it up would take months and lots of people. Some small attempts have been made in the past but the vegetation grows back very fast. The owners have given up on it but I’m not sure they’d consent to a large-scale effort. I think they’re hoping it just rots away, sadly.
My great-grandfather was buried here in 1909. The family at the time could not afford a marker, however, looking under Findagrave under Hollywood Cemetery I found him by entering his name – his burial is indeed recorded at Hollywood. Today, I don’t think any cemetery would allow a burial without even a basic marker. It’s sad to a see a beautiful cemetery in such a state of disrepair. I live on the other side of the country but I’ll be in the Atlanta area next week and plan to at least find the cemetery although there is zero chance in finding his plot.
He could very well have a marker. It’s just probably buried under a lot of vegetation. I would recommend that if you do go, wear boots of some kind, long sleeves and bring something to cut through the brush. It’s still been in the 80s here and the critters are active, from snakes to insects. So you will want to be careful. It’s also not in the safest area so just be aware of your surroundings when you’re looking around. I haven’t been over there in a while so I’m not sure what current conditions are like. If you need any help, please email me.
Great story. I’m an Atlanta native, but have lived away from Ga. for many years now. But I know where Hollywood is…..familiar with that part of town. Have a set of grandparents interred at Westview a short distance away, but that place still quite well maintained. Also have a old friend interred at nearby Crest Lawn….agree with previous posters about the ‘high ground’ there and the magnificent views. Cheers.
Westview and Crestlawn are well managed, thankfully. Hollywood’s owners have turned their backs on it and it’s a true shame. Lots of folks would love to know where their family members’ graves are located but will never find out.
Thanks for stopping by, Greg!
Jenny Garner said:
You did it again – what a post! Fantastic piece and loved reading it. Keep it up, girl.
Thanks, Jenny! This is from 2015 but still worth repeating on the anniversary of this tragedy.
Tom Foster said:
Many nice reviews , so far, from this edition in your “Adventures” series, Traci. Late in the year, you hope to get back and investigate more “unique findings”. You’ll need a couple of guys & your friend, Cathy or, is it Christie from earlier explorations you had? Anyway…bring a few tools and a good weed-whacking power tool with a couple of spare charged batteries and extra sharp line.
I did not know that Atlanta had a cemetery called “Hollywood”. Yes…there’s several in the U.S. I presume none are in the bad shape as this one you wrote about.
Today (3-13-18) I came across in sweeping of leaves from a garden area one of those “look alike creatures” from the Book of Genesis in the first few chapters of the book – an 8″ garden snake (…I think it was one of those, not the copperhead type). The warm weather has brought them out. Got to be careful as you know. Yep…better to explore this Hollywood Cemetery in the late part of the year.
Hi, Tom! I always appreciate your comments. Every time we set a date to go back to Hollywood, it rains or something comes up. I recently found out I have an ancestor from Ohio back in those woods, so my urgency has returned. I will let you know if we get there.
Sherry Mahaffey Brogdon said:
I have 2 grandparents, 2 great grandparents, and an uncle buried on the terrace closest to the road. Wesley Molan Mahaffey, Jessie Ledford Mahaffey, Louis Mahaffey, Leila Mahaffey Pritchett and Charles Stone. Twenty-one years ago my Dad bought two plots for him and my mother, up on the highest level around Gun Stock Road. My mother was buried there for a couple of months. I talked Dad into moving her to Sunrise Memorial Gardens in Lithia Springs because there was no way I could visit her grave due to the ever present danger of being mugged or killed. We moved her with a couple of guns on hand. I have the deeds to the grave plots belonging to my parents who are both now deceased. I also have the original deeds of my grandparents. Showing the history of the time period of their deaths, the deed specifies that no black people were to be buried in the cemetery. I believe Hollywood Cemetery should be maintained appropriately as other cemeteries and it is a place of history. I thought there are cemetery groups that make sure cemeteries are maintained. My family used to visit the graves of our grandparents to clean them up but it is way too dangerous to do that now. Thanks for a great article about the cemetery!
Thank you for sharing. If Hollywood was a true “abandoned” property, I think a group could make some significant progress in reviving it. But the owners are still paying taxes on it (last I heard) so they have control over it and have no intention of letting anyone do that. Plus it would take some serious cash. This is only my opinion, of course, and I’ve never spoken to the owners myself. But those I have talked to who have done so tell me the owners are of very little help if you ask for a grave’s location or for information. The area just north of Hollywood is gentrifying, however. Expensive homes are being built. It will be interesting to see how things develop as that spreads further.
Sherry Mahaffey Brogdon said:
Now I understand. Thanks for explaining. The plots my parents bought are up on the hill around Gun Stock right at the edge of the woods. 21 years ago it looked like a dump was in progress just within sight on the other side of those woods. Needless to say, I haven’t been there since we moved my mother.
Judy Matthews said:
Wonderful read! I thoroughly enjoyed reading this!
Thank you, Judy!
Katbi Gross said:
Hi! My 3 sisters and I visited this cemetary, today, maerch 23rd 2019 to try to locate 8 graves of relati es with the last ame
Quinn. Of course we did not find them.
Can you direct us as to whom may have info about this?
Hi, Kathi! Unfortunately, locating graves at Hollywood is next to impossible. Here are the Quinns that have memorials at Hollywood: https://www.findagrave.com/cemetery/34588/memorial-search?firstName=&lastName=Quinn
Here is a website/map of Hollywood that James Stephens put together some time ago. He’s spent a ton of time out there uncovering markers: http://www.stephensroots.com/HollywoodCemeteryMap&Directory.htm
If you download the Excel spreadsheet, you can see that there are four Quinns that have been located and where in the cemetery they are supposed to be. Now with that said, you’ve seen what it is like out there. Pretty crazy. But now is the best time to go because as it gets warmer, the critters come out.
If you contact James at firstname.lastname@example.org, he might be able to give you some direction. Let me know if you are able to find them, I’d love to write about it!
Frank Rock said:
About 20 years ago I interviewed then 91 year old Abigail Riley who lived in Piru, Ca. A small town just above the St. Francis flood path. The morning after the flood passed through, leaving it’s devastation, survivors from the flood were being trucked in from Kemp where the Edison workers were camped for months. One of the survivors was a young unclothed man. He walked into the Riley’s Piru hotel which had set up as a rescue center offering hot food, clothes and shelter. As he sat down to eat, as Mrs. Riley related it to me, the man said his brother did not survive the flood. At some point the young man noticed a piano in the adjoining parlor and asked if he could play it. He sat down and played a melody she was unfamiliar with. As if he were pouring every emotion out on to the keys. Sometime later that morning he left after having a meal and wearing dry warm clothes. Mrs. Riley never got his name or forgot it.
Thank you for sharing that, Frank. I wonder if that was J.R. Duke that she talked to that day. It would be amazing if it was.
Ray Bobo said:
Just read this amazing piece about Hollywood Cemetery. I was born and raised in Grove Park/Center Hill sections of Atlanta. My mother’s father, who died when she was 12, was buried in Hollywood Cemetery in 1933. I remember as a teenager in the late 1950s seeing my grandfather’s grave in Hollywood. In 1964 my family moved away from that area and never returned. My dad owned a small asphalt paving outfit and contracted to do the road paving in a new cemetery in Roswell, GA (Green Lawn). He was partially paid in cemetery property; enough plots for him and my mother, their parents, all my siblings and potential spouses, my dad’s sister and her husband, and a cousin. My point in saying all that is that my grandfather’s remains were moved from Hollywood Cemetery to Green Lawn in Roswell in 1967. That took some legal doing (and cash), but it was a wise choice in light of what has sadly happened to Hollywood.
Hello, Ray! Thank you so much for your response and sharing your story. The story of Hollywood Cemetery’s decline and fall into decay/ruin continues to haunt me. I am so glad to hear that you all were able to get your grandfather’s remains moved to Green Lawn when you did. I don’t think it would even be possible today with the shape it’s in and the ownership issues. They don’t care about Hollywood and they hope people will just forget about it. But I know I won’t and there are several families who won’t either.