The oldest cemetery in Reno—devastated by neglect, vandalism and urban growth—is being renewed by residents who see the plots as tangible links to Nevada’s storied history.
Among the graves in the restored Hillside Cemetery, at 10th and Nevada streets, are new and reclaimed headstones of some of Reno’s prominent citizens of Irish descent, whose names resonate on the city’s street signs and in historical documents.
Willie Puchert of Reno, who has headed the Sons and Daughters of Erin’s local branch for 12 years, led the group’s four-year restoration of 30 graves at Hillside with the expert help of Fran Tryon, an archivist and historian. Tryon belongs to the Hillside Cemetery Preservation Foundation, which manages the upkeep of the cemetery. With the assistance of former Reno City Councilman David Bobzien, the project was awarded $1,000 from city coffers in 2019 to pay for 30 grave markers.
The project expanded when members of the Southern Nevada Sons and Daughters of Erin chapter, led by director Missy Reinheimer, visited Reno in August 2019 with a $1,000 donation and an offer to help with the heavy lifting. The group cleared brush and toted rocks on a Saturday morning. The workers were was so dedicated, Puchert recalled, that they had to be told to stop and rest after hours of hard toil. It was a labor of love.
“A significant number of our Irish came here during the Potato Famine and helped found Reno,” Puchert said. “It’s important that we preserve our history.”
Marker for a Reno congressman
The restoration project was sparked by a presentation by Tryon in 2018 that “brought to life” some of the individuals buried at the cemetery.
The most prominent burial is the grave and headstone of George Williams Cassidy. His resting place is marked with an official U.S. congressional marker in recognition of his two-term service as the lone U.S. representative of Nevada from 1881 to 1885. The marker was dedicated on Memorial Day in 2021.
Cassidy moved to California in 1857 to mine gold, but subsequently became a journalist for three newspapers in California and Nevada. He became a part owner of the Eureka (Nev.) Sentinel in 1870. He was elected to the Nevada State Senate from 1872 to 1879 and served as Senate president pro tempore in his final term. His life was marked by tragedy when his only daughter, Mamie, died suddenly at age 6. Cassidy and his wife, Mary Delaney of Carson City, were shattered by grief.
Four sisters from the old country
Four Irish sisters with the last name of Blessington emigrated from Ireland together in the latter half of the 1800s, and three are buried at Hillside, along with their niece Kate Mayberry. Her mother, Catherine Blessington Mayberry, is buried in California. Catherine married James Mayberry, owner of the Mayberry Ranch, situated on both sides of the Truckee River. Mayberry Drive, named for the ranch, at one time spanned the river where a footbridge now accesses Mayberry Park. Their daughter, Kate Mayberry, was a teacher and is buried in Hillside Cemetery as well.
Two of the Blessington sisters, Malinda and Mary, were seamstresses and owned a shop in Virginia City. The third and youngest sister, Rose, suffered from mental illness. In 1900, her sister Catherine moved her to an asylum in Reno, where she died in 1905.
Another native of Ireland, J.C. O’Connor, ran a variety store in California in the mid-1800s. He and his wife, Elizabeth, born in Boston to Irish parents in 1828, moved to Reno after he suffered a stroke. Elizabeth became the main supporter of the family, working as a housekeeper and later landing a job at the Nevada State Asylum, Tryon said. Their graves are now marked with small headstones restored by the project in a family plot.
Some gravestones still missing
The funeral for a well-known and respected Reno gambler, James L. Conroy, a first-generation Irish-American who died at age 70 in 1907, was so well attended that his house was not large enough to hold the mourners, Tyron said. Conroy built a large home for his first wife, Etta S. Conroy, in Reno in 1891, the year before she died. The 1908 gravestone for his second wife, Emma M. Conroy, was discovered and retrieved from a shed on Pyramid Lake Highway in 2020, Tyron said. A stone for Baby James, who died in 1890, is still missing.
Three small children, whose mother was born in Australia of Irish immigrants who came to San Francisco, have been recognized as Irish descendants. The 1882 gravestone of 2-year-old Ralph Smith, the son of Melancton J. and Catherine Godfrey-Smith of Verdi, was stolen from Hillside Cemetery and has been replaced by the project. Melancton was a blacksmith and union member. George, another son, was a blacksmith and Verdi constable. The boys’ sister, Nettie W. Smith, died at age 7 weeks in 1901.
The Hillside Cemetery potter’s field, adjacent to the main cemetery, was used for parking for years by college students and neighborhood residents. A potter’s field traditionally is a burial ground for impoverished or unidentified people. Using a list of tombstones transcribed and published by the Daughters of the American Revolution in 1955, the names of those souls buried at Hillside’s field have been identified.
One recently identified burial is that of Henry Jones, an immigrant to the U.S. who was born in Ireland in 1816 and was conscripted into the U.S. Army during the Mexican-American War of 1846-1848. Jones was a hermit who lived in a cabin on an island in the Truckee River, sustaining himself through odd jobs. He was found dead in 1884.
These stories of immigrants who worked for a better life in their new country inspire their descendants, Puchert said. His own Irish immigrant great-great grandparents worked in the necropolis in Daly City, Calif., fabricating gravestones. Puchert’s parents, who were retired teachers, moved to Reno in 1982. He became involved with the Sons and Daughters of Erin, he said, when “there were more Irish and Scottish folks who came to my dad’s funeral than expected. I felt very blessed and became one of them.” Now, he said, his identity is tied to wearing a kilt and listening to bagpipes.
“I think the reason why I am so passionate about this project is because my Irish immigrant ancestors were stonemasons in the South San Francisco cemeteries, and so I feel a kinship to the Irish immigrants buried here in Reno,” Puchert said. “… We are committed to preserve and sustain our culture. If you don’t, it dies.”
A cleanup of the Hillside Cemetery happens every Saturday, and volunteers are always welcome.
Other club activities include a St. Patrick’s Day ceremony at the grave of William Blanchfield in the Mountain View Cemetery in Reno. Blanchfield was an Irish pilot killed in 1924 in Reno while circling to drop a wreath from a small aircraft on the grave of another pilot buried in the Knights of Pythias cemetery next to Hillside Cemetery. His mother in Ireland had sent shamrocks to be dropped on his grave on the anniversary of his death, until she died. The club has kept the tradition going.
The club also paints green shamrocks on the main street in Virginia City for the St. Patrick’s Day parade. Members march wearing kilts of the Mackay tartan in honor of John Mackay, silver baron of the Comstock.