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Wharton: Preserving history at Bingham City Cemetery

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(Paul Fraughton | The Salt Lake Tribune) The entrance to the Bingham Cemetery.

By Tom Wharton

The Salt Lake Tribune

First published May 23 2013 10:37AM
Updated May 23, 2013 01:12PM

Copperton • God must have inspired the early miners who lived in and around Bingham Canyon to place the cemetery that honors their dead in one of the few peaceful spots left in the Salt Lake Valley.

On a crystal clear spring day when a slight wind blew out the pollution and caused the mostly wild grasses at the Bingham City Cemetery on 7800 West and the Old Bingham Highway to sway, the mountains seemed almost surreal.

"You can look to the east and see Corner, Little, Big, Mill Creek and Emigration canyons," said Salt Lake attorney Ron Yengich, who came to this quiet 8-acre piece of ground to fix and decorate the graves of an aunt and uncle who died without children. He then looked west toward the Oquirrhs. "That’s Sunrise Peak. Highland Boy, where my mom and dad’s house was located, is at the bottom of the slide you can see."

Yengich, whose name was spelled Jengich in his father’s native Croatian language, handed me a beer as he started to haul decorative rocks out of the back of his SUV to decorate his relatives’ burial plot.

"You can’t come to a cemetery and work without drinking a beer," he said with a laugh. "I think that’s in the Utah Constitution somewhere and, if it’s not, it should be."

The lawyer’s roots run deep here. He points out corners of ethnic diversity in the cemetery, telling stories of families and people he grew up with. There’s the marker of the Civil War Veteran, whom Yengich admits to chatting with when he is here alone. There is a grave of John Creedon, who was the editor of the Bingham Bulletin newspaper. Yengich has written a poem about his grandfather, who is buried here.

The lawyer has little use for Kennecott Copper’s many corporate manifestations. He bitterly says that the company cared more about the mules than some of the ethnic miners because the bosses said it was easier to train an immigrant to go underground than a mule.

Yengich laments that many of the once gray and black marble headstones have turned a faded tan, making inscriptions difficult to read. These monuments have become victims of 100 years of pollution.

"What’s sad is these are the people who dug that hole," he said, pointing to the open-pit mine. "They turned that mountain into the hole you can see from outer space. And, really, Kennecott has done little to honor them at all."

But, much to the delight of Yengich and historians everywhere, the Paul Jencks family of South Jordan has been on a nine-year quest to preserve the Bingham City Cemetery, document the 1,830 people believed to be buried there, maintain it and, most important, honor the dead.

Paul Jencks said that because his wife Lori’s great-grandparents are buried there, the family spent much time visiting the cemetery. His son Brad became interested when he noticed brick rectangles that indicated burial sites that were unmarked.

When it came time for Brad to do his Eagle Scout project in 2004, the young man organized cemetery cleanups and began trying to document each grave. He spent 2,790 hours on the project. Some 2,000 volunteers would eventually participate. Brad discovered the cemetery was owned by the Jordan School District by default due to an obscure state law.

Sisters Tiffany and Stephanie joined what was now a family effort. The family restored and preserved grave markers, repaired vandalism, found names for 1,100 unknown burials, wrote a 1,600-page historical cemetery book and designed a wall of honor to list those who were buried at the site.

The effort has included the Jenckses spending every Memorial Day weekend for nearly a decade at the cemetery interviewing family members in an effort to learn more about each burial. One year, they placed 2,400 fliers on gravesites requesting more information about the unknown. They searched old books, newspapers and 53,000 names on 157 rolls of microfilm and built a servicemen’s memorial honoring 47 veterans, including four from the Civil War known to be buried there. The family even started an organization called Connecting Families Across the Globe.

"What really grabbed us is that this is a ghost-town cemetery that a lot has been forgotten about," said Paul Jencks. "I felt this draw to remind these people that we have not forgotten about them. These miners, the people who lived there from all those countries, are important. We are trying to connect families across the globe. This one cemetery is a focal point effort."

The family discovered that people born in 30 countries and 38 states are buried at the Bingham City Cemetery. Though the cemetery was created officially in 1913, one tombstone was found documenting a death date of 1873. The earliest documented birth found was 1824.

"What we have learned is what it means to have complete respect for people of all nationalities," wrote Tiffany and Stephanie on a website dedicated to the cemetery. "We esteem those who risked their lives for our country. We have a greater appreciation for those who crossed the land and sea to build a life for you and me."

As I enjoyed the afternoon and Yengich’s company, I happened upon a weathered cast-iron headstone almost hidden under a large juniper tree. There were two sayings that captured the mood. The first read:

"The external judge of all the earth is just in all his ways. Alive in those which gave us birth, and those which end our days."

The second said:

"We will meet again. We have no home but heaven."

Due to efforts by the Paul Jencks family and folks such as Ron Yengich determined to honor the dead, the memories of the more than 1,800 people buried in this remote corner of the Salt Lake Valley continue to live.

wharton@sltrib.com

Twitter: @tribtomwharton

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