116 3rd St SE
Cedar Rapids, Iowa 52401
Time Machine: Mary’s lonely grave
1854 burial plot still maintained on railroad right of way near Homestead
Mary Emily Wright died at age 6 on Aug. 19, 1854, in her parents’ log cabin along the road that would became Highway 6/151 in Iowa County. She was buried in the cemetery across the road from her home.
Her neatly tended grave sits by itself on a small strip of land between the highway and the railroad track. Several people have reported seeing an ethereal blue light above her tombstone in the final minute before a new year begins.
‘The little grave’
Newell Wright moved his family west from Indiana to Iowa in 1849, settling in 1850 in a spot near where Homestead would be established in 1855. Homestead became one of the Amana Colonies in 1862. The Wrights operated a stage station and meat market there.
Mary died of an unknown cause in 1854.
When the Mississippi & Missouri Railroad line (later the Chicago, Rock Island and Pacific) came through in 1860, most of the graves in the cemetery were believed to have been moved, but railroad officials agreed to preserve Mary’s grave on the right of way, possibly because the Wrights lived so close by.
One of the earliest published accounts of the “The Little Grave on the Right of Way” was in the July 1912 Rock Island Employees’ magazine. Written by Railroad Agent O. H. Eichacker, it included a photo of the lonely burial plot.
Nate Wright of Stuart, in west-central Iowa, told Eichacker the grave was that of his sister Mary, the daughter of Newell and Mary Wright.
“They lived in Johnson County the first winter and moved to the west side of where Homestead is in 1850 and built a double log cabin house, where they kept a stage station for many years, the house being known as the ‘Wright Stage Station,’ ” Wright said. “It was in this cabin my little sister died.”
The cemetery where she was buried, he said, had “a great many people buried there. But in the primitive times of which we are talking, only wooden slats were used to mark the resting places of those who were buried there. The cemetery was called ‘The Linus Niles and Sprague Cemetery.’
“Afterward the railroad company moved the roadbed south and cut through the cemetery, which accounts for the grave being on the right of way.”
The railroad placed the headstone on Mary’s grave. It read, “Mary E., daughter of N.W. and Mary A. Wright. Died August 19, 1854. Aged 6 years, 9 months, and 18 days.”
Nate Wright said he came as often as he could to tend the grave even though he was 70 years old in 1912. He died in 1930 at age 87.
In 1940, The Gazette published a photo of the grave taken by William F. Noe, treasurer of the Amana Society. The caption said the railroad “protected and preserved this memory of a pioneer family.”
One hundred years after Mary’s death, in the fall of 1954, a Chicago, Rock Island & Pacific Railway Co. crew repaired and replaced slats in the fence around Mary’s burial plot and painted the fence, keeping the promise of its predecessor, the Mississippi and Missouri River Railroad, to provide upkeep for the plot.
“I don’t know why we do it,” station Agent E.G. Etheridge of Homestead said. “I don’t think we are required to do it.”
As late as 1963, the grave was tended by the station agent at Homestead.
But by 1971, the old limestone marker sat on a plot choked with weeds.
Jim McLaughlin of Cedar Rapids, a former line patrolman for Iowa Electric Light & Power Co., noticed the plot. He and his wife, Gladys, cut the weeds, mowed the grass and repaired the fence. A few years later, McLaughlin built a new fence around the grave.
Curious about the little girl who was buried there, the McLaughlins found Iowa County records in Marengo about the Wright family.
“We go down about every two or three weeks in the summer and mow it. Usually we go out for breakfast and then head there,“ McLaughlin told a Gazette reporter in 1979. ”People will see us working and stop and talk. It’s such a good project for us. You need to do things in your old age.“
Mary’s weather-beaten and almost unreadable tombstone was replaced with a new one in 2016 when the Iowa County Pioneer Cemetery Commission renamed the cemetery from the Granny Sprague Cemetery to the Niles-Sprague Pioneer Cemetery. The county maintains the plot.
A much larger white vinyl fence now encloses the burial site and bears a sign with the cemetery name. Several PVC crosses commemorate other pioneers who may have been buried there but whose wooden markers have long since disintegrated.
During a recent visit, flowers and an old baby doll decorated Mary’s grave as traffic sped by on the nearby highway.