IOWA DERECHO 2020

Scores of trees downed in the derecho cover headstones at Oak Hill Cemetery

Storied cemetery suffered 'total devastation'

Oak Hill Cemetery Superintendent Carl Thoresen on Tuesday walks past the Babcock family obelisk, which was damaged in th
Oak Hill Cemetery Superintendent Carl Thoresen on Tuesday walks past the Babcock family obelisk, which was damaged in the Aug. 10 storm, at Oak Hill Cemetery in Cedar Rapids. Thoresen said he initial reaction of seeing the damage was that “we will never recover.” (Liz Martin/The Gazette)
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CEDAR RAPIDS — Carl Thoresen said his mouth almost dropped open when he saw all the majestic oaks, maples and pines that were uprooted and ripped apart, now covering most of the headstones at the Oak Hill Cemetery.

“It was total devastation and I thought we will never recover,” Thoresen, the cemetery superintendent, said of his initial reaction. He started going through the grounds earlier this week to begin documenting damage caused by the Aug. 10 derecho.

The 160-year-old cemetery has thousands of unique and ornate grave markers, headstones and monuments throughout the grounds at 1705 Mount Vernon Road SE.

Some of the smaller brush and debris from the downed trees was cleaned up by volunteers last weekend, making the small paths passable. But Thoresen said more help is needed to cut the nearly 150 trees that were damaged or destroyed.

Walking through the cemetery, Thoresen said, is like tracing the history of Cedar Rapids through various founders or prominent members of the community and their families buried among the 11,000 to 12,000 plots.

Many familiar names now associated with roads and parks stand out — Bever, Daniels, Greene and Ellis. Others — Carmody, Collins, Douglas, Ely and Sinclair — are associated with business and industry, education and society.

Thoresen said it’s his wife who follows the history and is involved with tracing the genealogy of the family plots.

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“I was anticipating worse damage to the headstones,” he said. “We still have a lot to clean up before we can see all the damage. Some weren’t harmed.”

One large obelisk for Carrie Lucas of the Babcock plot was damaged and missing the top part of the monument. Another one, the Hamilton monument with a Celtic cross, was knocked over by a huge tree.

“All these are owned and maintained by the families,” Thoresen said. “For any damage found, it could be difficult to find the families, depending on age of plot. We can repair some of the smaller stones — putting them back on the bases — but others are too big and expensive.”

One large oak fell and missed two headstones, but there could be other headstones underneath that can’t been seen because of the branches and limbs, Thoresen noted. One stone was knocked over and pieces were scattered around, but the tree needs to be moved to find all of it.

In another area, there was an overturned portable potty amid a fallen tree. Thoresen said the winds may have flung it from a construction site.

Down from that area, near the Bever family plot, a plastic gas station trash can and windshield washer container blew over from a Kum & Go.

On the other side of that area, a large obelisk monument for the McDougall family had been moved around, and each square piece of the monument was placed like a Jenga puzzle — when blocks are pulled out to make the tower uneven.

Thoresen said the damage from this storm was the worst he has seen since working at the cemetery since 2005. He said he heard there were other storms over the last several decades that may have resulted in 40-50 trees being damaged, but the derecho was clearly the worst as far as he knows.

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“Once this is all cleared out, it will look a lot different until we repopulate the trees,” Thoresen. “We are hoping to have this cleaned up by next spring. We will come back and survive with the help of the community of the city. We just need time to recover. It will probably take one or two years to repopulate the trees.”

Any groups of six or more willing to volunteer to help the cemetery clear out the debris should email carl.oakhill@gmail.com. Any volunteer will be required to sign a liability form.

Comments: (319) 398-8318; trish.mehaffey@thegazette.com

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