Students solve 110-year mystery of final resting place of county’s narrow gauge railroad’s ‘first family’
March 23, 2014
Editor's note: This story was originally published in The Union May 7, 2011.
John and Sarah Kidder were practically royalty around Grass Valley heading into the 20th century, serving somewhat as the first family of the Nevada County Narrow Gauge Railroad.
But when a pair of Nevada Union High School students set out to tell the story of the railroad and how its 23-mile track connected western Nevada County to the rest of the world, they soon found the Kidders, both former presidents of the railroad, had long since faded into history.
The site of their three-story, 28-room mansion that once stood proud atop Bennett Street is now just an empty lot with a view of downtown Grass Valley after the building was destroyed in 1982.
And to the surprise of the students who sought them out, there's no sign of the Kidders at the cemetery just up the street where some said they had been buried.
What started out as a project to produce a video for history class — which won first prize in last year's California Preservation Foundation Conference contest — turned into quite a mystery the students and one curious father could not walk away from without solving.
John Kidder, who served as superintendent and president of the railroad, is said to have been eulogized as "the most important man to the welfare and progress of Nevada County" when he was laid to rest after his April 10, 1901, death
But apparently, for the next century, the man and his bride went missing — though few knew that to be the case.
"They were missing for 110 years," said Kelley Miller, who joined her father, Herb, and Adorian Deck, a fellow NU student, in putting together the pieces of the puzzle.
"It just struck us. How could these people just disappear? I mean, considering as much as they meant to this community?"
Thanks to Deck and Miller, along with her persistent papa, the Kidders have now been found.
Starting with Sarah
Where else to start the search for one of the county's most influential couples than the cemetery where John Kidder had been buried, just a block up Kidder Avenue from where his home once stood?
"There were all these big gravestones, but we didn't see anything for them," said Kelley Miller, an NU senior. "For there to be nothing left up there for (John Kidder), it was really weird to us."
Herb Miller said no one could tell them why Kidder was apparently no longer at the cemetery. He said every book, record and newspaper the trio read on John Flint Kidder stated he had been buried there.
"We couldn't find him," Herb Miller wrote in an e-mail. "No one else in the county, including the historical society, museums, local historians … knew either. He died April 10, 1901, and has been missing and long forgotten."
The Millers thought they got a break in the case when father and daughter traveled to San Francisco after obtaining Sarah Kidder's death certificate, which listed Cypress Lawn Park in Colma as her final resting place.
Yet the cemetery had no record of her and the mortuary, N. Gray & Co., no longer existed.
But someone at the cemetery told them the mortuary had merged with other companies to become Halsted N. Gray — Carew & English.
Through their records, they learned that Sarah Kidder's remains had been delivered to the I.O.O.F. (Independent Order of Odd Fellows) Cemetery on Oct. 3, 1933.
And shortly after that, they learned there are no longer any cemeteries — including Sarah Kidder's final resting place — within the city limits of San Francisco.
"All the bodies were dug up and moved to Colma," Herb Miller said. "I was beginning to think the Kidders didn't want to be found."
Final resting place
By 1940, Herb Miller said, all but two cemeteries — Mission Dolores and the Presidio — along with one crematorium, had been moved outside San Francisco.
Through their dogged dedication to the project, they learned the I.O.O.F. had built a facility called the Columbarium, which houses cremated remains.
After contacting the Columbarium, Deck and the Millers learned one week later that they had finally found Sarah Kidder.
And with that same phone call, they also learned the location of her husband.
"We were surprised when the bronze plaque (at the Columbarium) said 'Kidder — John F. & Sarah,'" Herb Miller said. "I asked if they could open it to confirm he was there. They did open it, confirmed he was there and … surprise … they said there was a guest, a third person (with them)."
Who could it be? That's now another mystery Herb Miller said he is working on solving. It's doubtful that the person is their adopted daughter, Beatrice, as the Millers found her gravesite in Hayward.
But how John Kidder's remains ended up in the Bay Area, considering he had reportedly been buried at the cemetery in Grass Valley, was the final piece of the first puzzle.
After traveling to the Columbarium and seeing the Kidders' urns in person, the Millers noted a Sept. 17, 1917, date on John Kidder's urn.
That sent Herb Miller back to the Doris Foley Library in Nevada City, where he scanned microfilm copies of The Union from September 1917.
"Then we found the answer," Herb Miller said. "Sarah Kidder had sold her interest in the Narrow Gauge Railroad in 1913 and moved to San Francisco. But on Sept. 11, 1917, she paid a visit to Grass Valley.
"The old papers had a little section about folks coming and leaving town for various reasons. It stated 'Sarah Kidder arrived on a the train today for a short visit to Grass Valley.'"
And six days later, the remains of John Kidder were cremated in Sacramento.
"Sarah had come to Grass Valley to have him (exhumed) so she could take him to San Francisco with her," said Herb Miller, who called the Sacramento cemetery that handled John Kidder's cremation, which still had the original record.
"One-hundred-ten-year mystery solved," Herb Miller said.
Not to be forgotten
The Millers say they both learned a great deal through the process of putting the pieces together, much of which can be viewed in the video produced by Deck and Kelley Miller (To view video, see this story online).
"It was interesting," Kelley Miller said, noting that the remnants of the Narrow Gauge Railroad that can still be spotted throughout Grass Valley are the last proof of the Kidder era.
"It was really cool and amazing to learn that so much stuff can be forgotten and lost. For example, it's amazing how easily they let the Kidder mansion be destroyed and not take care of it."
"As we researched the Kidders," Herb Miller added, "I found it interesting (that) not one plaque, statue or remembrance have been left to either John or Sarah Kidder by the city of Grass Valley or the county historical society. I have seen only the one by E Vitus Clampus."
When their video was shown to the Grass Valley City Council, Herb Miller said a council member said it was a shame that the Kidder mansion had burned down.
Kelley Miller quickly responded that it had, in fact, been torn down in 1982 after falling into disrepair.
Both Millers wish it could have been preserved.
"It was interesting how this all started (as a history class project) but became something we really cared about," said Deck, who noted that Kelley Miller conducted much of the research. "That was especially true for Kelley. She was very into it."
Kelley Miller has since been in contact with a member of the last family to own the building. The man told her that much of the furniture and artifacts were sold in a late-1970s' yard sale.
The Millers hope anyone who is still in possession of anything from the mansion would be willing to donate it to the Nevada County Narrow Gauge Railroad Museum, where it might help make sure that John and Sarah Kidder are not so easily forgotten.
To contact City Editor Brian Hamilton, e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org or call (530) 477-4249.
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