One day in January 2013, Karl Doll, a veteran hiker and outdoorsman, was following an old unmarked road in the hills above Cupertino -- "basically bushwhacking," he remembers -- when he came across a remote clearing and discovered a pile of headstones.
"My first thought was, 'Is this a cemetery?'" Doll told me. "I walked around, and saw some very old ones. Then there were some newer ones that were obviously rejects. The mix of old and new, the rejects and the new ones, had me confused."
Doll's discovery set off a series of events that reunited families with lost tombstones and opened the way for the return of dozens of historical markers to cemeteries. But it left a mystery about just how the stones were cached on the so-called Charcoal Trail.
Doll photographed the stones with his cell phone and sent 27 of the shots to the "In Grave Danger Gang," a group of local preservationists who restore graves. He found that some of the stones were indeed historic.
The In Grave Danger Gang concluded that many of the 250 or so stones were scrap grave markers -- stones that were misspelled, or replaced by new stones after a surviving spouse died.
But the preservation group said in a report that "other stones, especially the older markers, were more likely removed without authorization" from local cemeteries. In a good number of those cases, the graves were left unmarked. The preservationists say 20 to 25 percent of the stones were genuinely historic.
"It's one thing to see an isolated tombstone from 1880, lamenting the death of 'my dear sweetheart,'" said Rick Helin, a member of the In Grave Danger Gang. "But to see dozens and dozens in one big pile is overwhelming. It's like a UFO landing."
Last summer, aided by Midpeninsula Regional Open Space District rangers and young people from a cloud computing company called Appirio, the California Pioneers and E. Clampus Vitus, two local historical organizations, removed the stones and had them shipped to a site in Boulder Creek.
From there, they are being cataloged and returned -- where possible -- to their original graves, particularly at Oak Hill Memorial Park in San Jose. A number date back to the 1860s and 1870s, when San Jose was still a brawling frontier town.
However the stones were taken to the hills, the preservationists commend the cemetery for being generous in taking them back. The Cemetery and Funeral Bureau of the state's Department of Consumer Affairs looked into the issue and would only say "the matter was resolved." Oak Hill officials didn't return my requests for comment.
The honored dead
Who were the folks no longer honored by a stone? A few were soldiers, or miners, forgotten denizens of the 19th century. Several of them, however, have a traceable story. One was Gregoria Sambrano, a member of a Mexican family that had come to work in the New Almaden quicksilver mines.
Gregoria died in New Almaden on Nov. 22, 1874, and was buried at Oak Hill, a process that required a family to haul the body in a wagon to San Jose and stay overnight. Her stone, which preservationists say was missing from the cemetery, has been restored to her family's satisfaction.
I wasn't terribly successful in identifying who took the stones to the Charcoal Trail. Midpen officials say they bought the 40-acre property in 2001 from the Lobner family for $1.2 million. The property had one cabin that was demolished. The Lobner family's trustee didn't respond to my requests for comment.
Preservationists say the stones were brought to the site in the 1980s on a road that has since been overgrown. The California Pioneers "Trailblazer" newsletter reported that "a previous landowner appears to have had a connection to a local cemetery and either mistakenly took the stones along with other scrap or knowingly removed them for a building project or resale."
Brian Malone, an area superintendent for Midpen, told me that district officials were aware that there was a pile of curb stones and rejects on the property. "We thought they were all scrap," Malone said. "I think it was the intent of the property owner to use them for walls or a structure."
Preservationist Helin, who has studied the cache, is one of those who do not see a nefarious plot in all this. Helin says many of the missing stones come from the area near Oak Hill's maintenance yard. He points out that it was common to have a pile of scrap stones.
"The maintenance yard had a habit, when they were working on maintenance, of moving headstones out of the way, and bringing them back to the maintenance yard," Helin added. "I think they got co-mingled along the way. At some point, someone came over to the maintenance yard and said, 'I can get rid of those for you.'"
In the process of research, the historians uncovered several fascinating stories. One recovered stone honors Richard Tucker Jr., the son of Richard Tucker, the captain of the mines at New Almaden. One day in 1869, the 18-year-old boy fell through a mine shaft and broke his leg. By the time a doctor arrived three days later, gangrene had set in and the young Tucker died.
The "In Grave Danger Gang" found that the mine captain's great-granddaughter, Norma Tucker, now in her 70s, still lives on a family orchard off Hicks Road in Los Gatos. Tucker told me that Oak Hill replaced the original stone after she noticed it broken years ago. She was touched when Midpen rangers brought the original back to her.
"There's no words to explain it," she told me. "I can't describe the feeling that went through me. It was a very good moment."