Life Stories News Article


Saving the historic Smeltertown Cemetery in El Paso, Texas.

Posted by Steven Zimmerman

I’m a bit of an odd duck; I love cemeteries. When I need to get away from a world that demands every moment of my time, leaving nothing for myself, I will take time out to visit one of the many cemeteries we have our area.

For my first time out with Chantilly, we visited and photographed the cemetery out in Socorro. We walked amongst the headstones and wondered about the lives lived by those buried beneath.

When something caught our attention, we would take a few photos. 

The cemetery out at San Eli, especially around midnight (not the witching hour, I know) is rather beautiful in an ethereal sort of way. It’s also a bit frightening. 

While visiting San Eli’s cemetery last year, at around 11:30 p.m., we were taking photos. I can almost swear that in one of them, we had taken photos of what looks to be a group of people standing around. There was no one there but Chantilly and me.

There’s Evergreen on Montana, near UMC. Evergreen and Concordia are the only two cemeteries that are close to the gothic ideal of what a cemetery looks like in my mind’s eye. 

Walking through Evergreen Cemetery, at dusk, can be unsettling. Walking among the headstones, the shifting shadows playing tricks on you and you suddenly think someone is stalking you from just a few rows back. 

Concordia Cemetery is one of the most interesting we have by far. John Wesley Hardin is buried there. James Biggs, the namesake of Biggs Army Airfield; Moses Carson, Kit Carson’s brother and Florida J. Wolfe – also known as Lady Flo – are also residents of Concordia. 

Depending on where you are, there is the lingering scent of cigar smoke, the sound of a woman weeping, and the far-off echo of a cowboy yelping as he rides off into that eternal sunset. 

Then there is the Smeltertown Cemetery, between I-10 and Paisano, just off Executive. This cemetery is one of El Paso’s hidden historical gems. It’s also where Chantilly and I were married – yes, were married in Smeltertown Cemetery. 

ASARCO gave the land for the cemetery to the residents of Smeltertown, a company town for the smelter, back in 1882. When an employee or family member would pass away, they would be interred at the Smeltertown Cemetery for free. 

The cemetery officially “closed” in 1970. However, there have been a few interments over the years; a wife being laid to rest with her husband or a child with his or her parents. 

Over the years, the cemetery fell into ruin. Crosses and headstones have been removed or damaged over time. Weeds, bushes, yucca and more have grown so large they easily overwhelm whole gravesites.

On several of my visits to the Smeltertown Cemetery, I would find beer cans, broken beer bottles, and signs of small bonfires from the weekend before. 

The place was looking beyond depressing. That is until Willie Cordero decided to do something about it. 

Cordero was born in Smeltertown back in 1947. Many of his family worked at ASARCO and are buried at the cemetery. That’s part of the reason he’s out there, with the help of others, cleaning, weeding and repairing headstones. 

“To me, it’s very important. It’s a loved ones that shouldn’t be run over by weeds and disregard like it’s in the past,” said Willie when asked why it’s important to clean the cemetery. “I heard a lot of complaints that it looked like a country-western, cowboy time. I said, well, it looks that bad how come we don’t do something about it? How come we don’t come here and help. So far, it’s only been five people helping me.”

One of those helping Willie is Maria Elena Griffith. 

“Like him, I’ve got relatives that are buried here. Several of them, I think I’ve got like 11 of them here. My maternal and my paternal grandparents are both here as well, some aunts, uncles and cousins. And it was really in need of cleaning. There were a lot of weeds,” said Griffith.

“Willie put up a post on Facebook saying he was going to clean it and he asked for volunteers. I’ve known Willie for many years. We went to high school together at El Paso High School, Go Tigers! So, I texted him back, and I said, I’ll see you, my daughter and I will be there on Saturday. And so, we did, we came in and been here ever since except for a few days last week.”

They work they’ve done since has begun to change the whole look of the Smeltertown Cemetery. Half of the grounds are clean and free of trash and weeds. Cleaning, however, is not the end of it. 

“I’m planning to start painting the crosses that I already need painting, and hopefully we get us some kind donation to buy some two by fours to start making crosses for unmarked graves,” said Cordero. “There’s a whole bunch of graves without crosses, and that’s pretty sad to see that.”

The lack of grave markers at the Smeltertown Cemetery is something that is all too common with cemeteries in our region.

As time passes, the stones begin to fade, or the wooden crosses lose purchase with the ground and fall over. Without family members to care for the grave, they are left without any marker.

With Smeltertown, it seems as if more than half the graves are unmarked. 

“There’s a lot of history up here. There’s a lot of us have relatives that are buried here. Sadly, there was some vandalism. Sadly, there’s a lot of unmarked graves,” added Griffith. “We have plans for a phase two, and those plans are to make new crosses and paint them and put them at the graves, as many graves as we can.”

“I’m grateful to the crew that has been helping me. They come on Saturdays. They did help me raise one of those graves. I want them to tell them thank you, I appreciate it,” said Willie Cordero in his closing thoughts.

Willie wanted to make sure that each of the following knows he is grateful for their help:

Maria Elena Griffith; John Davis; Lalo Cordero; Omar Carranza; Steven Carranza. His two grandsons Jessie, Anthony Villarreal. Also, Deon Sanders and Renee Griffith

Willie, Maria and the whole group are looking for volunteers who can come out and help clean the cemetery.

They especially need help removing some of the Yucca plants that have overtaken entire graves. They also need donations of materials: wood, paint and items to help make graves. 

How can you get in touch with them?

“They can call me,” said Ms Griffith. “My home number is 915-585-8434. If they could donate material that’d be great. We are going to be in need of two by fours, some paint, brushes and cement cause some of the crosses are broken.”

Let’s help honor those who have gone before us and clean the Smeltertown Cemetery. 

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Additional photos courtesy Willie Cordero.

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