Car crash destroys piece of historic Madera cemetery

MADERA, Calif. (KFSN) -- An ancient altar at a Chinese Cemetery in Madera has been reduced to rubble. It was destroyed last week when a car veered off the road and slammed into it. With it, some of the history is gone but one man is on a mission to rebuild.

Off to the side of Avenue 12 in Madera, just west of Highway 99, there is sacred ground - a cemetery of forgotten people in a field, no bigger than an acre.

Bill Coate, a historian said, "it's part of me...certainly, I think Madera feels that this is part of us."

He dedicated much of his career to the cemetery.

"This part of the field dates back to 1872 when the Southern Pacific Railroad built the railroad tracks down here," he added.

It was Chinese laborers who did the work. Many of them died in the area and were buried there. Of the graves, only seven headstones still stand. One wears the scars from a wreck - it was hit by a car, years ago but it's in better shape than the altar, which was also hit, just last week.

"Wow," Coate said, "that's a whole lot of history destroyed right there...a lot of sacred history."

The car missed the plaque that bears the cemetery's story - one that Coate and a group of sixth graders revived in 1992 after the land was almost auctioned off.

In an interview back then, Coat said, "they hit the newspapers, they proved with documentation that this field is worth saving."

The same year, his student, David Chavira said, "there's bodies in here, from old Chinese (people) and it's good to like, to remember people and their ancestors."

There was international attention but it has since faded. Coate said the land is once again, in limbo, without an owner or a caretaker.

Coate added, "they're all dead now, nobody knows who owns this field...nobody knows who's responsible."

So for now, the rubble will sit. It's a blemish to the history but Coate said the rest remains in a book he wrote with the kids.

"Tangible evidence is one thing and we may lose this, but we'll never lose this," Coate said while pointing at the book.

Coate is hoping to rebuild but at this point, he's not sure who to turn to. If you would like to support his effort, contact the Madera County Historical Society.
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