Underground Echoes: The Great Horse Trough Mystery


One of the rough gems of the Alhambra Cemetery is the cement remnants of what once was a very large water container. It is unknown exactly when it was installed, by whom, its eventual abandonment, or its complete structure and appearance. Unfortunately, no records or photographs exist prior to its demise.

A popular story states it was a horse trough and water fountain installed after an alleged cemetery fire that occurred around 1882 that burned away the vast majority of the wooden markers found throughout the grounds. This would have addressed two issues; providing water for the funeral horses and means to extinguish any future fires. It is also believed that the water was drawn from a well near the front gate by a windmill. However, only the cement remains of the base have survived with no trace of the fountain or windmill.

We have an idea as to the who, but some context is needed. In 1875, the Catholic community decided they wanted their own burial site. According to an article published February 19, 1875 by Oroville’s The Weekly Mercury, “Three Acres have been purchased and enclosed for a Catholic Cemetery on the sharply-rising ground west of and overlooking the Alhambra Cemetery, near Martinez.” By 1888, most if not all Catholics interred in Alhambra were exhumed and reburied in the St. Catherine of Siena Catholic Cemetery, including Don Francisco Galindo.

Many years ago, while researching Alhambra’s origins and ownership history, we discovered something interesting regarding Don Galindo. Dr. Strentzel (John Muir’s father-in-law) was the largest individual property owner of both the cemetery (close to 1/3) and the Alhambra Valley (coincidently enough). Upon his death on October 31, 1890 his wife Louisa inherited the entire estate and when she died September 24, 1897 it was passed on to their daughter, Louie Strentzel Muir.

Later Louie, (putting her affairs in order) indentured it to her daughter Helen along with other land on July 11, 1905 (nearly a month before her death on August 6). Within the document it states, “… and the South half of Block No. Two Hundred and Two (202), less cemetery lot of F. Galindo.” Unfortunately, presently we don’t know where his lot’s exact location was within Block 202 but it’s very possible the former water feature is sitting on it. (Side note, when Helen Muir-Funk sold the land to the County on August 30, 1915 there was no mention of F. Galindo’s lot.)

This brings us back to Don Galindo who (along with Don Juan Salvio Pacheco) founded the City of Concord. He and his family were widely known for their community philanthropy and influence. It wouldn’t be a stretch to assume that he or his family might have donated the land for the water feature, as they no longer needed their plots.

Now that we have tackled its possible origins we’re left to answer, what led to its ruination ? For that, we turn to the history of another epidemic “Glanders,” (much like Covid-19) attacks the pulmonary system, can be passed via airborne transmission and is very deadly if untreated. Although mostly found in horses, it is known to spread to humans and other animals. Unlike the Covid virus, Glanders is a bacterium.

In 1908, the California State Veterinarian, Dr. Charles Keane, remarked that communal water troughs were the most dangerous way for Glanders to spread. He claimed that any type of nasal discharge from infected horses while drinking could infect the entire trough and pass the disease on to other horses. Once infected, a horse sneeze or snort could cause airborne transmission to other horses, animals and humans.

Making the disease even more dangerous was its 100% mortality rate and an infected horse usually had atypical presentation showing no outward signs of the disease before it suddenly dropped dead. Since there were no vaccines or cures available, unsuspecting people suffered a horrible death. Only two things could be done; Horse troughs had to go dry, and horses tested with a biological product called mallein. If the horse had an allergic response to the mallein test, it was destroyed. (Fortunately, there are a series of antibiotics available today that prevent such a grizzly outcome for both animals and humans).

In 1909, Dr. Charles Keane made a plea to city and county officials throughout the state to shut down all water troughs knowing that he would get blow back. Business owners refused to let their troughs go dry, complaining it would ruin their livelihood if people could not water their horses in front of their establishment. Women horse advocates of Los Angeles and San Diego did not like the idea of standing pipes instead of water troughs. They felt the teamsters would be too lazy to draw water in their buckets or refill them, leaving their horses thirsty. By August, Dr. Keane gave up on trying to get Southern California counties to do the right thing.

In the Sacramento Bee on April 20, 1911, Dr. Keane states, “Systemic efforts have been adopted by this department to eradicate Glanders in the state. During the past year over 800 head of horses and mules, which were affected with this disease, were destroyed…” However, by November Glanders was raging in Los Angeles with the loss of over 300 horses within weeks forcing County Veterinarian W. B. Rawland to finally recognize that valuable horse deaths were traced directly to public water troughs. Therefore the County Board of Supervisors ordered all of them to be abolished.

By 1914, eradicating Glanders became a nation-wide movement resulting in the removal or destruction of hundreds if not thousands of water features around the country. The resulting aftermath sped up the country’s transportation transition from horses to motorized vehicles. Perhaps this is what happened to ours, although exactly when is unknown.

During the epidemic there were some experts who believed that stagnant water allowed the disease to spread, while running water prevented its survival. There is some anecdotal evidence to suggest they may have been right. Buffalo kept their 200 fountains of flowing water and had no infections, while Cincinnati removed all of theirs and still had a major outbreak. Although it no longer exists in North America, there are still numerous cases worldwide with the most recent major outbreak occurring in India.

One final thought, should you visit the Alhambra Cemetery and pass by the old horse trough, now a flowerbox, give it a loving touch. You won’t catch glanders but now you will know why it might be a planter.

Our Column is sponsored and supported by the Martinez Historical Society (MHS) and the Martinez Cemetery Preservation Alliance (MCPA). For more information, please visit the MCPA website MartinezCemetery.org or the MHS website MartinezHistory.org. Do you have a cemetery story or images to share? Please email us at martinezcemetery@gmail.com or call us at (925) 316-6069.

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  1. Jeremy Nichols

    Nice piece on the Alhambra Cemetery. I had not thought about water troughs for horses but of course that would have been a necessity in 19th and early 20th century California.

    Did you know that before the term “hearse” was adopted, people were taken to the cemetery in a “dead wagon.” When Sonoma County (where I live) advertised for bids for burying the “indigent dead,” they specified that the deceased must be transported in a “proper dead wagon,” meaning, not just some old farm wagon. I have not traced the change from “dead wagon” to hearse and do not know if there is any connection to the change from horse-drawn wagons to automobiles.

    In the article, where the word “antidotal” is used, I believe you meant “anecdotal.”

  2. Thanks Jeremy first for your catch and secondly for your wonderful comments. We had never heard of the term “Dead Wagon” before. You inspired us to do a quick search via Marriam Webster and Newspapers.com and here’s what we found:

    The Evolution of Hearse
    Medieval French used the word herce for a harrow, a farm tool used to break up and smooth the soil. Herce was also applied to a triangular frame that was used for holding candles. Herce was borrowed into Middle English as herse. In those days, a large and decorative framework might be raised over the tomb or coffin of an honored person. Because this framework was often decorated with candles, the word herse was applied to it. A series of slightly changed meanings led to the use of herse (Modern English hearse) for a platform for a corpse or coffin, and from that to a vehicle to carry the dead. The verb hearse emerged late in the 16th century.

    Then we found an article published in the SF Examiner Sep 16, 1888, “…on the morning of the 8th the dead wagon drove up. Had this wagon glass sides and mourning plumes it would have been called a hearse and would have been drawn by a couple or four funeral draped steeds. But it had no glass sides and no plumes and it therefore followed but one horse, and that one lanky, raw-boned and hammer-headed.”

    So it would seem that if a body today were carried in a motorized vehicle that did not have any plumage, drapery or the like, it would not actually be a hearse and could still be referred to as a “dead wagon”.

  3. Jeremy Nichols

    Interesting that ‘hearse’ and ‘dead wagon’ were used simultaneously for different versions of the same thing. For the transport of dead paupers (indigents), a dead wagon certainly would have been appropriate. The county contract went to the low bidder, who would have used as cheap a production as the contract allowed.

    Actually, Sonoma County required quite a bit for $12 (the winning bid in the late 1800’s): the corpse had to be dressed, including socks and underwear, the coffin had to be first-class Redwood with two coats of stain,” lined inside and including a pillow. Then there was the dead wagon requirement and another one for the headboard (“two coats of white paint,” etc.). Quite a process for $12 !

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