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Destination Clearwater: Cemetery Hill

How a cemetery on a hill and an urban legend can bring back winter memories.

As far as crash-and-burn teen legends go, Clearwater is pretty bereft. I grew up here, and I only ever heard one, which quite honestly never scared me.

See, there’s this hill — well, for us, it’s a hill; in northern states it’s a paved dirt pile — in the middle of a neighborhood. And on this hill sits a cemetery. When I went to Clearwater High, we called it Cemetery Hill. If you live anywhere near it, you know which one I’m talking about. It’s a few blocks south of the high school on Hercules.

Now, what’s neat about this particular cemetery is that, while it looks like just your ordinary cemetery when you’re zoomed in on the algae-adorned marble and the lace-webbed Spanish moss draped over the tree limbs, pull back a bit and you’ll see a two-lane road split around the cemetery. Zoom out a little farther, and you’ll see more than one front porch taking in the sweeping vista of the burial ground.

To my knowledge, no one gets buried here anymore. The headstones, especially the most prominent marble pieces, have old Clearwater names like Harn, Taylor and McMullen, and the earliest birthdate I know of here is 1802. Officially, it’s the Rousseau Cemetery. To me, it’s Cemetery Hill. In high school, some of my friends called it Suicide Hill, which always seemed too bleak for me. With a nod to the history and the founding families buried there, indulge me while I explain.

Let’s go back to when I was a teenager. It was the '80s. While the '80s weren’t exactly redolent with crash-and-burn teen songs, the decade did have its share of urban legends. Plus, we had the entire collection of 1950s dying teen/car crash songs to draw upon. My friends and I also had brand-new Florida driver’s licenses and the use of our parents' cars. In the '80s, Clearwater had a great putt-putt golf course on Gulf to Bay (right about where you’ll find a Home Depot now), a teen nightclub on Hercules just south of Sunset Point Road (it’s now a bowling alley, but I think it used to be called Skyfeathers), movie theaters and a beach. We went to all these places, and every time we did I made sure to drive over Cemetery Hill as fast as I dared (I wasn’t that brave; I think the fastest I ever went was maybe 45) in hopes of seeing the dead girl.

The story goes — and you probably know it before I tell it — that one prom night (ever notice these things always happen on prom night?), a girl and her boyfriend drove down Cemetery Hill too fast, the boyfriend crashed the car, and the girl died. The legend also said that if you drove down the hill at just the right speed, you could see the girl, still in her prom dress, in your rear view mirror.

I never caught a glimpse of Dead Prom Girl, but that little hill was a ton of fun to drive. I loved it. After high school, there never seemed to be a reason to take Cemetery Hill — my friends and I were all at separate colleges and only got together over the holidays. Soon, the only time I navigated around Rousseau Cemetery was over the Christmas break or summer vacation, when my friends and I were home, jobless and bored. We no longer drove over the hill hoping to see Dead Prom Girl — as first-year college students we were far too mature for that silly nonsense — but some of them lived right by the hill, so I found myself going over it more than usual around Christmas and the New Year.

More than two decades later, we’re spread out all over the world. One of us is in Korea, others closer to home in Virginia or Pennsylvania. Some of us have kids now. Some of our parents no longer live in Clearwater. It is a rare occasion where we’re together again; even the holidays don’t reunite us as well as Facebook has done.

I am a graduate student at the University of Florida’s Florida Studies program. I love Florida history and totally “get” the significance of Rousseau Cemetery. Still, round about the end of every year, I find myself steering my little red car towards Hercules just south of Gulf to Bay and thinking not of the Taylors, McMullens and Harns but the urban legend surrounding the hill, being a college student, and those over-all-too-fast winter breaks with my friends as we careened down Cemetery Hill.

Jared Leone December 31, 2011 at 02:32 PM
Thanks for sharing the story of the Dead Prom Girl, Cathy! I wonder if anyone has seen her in their rearview?
Mark June 03, 2012 at 01:53 PM
Skyfeathers was on Ulmerton, not sure what the name of the club was on Hurcules.
Cathy Salustri June 03, 2012 at 02:04 PM
Thanks, Mark – a friend just saw this and reminded me that I was thinking of "Sha-Bang" and, indeed, I was. If only I could find those old journals I kept in the 80s, I'm sure they'd be an accurate historical record!

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