East Hill Cemetery
East State Street
Bristol, Tennessee and Virginia
The city of Bristol straddles the border between Virginia and Tennessee with East State Street marking the state line west of East Hill Cemetery. The cemetery itself is divided into nearly equal portions as it passes through the cemetery. The primary entrance, however, is located on the Tennessee side.
The death of a child is always traumatic, though it was especially harrowing when five-year-old Nellie Gaines passed away in 1857 as her family was preparing to leave the area. Worried that the pitiful grave would be neglected and forgotten, the family sought a proper place for their daughter. One of Bristol’s founders, Samuel Goodson, owned a hill east of town and suggested it as a proper burial place.
A wagon bore the child’s casket up the hill prodded by a branch snapped off by the driver. After the service, the branch was stuck into the earth to mark the grave. The branch grew into a tree atop the grave until the early 1970s. Over the years the hill began to collect graves and eventually became an official cemetery.
This hill had been the scene of strange occurrences for many years prior to its use as a cemetery. During the latter days of the 18th century, this area was a favored hunting ground for General Evan Shelby who lived nearby. As the old general developed dementia in his old age, he took to wandering his old hunting grounds which included East Hill. After his death passersby still spotted the form of the old general still rambling about the hillside.
Even stranger was the image of a burning tree that was spotted on rainy nights. Brave souls who ventured into the cemetery in search of the torch-like tree never found any sign of fire. A local reverend built a home on a nearby hill with a good view of East Hill and he and his family regularly witnessed this phenomenon that they dubbed the “burning tree ghost.”
Sometime after the cemetery was formally established, a man taking a shortcut through the cemetery late on a snowy night heard the sounds of children playing. Thinking the sounds odd, he stopped momentarily to listen and was shocked to see three white figures moving towards him. He fled. Over the years, many others have reported similar sounds on cold, snowy evenings.
Local historian Bud Phillips tells a more recent story involving a woman searching for the grave of her great-grandmother. After tramping through the cemetery and have no luck finding her great-grandmother’s marker the woman decided to give up. As she walked back to her car she saw the strange figure of a woman standing not far away wearing a pink gown and pointing to a shrub. The figure vanished and the intrepid visitor decided to take a closer look at the shrub the woman had been pointing at. Lo and behold, the shrub was covering her great-grandmother’s marker. A short time later, the woman remembered that her great-grandmother had been buried wearing a pink gown.
With the activity here, it seems that East Hill Cemetery may also straddle the line between life and death.
There are several other places that “straddle the line” that I have covered. Two theatres on State Street–the Paramount Center for the Performing Arts on the Tennessee side, and the Cameo Theatre on the Virginia side–have been covered in my article, “Phantoms of the Operas, Y’all–13 Haunted Southern Theatres.” I have also covered the ghosts of the Bristol Train Station in Virginia.
- Phillips, Bud. “East Hill Cemetery is the most haunted place in the city of Bristol.” Bristol Herald Courier. 30 December 2013.
- Phillips, V.N. (Bud). Pioneers in Paradise. Johnson City, TN: Overmountain Press, 2002.
- Stothart, Gray. National Register of Historic Places nomination form for East Hill Cemetery. 30 May 2010.