The Birch-Stevens Crypt
If the Stevens Tomb in Christ Church Cemetery was erected to keep alive the memory of the family members as well as to shelter their physical remains, its purpose is being constantly achieved. Throughout the years it has been contemplated with varying degrees of curiosity and awe. In order to read the inscriptions with any sensitivity, a small excursion into the family background is needed.
Julia A.B. Chace, with generations of New England forebears, lived in the house at 160 Elm Street. Born on April 13, 1857, her parents were David and Mary Chase. James E. Birch, probably from North Carolina, lived in Providence, where he was employed by Otis Kelton, who was Julia’s half-brother. In 1849, James joined the horde of people travelling to California. He never searched for gold, but immediately assembled horses and wagons to transport men and supplies. He had learned about horses at Otis Kelton’s livery stable. Well established in business, he returned to Swansea. In 1852 they were married by Lawton Cady, preacher of the Gospel. A daughter was born to James and Julia but she lived only a week. Their son, Frank Stevens Birch was born in October 1856.
In 1857 James Birch decided to return to the mansion he had built on the village street in Swansea. He would carry on his vast stage coach business and supervise his network of mail contracts from his home in the East where his wife and son where already established. But the ship he boarded was lost. The wreck is famous to this day. The Central America sank with many on board who had been made wealthy by one phase or another of gold production in California.
The marble shaft, shrouded with a marble drapery, at left of the tomb is marked with this inscription:
James E. Birch
Born November 30th 1827
Was lost with the
September 12, 1857.
Above the name is a representation in relief of a vessel sinking in a stormy sea. On the side panels of this shaft are two more names.
Daughter of James E.
and Julia A.B. Birch
Born March 8
died March 15, 1855
Frank S. Birch
born October 15, 1856
Died March 12, 1896
Frank Birch married but had no children.
The widowed Julia Birch returned to California and married her husband’s business partner, Frank S. Stevens, whom she had met earlier. He became administrator of the estate of her late husband and guardian of her son.
Mr. Stevens saw Swansea for the first time when he came here with his wife in 1858. They decided to make this their home and he soon become involved in the business and political life of the area.
The tomb must have been constructed to receive the coffin of Lucinda Stevens who was born June 14 and died June 27, 1859. The date over the door is 1860. Lucinda’s name was the first to be put on the shaft at the right of the tomb. Julia Stevens died in 1871, and her name was inscribed on the panel next to that of her daughter.
In 1873 Mr. Stevens married again. He wed, on her twenty-third birthday, Elizabeth Case, the beautiful younger daughter of the keeper of Case Hotel. They had no children. Mr. Stevens died in 1898 and his name was added to Stevens’ shaft. Several years later, Elizabeth, his wife, replaced the marble door of the tomb with a handsome one of bronze, designed by the renowned architect Henry Vaughn.
Sometimes on a fine Sunday when Elizabeth lived, the heavily ornamented bronze door would stand open. Through the grille of the inner iron gate, one could see a bouquet of fresh flowers placed inside the tomb. However, the door did not open when many years later a small child from Christ Church Day School was found knocking there!
Elizabeth died in 1930. Here ended for all time the lives of James E. Birch and Frank S. Stevens and all their progeny.
Two young men met on the way to the California gold fields in 1849. They founded a stage-coach line that developed into an empire. With it they handled mail contracts for a large part of the nation. They brought their fortunes to Swansea, the girlhood homes of Julia Chace and Elizabeth Case. The family diminished and came to an end but, like the tomb in the Christ Church Cemetery, public buildings and many endowments stand witness to the Birch-Stevens generosity.