FOUR MILE FLAT, Nev. — The three little sisters crossing the wilds of the Central Nevada desert in a wagon train more than a century ago died of diphtheria within three days of each other.
But they have never been forgotten.
A pile of rocks, a white picket fence and two crosses rising from the middle of a stark salt flat at the foot of Sand Mountain mark their graves.
"The burial site is like a beacon out here in this lonely spot. You can see it for miles from all directions," said Johnnie Johnson, 68, caretaker of the girls' final resting place.
Located 150 yards north of U.S. 50, about 25 miles east of Fallon, the grave site has been a mystery to most passing motorists for years.
For years a cross marking the graves was inscribed: "Two pioneer children. Known only to God."
Five years ago Johnson erected a new cross, on which is inscribed the identity of three (not two) sisters who had been buried here, Jennie Le Beau, 9, Louise Le Beau, 6, and Emma Le Beau, 3, and the fact that they died about 1865.
Johnson also placed a small plaque at the grave site "Dedicated to the memory of the hundreds of men, women and children and thousands of animals that perished on the Old Simpson Trail to California 1846 to the 1880s."
A retired U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service refuge field supervisor, Johnson, who lives in Fallon, is the latest in a series of volunteers who over the last century have protected and preserved the burial site of the Le Beau sisters.
The first to do so was an old prospector whose name has long been forgotten, who cared for the graves in the 1880s and 1890s.
Next came L. C. Benadums, who delivered mail and supplies from Fallon to Wonder and Fairview, two silver and gold mining encampments that since have vanished. He protected the graves from the turn of the century to the early 1920s. After the mailman came Sam Taylor and William Manley of Fallon.
A devastating cloudburst in 1940 washed out the remains of the three girls. Taylor and Manley found the skeletons of the two older sisters on the salt flat a year later, according to Sharon Taylor, 41, historian, archeologist and long-time director of the Churchill County Museum in Fallon, and no relation to Sam Taylor.
The two men reburied the remains and erected a new cross replacing the one that had been destroyed in the storm. The remains of the youngest girl were never found.
R. M. (Mac) McAlexander, a mining engineer who made several trips into the area from Reno, was familiar with the cross erected by Manley and Taylor in the middle of the salt flat.
Built a Picket Fence
When that cross was blown over and damaged by the elements and no one replaced it, McAlexander took it upon himself to erect a new one in the 1970s. He also placed a picket fence around the graves.
Knowing only that two skeletons of children were buried there and unaware of their identity, he provided the inscription on the cross that read: "Two pioneer children. Known only to God."
The next person who becomes part of the saga of the lonely graves of the three little sisters was Johnson.
"Once again the elements were at work destroying the burial site," Johnson recalled. "The picket fence and cross were blown over. I knew about the graves and decided to restore the burial site. I've had a lifelong interest in Nevada history and I've been involved in the restoration and preservation of many other unattended remote grave sites of early day pioneers and miners."
Beginning five years ago, Johnson made numerous trips to the salt flats bringing large rocks to stabilize the grave site. He erected a new redwood picket fence and the new cross and plaques.
With the help of Sharon Taylor at the Churchill County Museum, Johnson was able to learn the identity of the three sisters and the history of the remote burial spot.
He told how it had special meaning for him: "I had a twin sister named Lucy Mae who died when she was 18 months old in 1918 from influenza. We were very poor. She was buried in a potter's grave in St. Louis. I have no idea where. I put a little plaque on the graves of the Le Beau sisters in memory of Lucy Mae."
In 1983 Johnson and Taylor tracked down a great-nephew of the little girls, Earl Le Beau of Hawthorne, Nev., who had previously been unaware of the graves. Le Beau and his wife, Virginia, in turn contacted Joseph Le Beau, a cousin in Vernal, Utah. Earl Le Beau died two years ago at the age of 70.
Joseph Le Beau's wife Dorothy, has done extensive genealogy on the family.
"The three girls were daughters of Michael and Mary Louise Le Beau, French-Canadians who came to Nevada in the 1860s and eventually settled in a mining town called Elsworth that no longer exists," she said. "They had nine children. One son, Joseph Napoleon Le Beau, was my husband's grandfather."