Category Archives: institutional cemeteries

Merchant Marine Cemetery

A 2012 aerial view showing the Merchant Marine Cemetery located in the wooded section at the northwest corner of Ocean View Cemetery. United Hebrew Cemetery is adjacent to the north and east of the woods (nyc.gov)

At a back corner of Ocean View Cemetery in the Oakwood section of Staten Island is a narrow gravel road that leads into the woods. Wandering down the path, one passes thick brush and brambles, a small pond, rusted scraps of abandoned cars and other junk, until finally encountering a clearing. Here, lined up row by row seemingly in the middle of nowhere, is a cluster of aging headstones marking the graves of merchant mariners who died between 1901 and 1937 in a federal hospital on the borough’s north shore. The Marine Hospital, established on Bay Street in the Clifton section in the 1880s, was part of a network of hospitals around the country that were dedicated to the care of sick and disabled seamen. In the early 1900s, the Marine Hospital on Staten Island evolved into the U.S. Public Service Hospital, which in turn became the site of Bayley Seton Hospital.

A view of the Merchant Marine Cemetery, April 2017 (Mary French)

After the graveyard on the hospital grounds became full, in 1901 the Marine Hospital purchased a section of Ocean View Cemetery as a new burial ground for the seamen who died in the facility. The men buried here—approximately 1,000, from all around the world—include Adolf Jorgenson of Norway, who died in 1909, aged 33; Joseph Giffney, a 51-year-old native of Massachusetts, who died in 1918; 72-year-old Benton Moore, a seaman from New Jersey who died in 1906; and Nemed Achi, a 21-year-old mess-room steward from India who was interred among the mariners in 1919.

Grave markers in the Merchant Marine Cemetery, April 2017 (Mary French)

Although the federal government paid for the graves, interment, and burial markers for the men who died in the Marine Hospital, no money was set aside for perpetual care of the burial ground and responsibility for maintaining the site was never assigned to any federal agency. When agencies restructured over the years, the Merchant Marine Cemetery fell through the cracks as ownership and responsibility became undefined, leading the site to suffer a long history of neglect. As early as 1947, just 10 years after burials at the graveyard ended, Representative Ellsworth Buck decried the “appalling conditions” at the abandoned site. Dubbed the “Forgotten Acre,” graves were sunken, headstones crumbling, and metal name markers rusted and broken. Despite efforts of elected officials and several community-sponsored cleanups over the decades, with no one taking on continual care of the burial ground, it would again be forgotten and left to the elements.

In recent years, Ocean View Cemetery’s board of directors committed to restoring the Merchant Marine Cemetery, regardless of who is legally responsible for it. Beginning in 2009, they installed the gravel access road, cleared the site of brush and tree branches, and reset or straightened many of the monuments. On Veteran’s Day 2011, American flags were placed on each grave at the reclaimed site—the first time these merchant marine veterans received such recognition.

A listing for the Merchant Marine Cemetery in a 1910 directory of NYC cemeteries
Manifest of the British vessel Lutetian that arrived in New York Oct 23, 1918, with Nemed Achi as one of the crew (arrow). Five months later Achi was buried in the Merchant Marine Cemetery on Staten Island.
Gravestone and death record for Nemed Achi, who was buried in the Merchant Marine Cemetery in March 1919

View more photos of the Merchant Marine Cemetery

Sources: Fairchild Cemetery Manual (1910), 166; Realms of History: The Cemeteries of Staten Island (Salmon 2006), 78-81; “Island’s Own Arlington Planned for Soldier Dead at Ocean View,” Staten Island Advance, May 7, 1951; “Treatment of the Men of ‘Forgotten Acre’ a Borough Blemish, Staten Island Advance, March 1, 2004; “Senator Seeks Federal Help to Repair Forgotten Cemetery,” Staten Island Advance, March 2 2004; “A Cemetery and Its War Dead Wait for a Savior,” New York Times, April 4, 2004; “Forgotten Acre Stuns Surgeon General,” Staten Island Advance, Apr 29, 2004; “At Staten Island Cemetery, a Tribute to Merchant Marine Vets of ‘Forgotten Acre,’ Staten Island Advance, Nov 10, 2011; The Forgotten Acre (Facebook site); U.S. Public Health Service—History; “New York City Municipal Deaths, 1795-1949,” Nemed Achi, 11 Mar 1919, FamilySearch; “New York, Passenger Lists, 1820-1957,” Ancestry.com

Advertisements

Quarantine Cemeteries

The Quarantine Grounds at Tompkinsville, Staten Island, in 1853

Beginning in colonial times, a quarantine system existed in New York Harbor to prevent foreign ships from bringing diseases into the port of New York. For much of the 18th century, Bedloe’s Island (today’s Liberty Island) was the quarantine station, where vessels having contagious diseases on board were required to stop and sick individuals were detained. In 1799, an act of the state legislature relocated the quarantine station to Staten Island; anchorage grounds and a hospital were established at Tompkinsville on the island’s northeastern shore. The quarantine remained at Tompkinsville for nearly 60 years, despite resentment by the island’s residents to its location there. Considered a blight on the community and an endangerment to its citizens, hostility towards the quarantine grew in the 1840s and 1850s when a surge in immigration brought an increase in patients at the complex.

The state made several attempts to find another site for the quarantine, including acquiring property in 1857 at Seguine’s Point on the south shore of Staten Island where temporary quarantine buildings were erected. Authorities encountered the same animosity towards the quarantine here; in a series of attacks in May 1857, local residents burned down everything connected with the quarantine development at Seguine’s Point. With no other place to operate, the quarantine continued at Tompkinsville until September 1858, when it, too, was destroyed by locals who removed the patients from the buildings and torched the complex. Following the destruction of the Tompkinsville site, floating hospitals down New York Bay were used as an interim quarantine system pending construction of two artificial islands—Swinburne and Hoffman—in the Lower Bay off the southeastern shore of Staten Island. Swinburne and Hoffman Islands were used for quarantine purposes from the 1870s until the 1920s.

Scenes from an 1887 pictorial about the New York Quarantine Establishment show sick being removed from a ship and taken to the quarantine hospital (Harper’s Weekly)

During the quarantine process, physicians boarded ships upon arrival and inspected passengers and crew for signs of smallpox, yellow fever, cholera, typhus, or other pestilential diseases. Individuals determined to be ill were sent for treatment at the quarantine complex. In addition to treating those arriving from foreign shores, the quarantine hospitals also received patients from the city who showed symptoms of contagious diseases. Patients who died in quarantine at Tompkinsville and subsequent facilities were interred in cemeteries on Staten Island that were part of the quarantine establishment. Approximately 10,000 individuals were buried—typically without ceremony or the presence of family or friends—in these quarantine cemeteries during the 19th century. Disposal of the dead who died in quarantine was a constant predicament for the establishment’s officials, as Staten Islanders opposed the interment of bodies of those dying of contagious diseases. In 1889 a crematory was erected on Swinburne Island to incinerate the remains of those who died in quarantine.

Quarantine Cemeteries, Tompkinsville

Opened in 1799, the New York Marine Hospital at Tompkinsville—known as the Quarantine—was a 30-acre complex situated just south of where the Staten Island Ferry lands today in the neighborhood now known as St. George. The grounds, which were enclosed by a high brick wall and included several hospital buildings, employee residences, and gardens, occupied the area bounded by present-day Hyatt Street, St. Marks Place, and Victory Boulevard, extending down to the water where quarantined ships anchored. Two cemeteries were located within the quarantine complex—one in the southwest corner of the grounds near today’s Victory Boulevard and St. Mark’s Place, and a second one in the northwestern corner, at Hyatt Street and St. Mark’s Place. The second cemetery was established when the earlier, southern cemetery became full during a spike in Quarantine patients at the time of the Irish potato famine, a period described in an 1849 report regarding conditions at the Quarantine as “the great tide of immigration which swelled upon our shores during the eventful years of 1846 and 1847, when thousands were driven from their homes in the old world by the famine which prevailed, and bringing with them the germs of disease engendered by want, had to be provided for immediately on their arrival.”

An 1849 survey of the Quarantine Grounds, showing the location of the two cemeteries

Prior to the 1840s, the number of patients treated at the Quarantine was less than 500 per year; by 1849 the number had increased to 7,000 per year. New buildings were erected on the grounds to meet this emergency situation, but still the complex was crowded to overflowing. And with two or three patients dying each day, Quarantine officials were running out of space to put the bodies. Instead of burying the dead in single graves, as had been the previous practice, large trenches were dug in the northern cemetery where coffins could be stacked three deep. An estimated 3,000 burials were made in these mass graves during a two or three-year period and the decomposing bodies produced an offensive odor that was a major complaint to residents living near the Quarantine. In 1849, the state legislature ordered the Quarantine to procure a new burial ground “remote from the premises of the Marine Hospital” and cease burials within its Tompkinsville site.

A scene of the destruction of the Quarantine Grounds at Tompkinsville in September 1858, showing gravestones in the southern cemetery (Leslie’s)

Following the 1858 destruction of the Quarantine, the Tompkinsville complex largely lay idle until 1868 when it was sold to private developers who divided the property into buildings lots. “Bodies with their accompanying gravestones” were reportedly removed at that time from the Quarantine grounds to the off-site cemetery that had been purchased in 1849 near Silver Lake; however, if remains really were removed, it’s likely only those from the older, southern cemetery were transferred. Recent archaeological investigations revealed that remains are still present at the site of the northern cemetery that was used in the late 1840s. In 2003, plans began for the construction of a new court complex on part of the former Tompkinsville Quarantine grounds, including the area of the northern cemetery. Archaeologists conducted exploratory tests along the perimeter of the cemetery site, which had been covered by a parking lot since the 1950s, and found human remains at several locations. The remains of 83 people were recovered from the site, including 38 intact burials, some still stacked two or three deep within the burial trenches. The rest of the one-acre burial ground site was left undisturbed and is now a Memorial Green in front of the St. George Staten Island Court complex; the human remains recovered from the site were reinterred here in 2014.

An aerial view of the St. George Court Complex and vicinity showing the sites of the two Tompkinsville Quarantine cemeteries (Ennead)

 

Quarantine Cemetery, Silver Lake

A photo of the Quarantine Graveyard at Silver Lake from a 1919 article in The Sun

When Quarantine authorities were compelled to stop burying their dead within the Tompkinsville grounds in 1849, the state purchased four acres of land in the township of Castleton, near Silver Lake, for a new cemetery. The burial ground, known as Marine Cemetery or Quarantine Burying Ground, was located on the northwest side of the Richmond Turnpike (today’s Victory Boulevard) and “situated as to be at the greatest possible distance from an inhabited neighborhood, and over forty rods [660 feet] from the nearest public road, yet not more than about a mile distant from the Marine Hospital.” A high fence, with well-secured gates, enclosed the grounds and a small house was erected in front of the enclosure for the permanent residence of the person in charge of the burial ground. Although the new cemetery satisfied the complaints of the inhabitants of the neighborhood of the Quarantine at Tompkinsville, it created a rift with the Town of Castleton, whose residents were alarmed to have the Quarantine dead transported by wagon through the village to the burial ground. The Castleton Board of Health made several attempts to prevent Quarantine authorities from sending bodies to the cemetery, but the state officials disregarded their prohibitions.

An 1887 map showing the location of the Marine Cemetery, or Quarantine Burying Ground, near Silver Lake

Over 5,000 individuals were interred at the Marine Cemetery between 1849 and 1858. After the Quarantine was moved from Tompkinsville, the Marine Cemetery at Silver Lake became impractical owing to its great distance from the new quarantine facilities. The cemetery’s status is discussed in the 1869 annual report of the Commissioners of Quarantine, who note that although it could no longer be used for its intended purpose, “as it is the resting place of thousands who have fallen victims to disease while under quarantine, it should still be treated as a part of the establishment, and preserved from injury or depredations.” In 1924 the cemetery became part of the grounds of Silver Lake Park and is now within the park’s golf course.

Most of the people buried in the Quarantine cemeteries at Tompkinsville and Silver Lake were interred without markers, but occasionally friends or family members would arrange for tombstones to be placed at the graves. In 1888, 32 tombstones stood in the Marine Cemetery at Silver Lake; many were those that had been moved there from graves at the Tompkinsville grounds. The inscriptions on the gravestones provided a sample of some of the lives that came to an end at the Quarantine, including Andrew Staley, a “Native of Old England who fell a Victim to the Epidemic Fever” in 1805; William Crowther of London, who died of a fever on his return from Haiti “ere he could reach the arms of his expectant Family at Philadelphia” in 1818; and John Nicol, who was one of 40 yellow fever cases that came to the Quarantine from the frigate Susquehanna in April 1858. In 1923, only 24 tombstones remained in the graveyard and by the 1930s they had all disappeared, possibly buried under the soil when the golf course was constructed. Today the cemetery is memorialized by a bronze plaque embedded in a boulder near the 18th hole of the golf course; it reads, “The Forgotten Burial Ground 1849-1858.”

The Quarantine Cemetery at Silver Lake in 1917
Gravestones in the Quarantine Burying Ground at Silver Lake in 1928 (NYPL)

 

Quarantine Cemetery, Seguine’s Point

Once the Marine Cemetery at Silver Lake became useless for quarantine purposes after 1858, authorities turned to Seguine’s Point on the southeastern shore of Staten Island for a new burial ground. The state had purchased 50 acres here in 1857 with the intention of relocating the quarantine establishment to the property, but these plans were abandoned when locals torched everything built at the site. A portion of the property was reserved for burial purposes and was used for the interment of those dying in quarantine at the floating hospitals and later at the Swinburne Island hospital. Those dying of contagious diseases in the city or on vessels in the Bay were also buried here. The Seguine’s Point Quarantine Cemetery was described as an “isolated, lonely spot close by the water of the Bay, with a heavy body of timber intervening between it and the cultivated farm residences which dot this portion of Staten Island.” Enclosed by a picket fence and protected from the water by a small stone seawall, the graves were marked with wooden slabs identifying the deceased. There was no pier or landing place, and boatmen usually would run a small boat up on the beach and carry the plain, pine coffins the few yards up the shore to the cemetery.

Boatmen are shown burying a body at the Seguine’s Point burial ground in this 1887 illustration (Harper’s Weekly)

In 1867, the physician of the quarantine hospital ship described some of the difficulties in transporting bodies to the cemetery, which was eight or nine miles from their anchorage: “In stormy weather, especially when the wind is blowing on shore, the boat carrying the dead is immediately filled on striking the beach…The boatmen are thoroughly drenched, and have to remain so for hours, and are sometimes compelled to stay on the shore during the night, as the inhabitants in the neighborhood of the cemetery will not allow anybody from the hospital to come near their dwellings or even their outhouses.” The farmers and oystermen residing in the vicinity of the quarantine burial ground were sometimes driven “wild with rage” when they knew yellow fever and cholera victims were being interred in the cemetery. One boatman who was burying a body from the Swinburne Island hospital had to take to a tree to evade an angry party of neighbors who approached with guns and dogs to stop him. He escaped without injury but refused to bury another body at Seguine’s Point.

A New York Times reporter visited the Seguine’s Point cemetery in 1882 and interviewed a man he found repairing his rowboat near the graveyard. “I once seen them bury a poor chap in that ground,” the man said. “They just hurried his coffin off a tugboat and dumped it into the grave. They didn’t have no prayers, but they just covered him up with dirt and left. Some summers they only bury six or seven there, but other summers they do a good deal more planting in that ground.” The remains of roughly 500 people were interred in the Seguine’s Point burial ground until 1889, when the quarantine establishment began to use the crematory on Swinburne Island to dispose of the dead. An act of Legislature of 1888 directed the removal of the dead at Seguine’s Point and the bodies “disposed of in such manner as will not endanger the public health.” The disinterment work—described in grisly detail in a series of articles in the New York Herald—was completed in February 1890. The bodies were incinerated in a temporary crematory constructed on the premises and the ashes gathered for reburial on Swinburne Island. The land that was once the Seguine’s Point Quarantine Cemetery is now part of Wolfe’s Pond Park.

An 1887 map showing the Quarantine property at Seguine’s Point; arrow indicates the approximate location of the cemetery
A view of the Quarantine Burying Ground at Seguine’s Point in 1888 (American Agriculturist)

Sources: Butler’s 1853 Map of Staten Island; Beers’ 1887 New Map of Staten Island; Bromley’s 1917 Atlas of New York City, Borough of Richmond, Pl 11; Communication from the Committee Appointed…to Inquire into the Propriety of the Removal of the Quarantine Establishment (State of New York, 1849); Annual Reports of the Commissioners of Emigration of the State of New York, 1847-1860; Annual Reports of the Commissioners of Quarantine of the State of New York, 1865-1890; Realms of History: The Cemeteries of Staten Island (Salmon 2006), 124-135; Phase IB, II, and III Field Investigation for the Staten Island Criminal Court and Family Court Complex, Staten Island, New York (Historical Perspectives, Inc., 2017); “The Quarantine War,” New York Herald, Sep 12, 1858; “Quarantine Affairs,” New York Times, Sep 16, 1858; “The Quarantine Troubles,” New York Times, Sep 17, 1858; “The Quarantine Troubles,” New York Tribune, Sep 17, 1858; “Destruction of the Quarantine Buildings Near Tompkinsville, Staten Island,” Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper, Sep 18, 1858; “Staten Island—A Tour of the Island,” New York Herald, Apr 12, 1869; “Reminder of Dramatic Event in Staten Island History,” The Sun, Oct 5, 1919; Staten Island Gravestone Inscriptions, Vol 2 (Vosburgh 1925), 155-159; “Refugees of Irish Famine to Get a Proper Burial,” New York Times, Apr 25, 2014; “A Plague-Stricken Ship,” New York Herald, Aug 14, 1872; “Barring Out Epidemics,” New York Times, July 28, 1879; “A Desolate Burial Spot,” New York Times, Jan 3, 1882; “Minor Telegrams,” Lockport Daily Journal, Oct 13, 1887; “Sketches of the New York Quarantine Establishment,” Harper’s Weekly, Oct. 8 1887, 732-733; “New York Quarantine,” American Agriculturist, Dec 1886, 548-549 & Jan 1888, 4-5; “Resurrecting Quarantine’s Dead,” New York Herald, Feb 12, 1890; “Exhuming the Dead with Greater Care,” New York Herald, Feb 13, 1890; “Burning the Quarantine Dead,” New York Herald, Feb 14, 1890; “Quarantine’s Burial Grounds,” New York Tribune, Feb 23, 1890

Cypress Hills National Cemetery

Decoration of soldiers graves at Cypress Hills National Cemetery, May 1929 (Getty Images)

National cemeteries evoke a particular emotional response in visitors; the orderly appearance and regimented lines of uniform headstones are a tangible and powerful memorial to our veterans’ devotion to duty, honor, service, and sacrifice. Only one national cemetery is located in New York City, and this historic site was among the first group of national cemeteries created by Congress during the Civil War. In 1862, Cypress Hills National Cemetery began as military cemetery located within the boundaries of the large, private Cypress Hills Cemetery in Brooklyn. Three acres at Cypress Hills were set aside for the burial of Civil War dead; over 3,000 Union soldiers and several hundred Confederate POWs were buried in this parcel, which became known as the Union Grounds.

In 1884 the federal government purchased a separate, 15-acre tract on Jamaica Ave near the private Cypress Hills Cemetery and dedicated it the Cypress Hills National Cemetery. In addition, in 1941, a small tract within the old Cypress Hills Cemetery, known as the Mount of Victory Plot, became part of the national cemetery. This 0.6-acre plot, the smallest parcel of federally owned land in the country, is a burial ground for veterans who served in the War of 1812. Today Cypress Hills National Cemetery consists of three parcels totaling a little over 18 acres—the national cemetery on Jamaica Avenue, and the Union Grounds and Mount of Victory plot at the private Cypress Hills Cemetery. Cypress Hills National Cemetery was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1997.

Sgt Wilbur Colyer (First Division Museum)

Cypress Hills National Cemetery is the final resting place for 21,000 veterans and dependents, including 24 recipients of the Medal of Honor, the nation’s highest and most prestigious military decoration. Among these is Sergeant Wilbur Colyer, a 20-year-old posthumous Medal of Honor recipient who served as a member of Company A of the 1st Engineers, 1st Division, in France during World War I. Born in Brooklyn in 1898, Colyer grew up in South Ozone Park, Queens, and enlisted in 1917. His Medal of Honor was awarded in January 1919 for his actions on October 9, 1918. Volunteering with two other soldiers to locate machine gun nests, Colyer advanced on the enemy positions to a point where he was half surrounded by the nests in ambush. He killed the gunner of one nest with a grenade he had captured from a German soldier and then turned the German machine gun on the other nests, disabling them before he returned to his platoon. He was later killed in action. Originally buried in Argonne, France, in 1921 his remains were returned to the U.S. and interred at the national cemetery. Sergeant Colyer Square in South Ozone Park was dedicated to him in 1931.

Gravesite of Sgt Wilbur Colyer at Cypress Hills National Cemetery (Mary French)

 

Sgt Mgr Daniel Daly (USMC Archives)

The Medal of Honor has been awarded to 3,500 people since it was created in 1861 and just 19 of those individuals have received it twice. One man was considered for it a third time, although ultimately received other awards in his place. That man was Marine Corps legend Sergeant Major Daniel Daly (1873-1937), and this fierce warrior is interred at Cypress Hills National Cemetery. Born in Glen Cove, NY, Daly had an early career as a boxer despite being 5’6” and 132lbs. He enlisted in the Marine Corps in 1899 and soon earned his first Medal of Honor, for actions during the Boxer Rebellion, the anti-foreign, anti-Christian peasant uprising that took place in China 1899-1901. On Aug 14, 1900, during a siege on the district where foreign diplomats resided, Daly was left alone to keep rebels from storming across the wall protecting the consulate while the rest of his unit went to get supplies and reinforcements. Daly spent the night fending off attackers and legend has it that when reinforcements arrived in the morning, the bodies of 200 dead rebels littered the ground where he had held his position.

Daly earned his second medal of honor 15 years later during the U.S. Occupation of Haiti. He and his 35-man platoon were sent on a reconnaissance mission in the Haitian countryside; when crossing a river, 400 Haitian rebels ambushed them. The platoon found a position to spend the night, but the situation was grim as they were badly outnumbered and had lost their only machine gun in the river during the ambush. In the night, Daly went out to retrieve the weapon and after securing the machine gun, returned to the Marine position and then led an attack to scatter the rebels the next morning.

Gravesite of Daniel Daly at Cypress Hills National Cemetery (Mary French)

Next came World War I, and Daly, now 44 years old, was recognized with a Distinguished Service Cross, Navy Cross, and other honors for repeated acts of heroism during the Battle of Belleau Wood in June 1918, including rescuing six wounded Marines who were pinned down by heavy enemy fire, capturing 13 German soldiers entirely on his own, and capturing a machine gun nest by himself armed with just his Colt .45 and a few hand grenades. It was during the Battle of Belleau Wood that Daly said the words for which he is famous. Pinned down by the Germans at one point during the battle with his men who were beginning to lose hope, Daly rose up and rallied them by bellowing, “Come on you sons of bitches, do you want to live forever?” and led them into a successful charge. Daly’s battle cry is considered one of the finest expressions of Marine esprit de corps ever uttered.

Custer’s last message, delivered by John Martin (United States Military Academy at West Point)

Among the other notable figures buried at Cypress Hills National Cemetery is John Martin, the trumpeter who delivered General George Custer’s last message before the massacre of the 7th Cavalry at the Battle of Little Bighorn in 1876. Born Giovanni Martini in Italy in 1852, Martin came to the U.S. in 1873 and enlisted in the Army. Trained as a cavalry trooper and bugler, Martin was assigned as Custer’s orderly the day of the battle. As Custer and his company were heading into battle, he gave Martin a verbal message for Captain Benteen to bring his battalion forward with the pack train as quickly as possible. Because of Martin’s thick Italian accent, Custer’s assistant, Lieutenant William Cooke, stopped Martin and wrote the message on a piece of paper: “Benteen Come on. Big Village. Be quick. Bring packs. P.S. Bring Packs.” Carrying the message saved Martin’s life, as Custer and his troopers were annihilated during the battle. The note is now in the library at the United States Military Academy at West Point. John Martin retired from the Army in 1906 and became a ticket agent for the NYC subway.

Gravesite of John Martin at Cypress Hills National Cemetery (Mary French)
Aerial view of Cypress Hills National Cemetery, 1961 (LOC)

View more photos of Cypress Hills National Cemetery.

Sources: Cypress Hills National Cemetery; American Military Cemeteries (D. Holt 2009), 68-70; World War I New York (K. Fitzpatrick 2017), 143; Sergeant Colyer Square (NYC Parks); First Division Museum; “American Heroes: Sgt. Mgr Dan Daly, USMC,” US Patriot Tactical Blog, Jan 12, 2015; Custer’s Last Message (Little Bighorn National Monument); “Tunnel Vision: He Was Custer’s Bugler. Then, the Subway Called,” New York Times, Jan 29, 2003.

Sailors’ Snug Harbor Cemetery

SSH April 2017
A view of Sailors’ Snug Harbor Cemetery, April 2017 (Mary French)

They that go down to the sea in ships, that do business in great waters, lead a life of peril, hardship and excitement . . . When the storms have been weathered, and the harbors reached they are usually ready for whatever good things the land has to offer, and when old age overtakes them to settle down about a quiet fireside . . . among them none holds so high a place as Sailors’ Snug Harbor . . . unquestionably the most famous sailors’ retreat in the world . . . One thousand old men, gathered from all quarters of the world under a single roof, make a curious and sometimes querulous collection . . . They may walk on the lawn, sit in the sunshine, dream under the trees, and there is nothing to disturb. When they become weary and are laid to rest, a little cemetery whose white tombstones may be seen back of this pastoral abode receives their bodies and then they are left serene. (Theodore Dreiser 1904)

Founded by Robert Richard Randall’s 1801 bequest to create a retirement home for “aged, decrepit, and worn-out sailors,” Sailors Snug Harbor opened in 1831 on Staten Island’s north shore overlooking the Kill Van Kull. The 150-acre facility was a self-sustaining community that included dormitories, a working farm, dairy, bakery, chapel, hospital, and cemetery. At its peak in the early 1900s, there were over 1,000 residents, called “Snugs,” who were admitted without regard to nationality, race, age, or religion. By the mid-20th century, the population at Snug Harbor had significantly dwindled and in the 1970s the retirement home was moved to Sea Level, North Carolina, where it is still in operation today. Most of the Snug Harbor property was transferred to the City of New York for a cultural center.

SSH Butler 1853
Sailors’ Snug Harbor in 1853, and the cemetery located south of facility’s main grounds. (Butler 1853)
Location of Sailors’ Snug Harbor Cemetery (NYCityMap)

Sailor’s Snug Harbor Cemetery is located just beyond the facility’s old south gate on Henderson Avenue.  Funeral processions went down a tree-lined road that led to the back of Snug Harbor grounds and passed through the south gate on their way to the graveyard, which is situated today near the corner of Devon Place and Prospect Avenue, adjacent to Allison Pond Park.  The six-acre site contains the graves of 7,000 mariners who died at the retirement home between 1833 and 1975. The L-shaped graveyard, dubbed “Monkey Hill” by the Snugs, comprises a flat open field and a small hill and is enclosed by a red brick wall.

Gravestones from the Sailors’ Snug Harbor Cemetery on display at the Noble Maritime Collection, May 12, 2017 (Mary French)

At one time in the cemetery’s history, each burial was identified with a gravestone stamped with the four-digit identification number issued when a resident was admitted to the retirement home. As the cemetery became too crowded for stone grave markers, the gravestones were replaced with metal plates, which deteriorated over time and disappeared. Old marble tombstones were also removed from the cemetery to save them from vandals; hundreds of gravestones from the cemetery are now in storage at the Snug Harbor Cultural Center.

Gravemarkers in the Sailors’ Snug Harbor Cemetery, 1919 (SSH Archives)

While most of the Snug Harbor property became part of the Cultural Center or was sold for development, ownership of the cemetery was retained by the Trustees of Sailors’ Snug Harbor. The graveyard has been neglected and vandalized since the retirement facility relocated to Sea Level in the 1970s and the few headstones found sprinkled around the site today are the only evidence of the thousands of men who are buried here.

James Martin a.k.a Edward Leiter, photographed at Snug Harbor, ca. 1900 (SSH Archives)

Most of the tombstones still standing in the cemetery are for residents who died in the early 1900s; one of these is enigmatically inscribed “Edward Leiter Alias James Martin, 1840 – 1914.” Why this mariner used an alias is unknown; his registration shows that he was a native of Hoboken, New Jersey, and was admitted to Snug Harbor in 1899 after serving 36 years at sea.

The men at Snug Harbor were veterans of hard and dangerous lives at sea and even the modern residents had astonishing tales to tell. One of the most recent markers at the cemetery is for Rudolf Ozol, who died in 1975 at the age of 87. On November 8, 1959, Ozol was a boatswain on the tanker Amoco Virginia that exploded and caught fire while docked at Hess Terminal in the Houston Ship Channel. The accident, which caused the death of a fireman and seven crewmen, was reported in newspapers around the country. Ozol, who was described as 71-year-old bearded Latvian, said he went to sea at age 12 but had never learned to swim until that day when he jumped in the channel to escape the blaze. “It was sink or swim and I learned fast,” he said. “I paddled just like a dog the 50 feet to shore. That’s a long way for a man my age but a man will do many things under pressure.”

Ozol_Gravemarker
Rudolf Ozol’s gravemarker at Sailors Snug Harbor Cemetery, April 2017 (Mary French)

View more photos of Sailors’ Snug Harbor Cemetery.

Sources: Butler’s 1853 Map of Staten Island; “Sailors’ Snug Harbor: Home for Aged Skippers,” (T. Dreiser), New-York Tribune Sunday Magazine, May 22, 1904, p3; Sailors Snug Harbor, 1801-1979 (B. Shepherd 1979), p62; “By Will of a Sea Captain: Sailors’ Snug Harbor Cemetery,” (D. Lane), FACSI Newsletter, 15(3) Fall 1998; The Sailors’ Snug Harbor: A History, 1801-2001 (G. Barry 2000); Realms of History: The Cemeteries of Staten Island (P. Salmon 2006), p145-148; Gravestones from Monkey Hill, the Sailors’ Snug Harbor Cemetery (Noble Maritime Collection display); “8 Dead in Tanker Blaze as Blasts Rock Houston,” Pittsburgh Press, Nov 9, 1959 p14; “Clues Hunted in Blasted Hulk of Tanker…,” The News Journal (Wilmington, Delaware), Nov 9, 1959 pp1-2; NYCityMap.