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.
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.
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.
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
In 1890 the Brooklyn Daily Eagle published an article about discriminatory burial practices in New York City’s cemeteries. “In this city, except in isolated instances, the color line is strictly drawn at the grave,” the piece asserts. “Although not generally known, even among the proscribed race, the bodies of blacks may not be interred in the same section of certain cemeteries with those of whites.” African Americans often were segregated to the less desirable sections of cemeteries or, in some cases, completely barred from purchasing graves. The situation was “a source of considerable feeling and discontent among colored people,” the Eagle reported. “The utmost dissatisfaction is expressed at it and there is a growing feeling that some steps should be taken to remedy it.” The black community was still struggling with this problem 45 years later when a group of Harlem businessmen created Frederick Douglass Memorial Park in Staten Island to combat segregated burials. The cemetery was open to all—and had an interracial board of directors—but was created and managed by African Americans with the intention of providing a place where the city’s black residents could be buried affordably and with dignity.
Frederick Douglass Memorial Park is situated adjacent to Ocean View Cemetery on Amboy Road in the Oakwood section of Staten Island. Touted as “an ultra-modern cemetery” when it was established in 1935, this new burial ground was planned along the memorial park model that came to dominate cemetery landscape design in the 20th century. Grave markers were generally required to be flat against the ground, thus making lawn care more economical and giving greater emphasis to the park-like setting. The burial park attracted African Americans from Harlem, Brooklyn, and other areas of the city, and by 1949 Frederick Douglass Memorial Park had over 10,000 interments. Its grounds—which began as 53 acres but dwindled to its present 17 acres by the 1960s—became the final resting place of a number of prominent black public figures, including Negro League baseball player Sol White, blues singer Mamie Smith, and jazz trumpeter Tommy Ladnier.
In 1961 the cemetery erected a monument to its namesake, the esteemed abolitionist, orator, and statesman who died in 1895 and is buried in Mount Hope Cemetery in Rochester, NY. The Frederick Douglass cenotaph, located near the cemetery’s entrance, features a bronze bas-relief portrait mounted on an eight-foot-tall granite slab. The $20,000 monument was created by British-born artist Angus McDougall (known for the iconic apple paperweight he designed for the Steuben Glass Company) and was New York City’s first public sculpture to honor Douglass.
Despite its early success, Frederick Douglass Memorial Park has fallen on hard times in recent years. Business slowed as the cemetery ran out of space for new graves, and it now does only a small number of burials each year. Plagued by poor stewardship, financial woes, and disrepair, since 2005 the cemetery has been operated by a series of court-appointed receivers. The current management, along with the non-profit organization Friends of Frederick Douglass Memorial Park, is working to reestablish financial stability, restore the grounds, and preserve the heritage of this historic African American cemetery.
Sources: “Where the Color Line Exists,” Brooklyn Daily Eagle, Dec 7 1890; “Frederick Douglass Memorial Park…,” New York Age, June 22 1935; “Frederick Douglass Memorial Park Fills Long-Felt Need,” New York Age, July 30 1949; “Monument Honors Ex-Slave Crusader,” New York Times, May 29 1961; “Monument Dedicated In N.Y.” New Journal and Guide (Norfolk, VA), Jun 10 1961; “A Place of Dignity Falls on Hard Times, New York Times, Oct 17 2008; “Hard-pressed Staten Island Cemetery Counting on Descendants,” Staten Island Advance, May 14 2009; “A Cemetery Holding Black Bodies is in Disrepair,” New YorkAmsterdam News, May 11 2017; “In Oakwood, a Troubled Final Resting Place Searches for Help,” Staten Island Advance, Jun 20 2017; Castaways of Frederick Douglass Memorial Park, Staten Island, NY (Eric K. Washington); NYCityMap
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.
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.”
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.
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.
Quarantine Cemetery, Silver Lake
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.
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.”
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.
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.
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
When Jewish immigrants from Eastern Europe arrived in the United States at the turn of the last century, they sought community resources that would provide social and financial support and help them maintain their cultural and religious traditions. Most joined mutual aid societies that, among other services, provided cemetery plots and traditional religious burials for its members. However, there were many Jewish immigrants who were unable to sustain society membership or through various other circumstances found themselves without connections that would ensure a traditional Jewish burial upon death.
Indigent Jews in New York City who were unaffiliated with a burial society or synagogue at the time of death risked burial in a communal grave on Hart Island, the city’s public burial ground, which contravened all aspects of Jewish religious law. Burial in accordance with traditional burial practices is central to Jewish faith and the threat of mass interment in a common grave among strangers posed an existential crisis in the Lower East Side Jewish community during the late 19th and early 20th century. In response, a group of Jewish businessmen founded Chebra Agudas Achim Chesed Shel Emeth (The Society of the Brotherhood of True Charity) in 1888, specifically to bury the unaffiliated Jewish indigent of the Lower East Side with religious observance. Later known as the Hebrew Free Burial Association (HFBA), this organization grew to serve the broader metropolitan area of New York City and is currently the largest free burial society outside of Israel.
Silver Lake Cemetery
Early in its history, HFBA arranged for burials wherever plots were available, usually at Bayside Cemetery in Queens. To meet rapidly increasing need, in 1892 the society purchased its first burial ground, Silver Lake Cemetery on Staten Island. This six-acre cemetery is situated between two older cemeteries—Silver Mount Cemetery and Woodland Cemetery—on the east side of Victory Boulevard in the Grymes Hill area of Staten Island. Approximately 13,600 impoverished, marginalized men, women, children and infants were given traditional religious burial here until the cemetery’s capacity was met in 1909.
Though most of the cemetery was used for burying indigent Jews, several small sections were purchased by other Jewish burial societies and synagogues for the interment of their members. Among them is Congregation B’nai Jeshurun of Staten Island, the first Jewish congregation of Staten Island. While the HFBA stopped burying individuals at Silver Lake in 1909, these other groups continued to sporadically use their portions of the cemetery until about 1950. Today Silver Lake is inactive and is available to visitors only by appointment; however, the HFBA is in the process of restoring the cemetery to open it as a historic site and in 2017 it was listed on the National Register of Historic Places.
Mount Richmond Cemetery
After Silver Lake Cemetery was filled in 1909, HFBA began burials in its second cemetery about five miles south of Silver Lake in the Richmond area of Staten Island. Known as Mount Richmond Cemetery, this 23-acre burial ground is situated on the south side of Clarke Avenue east of Arthur Kill Road adjacent to United Hebrew Cemetery. At Mount Richmond, the HFBA has provided dignified burials to 55,000 of the Jewish poor and continues to bury about 400 each year. The neat rows of graves tell the story of the history of Jews in this country over the last century—the earliest graves those of Lower East Side immigrants, 22 victims of the 1911 Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire, veterans of the wars, and, in recent years, immigrants from the former Soviet Union, many of whom were unable to observe their religion in their homeland but expressed the desire for a traditional Jewish burial.
Many of those laid to rest at Mount Richmond have no headstones, but the HFBA is working to place some type of marker at each grave. Granite markers engraved with personal identification and the Hebrew abbreviation for “here lies the soul” have been placed at thousands of these unmarked graves, creating vast fields of uniform headstones throughout the cemetery. Honoring the less fortunate of the Jewish community with a proper burial and maintaining their resting places with dignity is considered an important obligation and truest act of charity because it cannot be repaid.
Sources: Fairchild Cemetery Manual (1910), 99, 125; Hebrew Free Burial Association—History; Hebrew Free Burial Association—Silver Lake Preservation;National Register of Historic Places Registration Form—Silver Lake Cemetery (Draft), Sept 2016; “Staten Island’s Silver Lake Cemetery Tells the Tale of NYC Jewish Immigrants,” SI Live, Jan 4 2013; “At Mount Richmond Cemetery, Hebrew Free Burial Association Maintains Dignity in Death,” SI Live, Nov 23, 2014; “On Staten Island, a Jewish Cemetery Where All Are Equals in Death, New York Times, Mar 31, 2009; “Who’ll Weep for Me?” Jewish Week, Feb 8, 2002; NYCityMap
Amid rows of modern tract houses on a quiet street in Staten Island is a graveyard that is regarded as one of the country’s most significant African American burial grounds. Rossville AME Zion Church Cemetery memorializes the history of Sandy Ground, one of the oldest continuously inhabited free black settlements in the United States. This African American enclave was founded near the towns of Rossville and Woodrow on the South Shore of Staten Island. Its history begins in 1828 when Capt. John Jackson bought land here shortly after slavery was abolished in New York in 1827. Capt. Jackson, an African-American ferryboat owner-operator, was the first black landowner on Staten Island. Other freedmen followed him to Sandy Ground, including oystermen from New Jersey, Delaware, Virginia, and Snow Hill, Maryland, who were attracted by the rich oyster beds in the area.
The settlement was centered at the junction of present-day Woodrow and Bloomingdale Roads and acquired its name from the sandy soil of the area. Sandy Ground grew and prospered through the early 20th century and at its peak in the 1880s-1890s encompassed almost two square miles and had about 200 residents and over 50 homes. After oystering in the waters off Staten Island was banned in 1916 due to pollution, the Sandy Ground community gradually declined. The community suffered a further blow in 1963 when about half Sandy Ground’s remaining 25 homes were razed in a brush fire that destroyed a large portion of Staten Island’s South Shore. Today, 10 families who trace their roots to the original settlers still live in Sandy Ground.
The Zion African Methodist Episcopal congregation at Sandy Ground was incorporated in 1850, and in 1852 they purchased land on Crabtree Avenue where they built their church and established a cemetery. By 1890 the congregation had outgrown its original church and constructed a new building on Bloomingdale Road where descendants of Sandy Ground settlers still worship today. The cemetery on Crabtree Avenue has continued as the church and community burial ground.
Rossville AME Zion Church Cemetery occupies 1.6 acres on the south side of Crabtree Avenue, west of Bloomingdale Road. About 100 modest tombstones can be found in the graveyard and a recent ground-penetrating radar survey located more than 500 unmarked graves here. Dates on the tombstones range from 1860 to the present and represent over 40 families. Capt. John Jackson’s tombstone is here, as are markers for members of other early Sandy Ground families such as Bishop, Harris, Henry, Landin, Purnell, and Stevens.
Distinguished Sandy Ground resident George H. Hunter (1869-1967) also has a marker in the cemetery. Hunter was the son of a Virginia slave who escaped to her freedom in New York State just before the Civil War and who brought young George to Sandy Ground around 1880. Hunter went on to establish a successful cesspool building and cleaning business and was a longtime steward of the AME Zion Church and caretaker of its cemetery. In a classic New Yorker article published in 1956, legendary writer Joseph Mitchell profiled Hunter and chronicled the history of Sandy Ground and its residents.
Visiting the AME Zion Church Cemetery with Mitchell, Hunter remarked, “Most of the people lying in here were related to each other, some by blood, some by marriage, some close, some distant. If you started in at the gate and ran an imaginary line all the way through, showing who was related to who, the line would zigzag all over the cemetery.” Hunter’s “imaginary line” symbolizes the cemetery’s significance in representing Sandy Ground’s history. The family plots and markers offer a visible record of the network of relationships that constituted the community of Sandy Ground and provide a tangible and visible link to Sandy Ground’s long and continuous existence that has shaped and molded the lives of the people who lived there, and their descendants, in many powerful ways.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.”
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.