Sometime after English colonists established the village of Newtown in 1652 at what is now Queens Boulevard and Broadway in Elmhurst, Queens, an acre of land about a half-mile east of the settled village was set aside as the community burial ground. Newtown Cemetery stood on a hill near the Horse Brook meadows, situated at today’s southeast corner of 56th Avenue and 92nd Street. Here generations of early and well-known Newtown families were laid to rest, including members of the Moore, Fish, Field, Waldron, Sackett, Coe, and Titus families.
The early history of Newtown Cemetery is obscure, but it likely came into use shortly after the settlement was founded. When a committee from Newtown’s Board of Health examined the burial ground in 1888 they found 105 inscribed tombstones ranging from 1730 to 1864, but more graves were marked with uninscribed fieldstones, a common practice of the early colonial period. The oldest identified burial in the cemetery was that of Content Titus (d.1730), who settled in Newtown in 1672 and was an elder of Newtown’s Presbyterian church. Among the other pioneers interred in Newtown Cemetery were direct ancestors of New York governor and U.S. senator Hamilton Fish (1808-1893).
A reporter for the Brooklyn Times Union visiting the cemetery in February 1889 found one of the graves of more recent interment, that of Civil War veteran George Ballback (d.1875). According to the reporter, Ballback was over seven feet in height and, as “the tallest soldier in the Army of the Potomac,” was recognized by General Grant for this distinction. A plain headstone, erected by the local Grand Army Post, marked Ballback’s grave, which was decorated with a small American flag and a pot of flowers left there from the previous Memorial Day.
During the 19th century, most of Newtown’s families acquired plots in new cemeteries that opened in the area and deserted the old community burial ground, which town officials continued to use as a place to bury the poor and unknown until 1891 when they purchased a plot in Mount Olivet Cemetery for this purpose. With the 1898 consolidation of the towns of Queens County into Greater New York, the disused and neglected Newtown Cemetery became city property. “Nothing has been done since Father Knickerbocker became its owner,” the Times Union reported after revisiting the cemetery in November 1900, and as the site continued in a state of abandonment and encroaching development threatened to disturb graves there, several families and entities took charge of disinterring some burials and moving them to other cemeteries. Among these were the remains and headstones of Content Titus and four other leaders of colonial Newtown’s Presbyterian church; in 1901 the Presbyterian Church of Elmhurst transferred them to their cemetery on Queens Boulevard.
In 1915, local civic groups asked city officials to convert the old Newtown Cemetery into a public park to meet the needs of Elmhurst’s community, which had no place in the neighborhood where children could play. Although the Parks department took possession of the property in 1917, the site was not converted for another decade. In 1927-1928, all the old headstones in the cemetery were laid flat and covered with soil, the ground leveled, and playground apparatus installed. A major reconstruction in 1935 created Newtown Playground essentially as it exists today, disturbing some burials in the process. Renovations to the playground in 1997 and 2019 included careful plantings and contemplative landscaping meant to honor and protect the remains of those still buried beneath the park.
Sources: Riker’s 1852 Map of Newtown; “The Old Town Cemetery,” Newtown Register, Jun 21, 1888; “Newtown,” Brooklyn Times Union, Aug 17, 1888; “With the Dead,” Brooklyn Times Union, Sep 14, 1888; “A Visit to Newtown’s Oldest Cemetery,” Brooklyn Times Union, Feb 15, 1889; “An Ancient Burial Ground,” Brooklyn Citizen, Aug 27, 1891; “Over a Century Buried,” Newtown Register, Nov 14, 1901; “In Potter’s Field,” Newtown Register, March 11 1915; “Hamilton Fish in Elmhurst,” Newtown Register, Apr 1, 1915; “Dig Up Bones of Early Settlers In Old Cemetery,” Daily Star, July 22 1915; “Court Street Cemetery,” Newtown Register, Aug 26 1915; “Tells Women About Parks,” Daily Star, Sept 17, 1915; Description of Private and Family Cemeteries in the Borough of Queens (Powell & Meigs 1932), 8-11; Archaeological Documentary Study, Reconstruction of Newtown Playground (Pickman 1995); Elmhurst: From Town Seat to Mega-Suburb (Seyfried 1995); George Ballback, “United States Records of Headstones of Deceased Union Veterans, 1879-1903” (FamilySearch); Newtown Playground; NYC Then&Now