Tag Archives: cemeteries converted into public parks

Newtown Cemetery

A view of tombstones in Newtown Cemetery, ca. 1900 (Seyfried)

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.

An 1852 map shows Newtown Village and the “Ancient Public Burial Ground” near the Horse Brook meadows

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 record of the stone ordered to mark the grave of Civil War veteran George Ballback in Newtown Cemetery

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.

This 1888 newspaper clipping reports the burial of an unclaimed body in Newtown Cemetery

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.

This undated photo shows the rough-hewn granite gravestone of Content Titus (d.1730), the oldest identifiable burial in Newtown Cemetery, which was moved to the Presbyterian church cemetery on Queens Blvd in 1901  (Powell & Meigs)
A 1919 survey of the cemetery identified its boundaries and located 86 tombstones at the site
A 2018 aerial view of Newtown Playground

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

Public Burial Ground, Queens Village

The Little Plains east of Jamaica village in 1852; arrow indicates site of the public burial ground

In the mid-1800s, the Town of Jamaica, Queens, needed a new public cemetery to replace their old village burying place, established in the 17th century at the center of the settlement. The original burial ground had expanded over time and transformed into a private burial ground known as Prospect Cemetery, providing family burial plots to the growing number of prominent families in Jamaica village and surrounding towns. The Jamaica Board of Trustees, therefore, at its meeting on April 7, 1844, voted to establish a new cemetery “to be used and appropriated as a free burying ground for the inhabitants of this Town forever.” The Trustees authorized the Town Superintendent to select a piece of land from the common grasslands known as “the Little Plains,” located east of the settled village, to use for the burial ground. The new Jamaica town cemetery totaled 2.14 acres situated on the south side of Hollis Avenue near Springfield Boulevard, in today’s Queens Village.

The Potter’s Field at Queens Village is depicted on this 1891 map, situated on the south side of Hollis Ave near Springfield Blvd

Although intended as a free burial ground for Jamaica’s poor and unknown dead when first established, in 1878 the Jamaica Town Trustees authorized the Queens County Superintendents of the Poor to inter in the Town burying ground at Queens Village. For a fee of two dollars, charged to the Superintendents, paupers that died in any of the towns in Queens County (at that time, Jamaica, Flushing, Newtown, Hempstead, North Hempstead and Oyster Bay) could henceforth be buried in the Queens Village public burial ground.

How many people were buried in the cemetery at Queens Village during the time it was the Jamaica town burying ground or later, when it served as a potter’s field for Queens County, is unknown. Scant information exists about the site; the sole known description is a short newspaper article from 1872, which notes that the Queens Village Potter’s Field “looks desolate” and “has no tombstones.” Graves were laid out with no system other than to bury white persons in one area of the cemetery and “colored” persons in another. Only a wooden stake, that would eventually rot away, marked the graves.

This 1872 article is the only known description of the Queens Village public burial ground

When Queens County and its towns were incorporated into the City of New York in 1898, use of the Queens Village public cemetery ceased and the site became city property. That same year, the city began construction of a new school—P.S. 34—adjacent to the cemetery, on Springfield Boulevard and Hollis Avenue. The abandoned potter’s field next to P.S. 34 lay unused and unkempt until August of 1907 when a petition was circulated among Queens Village residents to turn the cemetery into a public park. A year later, in March 1908, a bill was introduced into the State Legislature authorizing the Board of Estimate to appropriate $5000 to convert the burial ground into a public playground. In 1912, when the Department of Parks began converting the site—renamed Wayanda Park—they reported that all traces of the graves had by then been obliterated. No attempts at disinterment were made of burials that may have remained underground.

A 1913 newspaper notice about the transformation of the burial ground into Wayanda Park

The city made improvements to Wayanda Park several times over the 20th century, but there is no evidence any remains of the Queens Village public burial ground were disturbed until 2002 when a skull and other human bones were encountered during renovations. Archaeologists, working with the Parks Department and the Landmarks Preservation Commission, then developed a plan to ensure the project would not further impact any burials beneath the park.

An 1856 map of property at Brushville (today’s Queens Village) includes a survey of the town burial ground
Aerial view of Wayanda Park and P.S. 34 in 2018

Sources: Dripps’ 1852 Map of Kings and Part of Queens Counties, Long Island N.Y.; Wolverton’s 1891 Atlas of Queens County, Long Island, Pl 28; Map of Property Situated at Brushville in the Town of Jamaica (Nostrand 1856); “The Potter’s Field,” Whitestone Herald, Feb 7, 1872; History of Queens County (Munsell 1882), 213; Laws of the State of New York, 131st Session (1908), Chap. 401; Journal of Proceedings (Board of Estimate 1911), 6628-6630; “Indian Name for a New Park,” Long Island Farmer, Apr 30, 1912; “Jamaica Notes,” Long Island Democrat, Aug 21, 1912; “Parks of Queens Have Been Improved,” Brooklyn Times Union, Feb 10, 1913; The Story of Queens Village (Seyfried 1974), 105-107; “Century-Old Bones Found Under Qns. Village Park,” Qns.com, Sep 26, 2002; Phase 1 Cultural Resource Survey of Wayanda Park (Loorya & Ricciardi 2003)

New Lots Cemetery

An 1886 map of New Lots shows the old cemetery next to the school of the north side of New Lots Ave, and the new cemetery next to the church on the south side of New Lots Ave

When the historic town of Flatbush became overcrowded with Dutch farmers in the 1670s, a consortium of settlers were granted permission to set up new plantations on land east of Flatbush in what is now the East New York section of Brooklyn. The new community, known as New Lots, established a burial ground on common lands situated on the south side of today’s New Lots Avenue and Barbey Street, extending north past Livonia Avenue.

By the early 19th century, New Lots’ farmers had tired of traveling to Flatbush to attend church, and in 1823 built their own Dutch Reformed Church on the south side of New Lots Avenue, opposite the cemetery where generations of Van Siclens, Rapeljes, Vanderveers, Schencks and other early families had been laid to rest. Around this same time, they erected a school just west of the cemetery, on the common lands on the north side of New Lots Avenue. Soon needing to expand their burial grounds, in the 1840s they established a new cemetery—owned and managed by the lot holders—on land adjoining the Reformed Church. Many descendants of the old families moved their dead from the original cemetery to family lots in the new cemetery. The original cemetery gradually feel into disuse and the remaining graves were largely abandoned; by the end of the 19th century, the site was commonly known to locals as the “old slave cemetery.”

A plaque commemorating New Lots’ historic African American community and its burial ground is mounted at 683 Barbey Street (Mary French)

Most of the original Dutch settlers utilized enslaved people on their farms. The population of New Lots in the 17th and 18th century is unknown, but the 1820 census enumerated 338 whites and 91 blacks in New Lots and half of the town’s 62 families owned slaves. Although the black population of New Lots remained relatively small until the 20th century, African Americans have been a critical part of the development of New Lots since colonial times. When the original burial ground was established, a clearly distinguished portion of the parcel—the section at the north end, near Livonia Avenue—was set aside for New Lots’ black community. The African American community continued to use this burial ground throughout the 19th century. Articles from the Brooklyn Daily Eagle in the 1880s and 1890s note, “once in a great while there is a colored person interred in the back part of the [old New Lots Cemetery] and “there is no care taken of the place except in the negro part.”

This 1900 photo provides a view towards the northwest of the Old New Lots Cemetery, with the corner of P.S. 72 visible. A broken tombstone lies across the path (BDE)

By the turn of the century, New Lots had evolved from a rural farming district to the 26th Ward of the City of New York. With its broken down fences, overturned headstones and generally dilapidated appearance, the old cemetery—containing the African burial ground as well as many burials of white community members that had never been moved to the new cemetery—was considered an eyesore and nuisance to the area’s residents. The new, large Public School 72 now stood next to the graveyard, erected in 1888 by the Board of Education to replace the town’s old school. A local resident decried the situation in an 1899 letter to the Daily Eagle, remarking, “a desecrated cemetery alongside of one of the best and largest public schools in Brooklyn is not a very pleasing spectacle, and it is to be hoped some action will soon be taken by the city government toward remedying the evil.”

A 1922 view of tombstones in the Old New Lots Cemetery, looking northwest towards Livonia Ave and the elevated subway tracks (NYHS)

After years of community agitation and complaints, in the early 1920s the old cemetery was taken over by the school for use as a playground. Although public officials announced their intentions to remove the remaining burials on the site—including at a 1908 meeting of the New Lots Board of Trade, where President Jacob Hessel stated, “it matters not that these bones are but the remainder of slaves; slaves they were, but they were also part of New Lots’ history, and as such we owe them respect”—there is no evidence removals occurred at the time the playground was established.

Street sign on Livonia Ave commemorating the African burial ground. Part of the New Hope Family Worship Center can be seen beneath the train tracks; this building was erected on the northernmost section of the old cemetery in 1954 (Mary French)

In the mid-1950s, the old burial ground site was redeveloped—P.S. 72 was demolished, replaced with a branch of the Brooklyn Public Library, and the school playground was converted into a public park, (Schenck Playground), both of which still stand at the site today. A shirt-pleating plant was built on the northernmost section of the old cemetery site, north of Livonia Avenue—in 2000, this building was converted into New Hope Family Worship Center. In 2017, fragments of human bone, pieces of tombstones, and other evidence of the old cemetery were located during archaeological tests conducted at Schenck Playground prior to planned improvements at the site, suggesting disturbed and intact burials may exist beneath the park. In 2019, the playground was renamed Sankofa Park in honor of the African burial ground that was part of the old cemetery.

On the south side of New Lots Avenue, the 200-year-old Dutch Reformed Church survives and, next to it, the “new” New Lots Cemetery that has been in use since the 1840s. The cemetery is still owned by the New Lots Cemetery Association, composed of descendants of New Lots’ early Dutch settlers.

Rear view of New Lots Reformed Church (built 1832) and the New Lots Cemetery (established in 1840s), as seen west from Jerome street, 1934 (NYPL)
View of New Lots Cemetery, December 2010 (Mary French)
A 2018 aerial view showing the present New Lots Cemetery and the approximate boundaries of the Old New Lots Cemetery (indicated in red)

View more photos of New Lots Cemetery

Sources: Robinson’s 1886 Atlas of the City of Brooklyn, Pl 40;“An Old Farmer’s Talk,” Brooklyn Daily Eagle, Sep 19, 1886; “An Old Burying Ground,” Brooklyn Daily Eagle, May 31, 1891; “A Neglected Cemetery,” Brooklyn Daily Eagle, Feb 5, 1899; “The Old Dutch Cemetery in East New York,” Brooklyn Daily Eagle, Aug 5, 1900; “Cemetery Gets Permission,”  Brooklyn Daily Eagle, Apr 24, 1903; “Canine Cops in New Lots,” The Chat [Brooklyn], Nov 7, 1908; “New Lots Cemetery Ass’n Elects Rapelje as Head,” Brooklyn Daily Eagle, Apr 11, 1923; Fairchild Cemetery Manual (1910), 105; Cemetery Inscriptions from New Lotts Burying Ground (Frost 1913); Phase IA Archeological Literature Review and Fieldwork Plan, Schenck Playground (Hartgen Archeological Associates 2016); Phase IB Archeological Field Reconnaissance, Schenck Playground (Hartgen Archeological Associates 2018); “Celebration and Re-interment of Our Ancestors,” Amsterdam News, Aug 1, 2019

Public Burial Ground, Flushing

A 1910 view of the Flushing public burial ground

In 1839, an act of the New York State legislature authorized the town of Flushing, Queens, to tax its inhabitants for the “purpose of purchasing a suitable piece of land for a public burial ground.”  The sum of $500 was to be collected to purchase property for the cemetery, which was to be deeded to the supervisor of the town of Flushing and “used as a public burial ground for said town.”  A roughly triangular area of farmland in the southeastern part of Flushing was acquired for this purpose and was used as a public cemetery until 1898, when Flushing consolidated into the City of New York and the site became city property.

Part of the town cemetery is shown on this 1873 map of Flushing, identified as “Poor House Burying Ground.” Also shown is the privately-owned Flushing Cemetery, which opened opposite the town burial ground in 1853

Located north of present-day 46th Avenue between 164th and 165th Streets, Flushing’s three-acre public cemetery served as a burial ground for the indigent and unknown and for those dying of contagious diseases. When first established, it likely also served as a general community cemetery where any local resident without a private family burial ground or church plot could be buried; this use was superseded in 1853 by the opening of the large, privately-owned Flushing Cemetery immediately opposite the public burial ground, on the south side of 46th Avenue. By the late 19th century, Flushing’s town cemetery was used primarily as a potter’s field and as a burial ground for the local African American community.

A sunken grave in the Flushing public burial ground in 1910

At a meeting of the Town of Flushing’s board of trustees in May 1895, a committee described their visit to the town cemetery, where they found it “sadly in need of attention.” Fences were down, the grounds were overgrown with weeds, and graves were dug haphazardly “wherever the gravedigger happened to first strike his spade.” Coffins were found two or three in a grave and sometimes no more than three feet beneath the surface.  A year later, the Long Island Democrat reported that conditions in the town cemetery had “by no means improved…Bodies are indiscriminately buried only 6 to 12 inches below the ground just as in previous years.”  In 1914, the abandoned cemetery site was acquired by the Parks Department and later converted into a public park and playground known as Martin’s Field.

A 1919 survey of the cemetery identified its boundaries and located four headstones just north of 46th Ave

Though an estimated 1,000 individuals were interred in Flushing’s town cemetery between 1840 and 1898, only four gravemarkers were found at the site in 1919 when it was surveyed by the Queens Topographical Bureau. Identifying the site as the “Colored Cemetery” the Topographical Bureau recorded the inscriptions on the marble tombstones of Willie Curry (d. 1874), Alfred Bunn (d. 1876), George Bunn (d. 1887), and James Bunn (d. 1890). The Bunns were of Native American ancestry and were members of Macedonia A.M.E. Church, a hub for Flushing’s nineteenth-century African American community.

A death notice for Eliza Thompson, who was interred in the Flushing town cemetery in 1884

There is no evidence that the burials in the Flushing town cemetery were removed when the site was converted into a public park, but human remains have been disturbed during the process of building facilities there. In 1936, “bones galore” were uncovered during excavations for a children’s wading pool, when neighbors “saw workmen pulling bones out of the ground.”  In addition to human remains, the workers found pennies placed on the eyes of the dead—a burial practice also observed in excavations of the African Burial Ground in lower Manhattan. 

Rediscovery of the Flushing town cemetery began in the 1990s during planned renovations at Martin’s Field, when local activist Mandingo Tshaka drew attention to its previous history. Documentary research confirmed the park was a former public burial ground and that human remains likely were still present at the site. The Parks Department, spurred by community involvement, took steps to protect and recognize the former cemetery. Renovations completed in 2006 included a paved area with a central stone inscribed with the site’s history, and a recreated historic wall engraved with the names from the four headstones remaining here in 1919. The park was officially renamed “The Olde Town of Flushing Burial Ground” in 2010, and has since been listed on the New York State and National Register of Historic Places. In October 2018, city officials unveiled a $1.6 million plan to reconstruct the commemorative plaza and other features of the site, to better honor those laid to rest here.

Aerial view of the The Olde Towne of Flushing Burial Ground in 2018 (nyc.gov)
A recreated historic wall engraved with the names from the four headstones found here in 1919 was part of the 2006 renovations at the site

Sources: Beers 1873 Atlas of Long Island, Pl 78; Laws of the State of New York, 62nd Session (1839), Chap. 205; Description of Private and Family Cemeteries in the Borough of Queens (Powell & Meigs 1932), 46-47; Report on Phase 1A Archaeological Documentary Research in Advance of the Reconstruction of the Martins Field Playground, Flushing, Queens, New York (Stone 1996); “Not a Pauper,” Newtown Register, Feb 7, 1884, 7; “A Public Disgrace: The Town Cemetery Shamefully Neglected,” Flushing Journal, May 24, 1895; Long Island Democrat, Sep 1896, 3; “Flushing Residents Object to Local Potter’s Field,” Brooklyn Daily Eagle, May 4, 1910; “Coins from Dead Men’s Eyes Are Sold by WPA Workers,” Long Island Daily Press, Jun 19, 1936, 1; “Old Burial Grounds Now Used as Modern Play Area,” North Shore Daily Journal, Jul 15, 1936, 3; “Forgotten Cemetery to Be Restored,” New York Times, Jun 22, 1997; “Above, an Old Playground; Below, Graves for the Poor,” New York Times, Apr 2, 2000; “At Last, Justice,” Whitestone Times, Jun 3, 2010; “Mayor Wants Flushing Burial Ground Revamped,” QNS.com, Nov 30, 2017; “Mayor de Blasio Visits The Olde Towne of Flushing Burial Ground,” Office of the Mayor—News, Oct 26, 2018; The Olde Towne of Flushing Burial Ground (NYC Parks); Olde Towne of Flushing Burial Ground Conservancy

Public Burial Ground, Bryant Park

An 1828 map showing the public cemetery site

On March 31, 1823, New York City’s Common Council passed the first of a series of laws banning interments in lower Manhattan, an action that was part of a movement in American cities that sought to promote public health by prohibiting burial of the dead in dense population centers. Though the ban was supported by those who regarded the numerous churchyards scattered throughout lower Manhattan as foul-smelling, unattractive eyesores that spread diseases, it was opposed by congregations and by families who had invested in purchasing lots and vaults in their churchyards. The opposition, who viewed the ban as an attack on private property and the rights of churches, was so strong that the Common Council reconsidered the measure twice over the next two years, both times reaffirming its original prohibition. However, the controversy demonstrated that the city needed to offer an alternative to those that had been deprived of a burial place as a result of the new interment law.

The Evening Post reports the laying of the cornerstone of the wall that would enclose the new burial ground, Oct 1823

At the same March 1823 meeting where they passed the interment law, the Common Council appointed a special committee to select a “Suitable Site for a public Burial Place to be called the City Burying ground.” This committee soon presented reports on the development of the new city burial ground, which would accommodate the “different religious congregations of the City,” as well as individuals “who may choose to select particular Spots for their families;” ground in the cemetery would also be reserved for the interment needs of the city’s “numerous poor.” The site selected for the municipal burial ground was part of common lands belonging to the city, located a little over three miles from City Hall, about 10 acres bounded by Fifth and Sixth avenues and 40th and 42nd streets. The city spent approximately $10,000 preparing the new cemetery, building 10 public burial vaults in the grounds, planting rows of weeping willows and elms, and enclosing the site with a four-foot-high stone wall that was topped with a “strong mortised fence, five feet high, made of Locust posts and the best Georgia pine.”

An 1825 call for proposals to construct vaults in the new burial ground

Despite the city’s efforts to provide a handsome municipal burial ground that could be used by all its citizens, the project never attracted middle- or upper-class New Yorkers and there is no evidence that congregations or families ever acquired lots or vaults in the city cemetery. The project was abandoned by the late 1820s; although the land is said to have been used as a potter’s field, reports from the 1850s state that the ground had been found to be too wet to be used for burials and remained wasteland until 1837, when it was appropriated for reservoir purposes. The city subsequently constructed the Croton Distributing Reservoir on the eastern portion of the site, while the western side became a public park known as Reservoir Square. In 1884 Reservoir Square was renamed Bryant Park; in 1899 the city demolished the reservoir and replaced it with the New York Public Library.

The 1823 public cemetery site is now the location of Bryant Park and the New York Public Library (NYCityMap)

Sources: Goodrich’s 1828 Plan of the City of New York and of the Island; Minutes of the Common Council of the City of New York, 1784-1831 (City of New York 1917), 12:811-812; 13:116-118; 14:209-212; 15:245; The Iconography of Manhattan Island: 1498-1909 (Stokes 1915-1928), 3:715, 968, 975; The Last Great Necessity: Cemeteries in American History (Sloane 1991), 34-40; “Proceedings of the Common Council,” New York Spectator, Apr 4, 1823; “Proceedings of the Common Council,” New York Spectator, Jun 13, 1823; “New Burying Ground,” New York Evening Post, Oct 15, 1823; “New Burying Ground,” New York Spectator, Oct 15, 1823; “Corporation Proceedings,” New York Evening Post, Dec 22, 1824; “Proceedings of the Common Council,” New York Evening Post, Dec 27, 1824; “To Masons,” New York Evening Post, Jul 2, 1825; “The New York Crystal Palace,” New York Herald, Jun 3, 1856; “The Removal of the Crystal Palace,” New York Herald, Nov 29, 1856