Tag Archives: New York City Cemeteries

Ferris Family Burial Ground

Bronx historian John McNamara stands at the fence of the Ferris family burial ground in 1932 (BCHS)

In his 1848 history of Westchester county, Robert Bolton describes the village of Westchester, the town seat of the old Westchester township that included much of the present-day East Bronx:

The village of Westchester is situated at the head of navigation, on Westchester creek, twelve miles from the city of New York; it contains about four hundred inhabitants, fifty dwellings, an Episcopal, a Roman Catholic, a Methodist church and two Friends’ meeting houses, three taverns, a post office and four stores . . . [It] is by several years the oldest village in the county, its first settlement (by the Puritans), being coeval with Throckmorton’s purchase, in 1642.

Bolton also mentions the “Ferris burying ground,” that was located in the village near St. Peter’s Episcopal Church. The Ferris family presence in the area goes back to the 17th century, as does their old family cemetery that can be found today on the south side of Commerce Avenue, east of Westchester Avenue, in the modern Bronx neighborhood of Westchester Square. John Ferris, an Englishman who was one of the five patentees of Westchester township in 1667, reserves the burial ground by his last will in 1715: “Provided always there shall be a rod square free for all friends and friendly people to bury their dead in the place where they formerly buried without any let, hindrance, or molestation whatsoever.” Benjamin Ferris likewise reserves the family cemetery in his 1777 will, excluding “a place four rods square, where the burying place is” from the Westchester lands to be sold by his executors.

The Ferris family burial ground was located near the southern boundary line of the Ferris property shown on this 1881 map of Westchester Village (Bromley 1881)

In August 1905, members of the Underhill Society of America visited the Ferris burial ground, where they found about 30 gravestones (most dating to the 19th century) and two family vaults—the James Ferris family vault on the north side of the graveyard and that used by the Benjamin Ferris line on the east side. Remains from the James Ferris vault were removed around 1890 and transferred to Woodlawn Cemetery and Trinity Churchyard. Among those moved to Woodlawn were James Ferris (1734-1780) and his wife Charity Thomas Ferris (1734-1809), Revolutionary War patriots whose Throgg’s Neck home was occupied by British Admiral Richard Howe in October 1776. James Ferris was kept in the notorious British prison ships, and died in 1780 as a result of the hardships he endured. Legend has it that Charity Ferris, who stayed in the homestead during the British occupancy, directed one of her servants to memorize the conversations he overheard when waiting on Lord Howe and his officers, and transmitted this information to General Washington, who was with his army at White Plains.

This view across Commerce Ave shows the Ferris cemetery overgrown with weeds and tall grass in July 1928. The spire of St. Peters Episcopal Church on Westchester Ave can be seen in the background (NYPL).
The monument to Cornell Ferris, who died June 13, 1864, is one of the few gravestones left in the Ferris burial ground today (Mary French)

Various Ferris branches maintained the family burial plot for two centuries, but it was increasingly neglected after Charles Ferris, who lived near the burial ground when the Underhill Society had visited in 1905, died in 1908. The site became overgrown, gravemarkers were destroyed or taken by vandals, and even the fencing was stolen. In 1928, vandals broke into the Benjamin Ferris vault, cut open the lead caskets and desecrated the remains; subsequently, the bodies of 15 family members were removed and reinterred at Kensico Cemetery in Westchester, leaving about 16 bodies and gravestones in the Ferris burial ground. The site experienced periods of neglect and restoration throughout the 20th century (Parkchester Kiwanis Club removed 198 tons of debris from the site in 1973), but has been kept in good condition in recent years through the efforts of local Boy Scouts and other civic groups. Only a handful of gravestones still stand in the old burial ground, and its once bucolic surroundings are now a gritty industrial area.

An aerial view of the Ferris burial ground and surroundings in 1924 (NYCityMap)
An aerial view of the Ferris burial ground and surroundings in 2012 (NYCityMap)
A view of the Ferris Family Burial Ground, July 2017 (Mary French)

View more photos of the Ferris Family Burial Ground

Sources: A History of the County of Westchester (R. Bolton 1848), Vol. 2, 178-179, 227; Bromley’s 1881 Atlas of Weschester County Pl 41; Early Wills of Westchester County (W.S. Pelletreau 1898), 34-35, 360-361; Partial Geneaology of the Ferris Family (C.E. Crowell 1899); “Ferris Burying Ground 1700,” The Underhill Society of America, Sixteenth Annual Report, 1908, 24-25; May Ferris Doherty notes, 1928 & n.d., Ferris Cemetery file, Bronx County Historical Society; “To Be Exhumed from Debris Itself,” Bronx Press Review, Aug 9, 1973; History in Asphalt (J. McNamara 1978), 47, 83, 290-291; “New York, New York City Municipal Deaths, 1795-1949,” FamilySearch, Charles Coleman Ferris, 09 Apr 1908; “What Lies Beneath: Cemeteries of the Bronx,” Bronx County Historical Society exhibit, Oct 2017; NYCityMap

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B’nai Jeshurun Cemetery, 32nd Street

B’nai Jeshurun’s 32nd Street Cemetery, denoted as “Jews burial Ground” in 1854 (Perris 1854)

In 1825, a group of members of Shearith Israel—the only Jewish congregation in New York City at that time—broke off to form B’nai Jeshurun (Sons of Israel). Most of the 32 founding members of B’nai Jeshurun were immigrants from England, Holland, Germany and Poland, and they incorporated as New York’s first Ashkenazic congregation, holding services according to the German and Polish ritual rather than the Sephardic mode of worship practiced by the Spanish and Portuguese Jews of Congregation Shearith Israel. The new congregation established its synagogue at 119 Elm Street, near Canal Street, in a building previously owned by the First Coloured Presbyterian Church. Elm Street was B’nai Jeshurun’s home for 25 years; by the time they moved to a new synagogue in 1850, the congregation had grown to 150 members. Four synagogues followed Elm Street, their locations reflecting the northward move of the city’s Jewish population. The congregation’s present home is at 88th Street between Broadway and West End Avenue.

The Elm Street Synagogue, B’nai Jeshurun’s home from 1825 to 1849 (Goldstein 1930)

When B’nai Jeshurun was founded, the congregation’s property included not only its synagogue on Elm Street but also its burial ground, which was acquired in 1826, even before the house of worship had been established. This land, consisting of four lots situated on 32nd Street near 7th Avenue—then on the outskirts of the city—was purchased for the sum of $600. Soon after the acquisition of the burial ground, a metaher house, which served as a chapel and place for washing and preparing bodies, was established at the site. Some of the congregation’s founding members were buried there, including Daniel Jackson, who signed B’nai Jeshurun’s charter of incorporation and was an original trustee.

An 1836 map showing B’nai Jeshurun’s cemetery on the north side of 32nd Street, near 7th Ave (Colton 1836)

The 32nd Street Cemetery served as B’nai Jeshurun’s burial ground until 1851, when a City ordinance banned burials below 86th Street. That year, B’nai Jeshurun and Shearith Israel together purchased land along the Brooklyn/Queens border near Cypress Hills to form Beth Olom Cemetery. Once B’nai Jeshurun’s burial ground at Beth Olom was incorporated, it’s 32nd Street Cemetery gradually deteriorated. Surrounding tenements and factories made it increasingly difficult to keep the old cemetery in proper condition; The Jewish Messenger provided an account of it in 1875:

One of the few old Jewish cemeteries which are still within the limits of the City of New York is that belonging to the B’nai Jeshurun congregation. It is situated in Thirty-second Street, between Sixth and Seventh Avenues, being within several doors of the latter avenue. It has a frontage on the street of about thirty feet, and a depth of one hundred feet, being bounded on the west by some old and rickety wooden shanties, used for stables and other purposes, and on the east and north by a large furniture manufactory. Two years ago, the writer was informed, the ground was in an orderly and nice condition, the place being slightly embellished with flowers, giving it a pretty, if not a handsome, appearance, and one thoroughly in keeping with its sanctity. Up to the period aforesaid, probably no rubbish had been allowed to accumulate . . .

At present the cemetery is in a sad state . . . Bits of glass, old and broken bottles, shavings from the furniture factory, pieces of iron wire and hoops, sticks of wood, gravel stones covered with tar, and tarred roofing material, blown from the roofs of contiguous buildings, and other rubbish unnecessary to enumerate, are strewed upon the earth in all directions. In those spots where debris has not chanced to accumulate, the ground, except in two or three instances, is in a rough and uncared for condition . . . There are about fifty tombstones still standing, most of which are in a good state of preservation . . . Here is a list of some of the persons buried in this cemetery, copied from the portion of the tombstones that is decipherable, with the date of death: Salomon Van Praag, 1829; Esther, wife of Joseph Levy, 1845; Judah, son of T. A. Meyer, 1845; Isaac Moses Cohen Peixotto; Samuel Barnett, 1845; J. M. Dyer, 1842; Benjamin F. Lewin, 1842; Moses H. Lowenstein, 1841; Leopold E. Lewin, 1837; Daniel Jackson, 1841; Michael Davis, 1841; Henry M. Lyons, 1845; Marcus Josephi, 1847; Simon Saroni, 1847; Joseph A. Michael, 1851; Rebecka Maria Jackson, 1847; Samuel Goldsmith, 1851; Hannah S., daughter of Sampson and Rebecka Levy, 1848; Henry Joseph, 1834; Levy B. Boruck; Isaac I. Salomon, 1845.

In 1887, B’nai Jeshurun sold the 32nd Street Cemetery for $20,000 and moved the bodies to Beth Olom. Today the Hotel Pennsylvania, built in 1919, stands on the 32nd Street Cemetery site that was the original burial place of the City’s oldest Ashkenazic congregation.

Bromley’s 1920 atlas of NYC shows the the Hotel Pennsylvania on the 32nd Street Cemetery site
A view of the 32nd Street Cemetery site today (NYCityMap)

Sources: A Century of Judaism in New York: B’nai Jeshurun, 1825-1925 (I. Goldstein 1930);A History of Congregation B’nai Jeshurun, 1825-2005” (S. Brawarsky 2005); “Jewish City Cemeteries. I.,” The Jewish Messenger Jul 2, 1875, 5; “Bodies to be Removed,” New York Times Feb 23, 1887, 8; “B’nai Jeshurun Cemetery,” The Jewish Messenger, Apr 1, 1887, 2; Colton’s 1836 Map of the City and County of New-York; Perris’ 1854 Maps of the City of New York Vol 7 Pl 93: Bromley’s 1920 Atlas of the City of New York, Borough of Manhattan Pl 21; NYCityMap

Calvary Cemetery

Birds-Eye View of Calvary Cemetery, 1855, by Endicott & Co. (MCNY)

An early 20th century guide to New York City cemeteries describes Calvary Cemetery in Queens as “by far the most important burial ground in the vicinity of New York, and, in fact, in the United States in point of interments, extent and the number of monuments and headstones that go to make it a wilderness of rising tombstones.” With an estimated three million burials, today it is America’s largest cemetery in number of interments and is renowned for its dramatic setting—a vast necropolis tucked in among the chaotic surroundings of highways, industrial buildings, and businesses, with views of Manhattan rising as a backdrop.

View of Manhattan from Calvary Cemetery (Getty)

The Archdiocese of New York established Calvary Cemetery in 1848 after the closure of their burial grounds at St. Patrick’s Old Cathedral and on 11th Street in Manhattan. Located in the Long Island City/Woodside area of Queens and managed by the Trustees of St. Patrick’s Cathedral, Calvary served as the main burying ground for Manhattan’s Roman Catholic population for many years and burials are still made there. By the early 1900s, it had over 750,000 interments and handled 18,000 burials a year—almost half the annual deaths in the city at that time. Calvary’s 365 acres hold five times as many bodies as the more famous and spacious Green-Wood Cemetery in nearby Brooklyn and are divided into two expanses: Old or First Calvary, the cemetery’s earliest parcel, bounded by the Long Island Expressway, Laurel Hill Blvd, Review Ave, and Greenpoint Ave; and New Calvary, three divisions stretching from Queens Blvd to 55th Ave and cut by the Long Island Expressway and Brooklyn-Queens Expressway.

Detail from an 1873 map, showing Old Calvary and New Calvary (Beers 1873)

Calvary’s scenic power results from the magnitude of graves and tombs and the surrounding presence of urban life rather than from its design; however, Old Calvary does contain several significant monuments and features. The charming red brick, Queen Anne-style gatehouse at the main entrance (Greenpoint Ave at Gale Ave) is an architectural gem, one of the last of its kind in the area. At the center of the grounds is the cemetery’s chapel, which was declared the “most remarkable mortuary chapel in America” when it was erected in 1908. Designed by architect Raymond F. Almirall, it features a beehive-shaped concrete dome crowned with a statue of the Sacred Heart of Jesus. Crypts below the building are for the burial of priests of the Archdiocese.

The Civil War & 69th Regiment monuments at Calvary Cemetery, Dec 2017 (Mary French)

In the southeastern part of Old Calvary, a Civil War monument erected by the City of New York in 1866 honors 21 Roman Catholic Union soldiers interred in a 40×40 foot plot that is a city-owned park within Calvary. The 50-foot-high granite obelisk is surmounted by a bronze figure representing peace that was sculpted by Daniel Draddy. Draddy also created the four life-size bronze figures depicting Civil War soldiers that stand on pedestals surrounding the column (identical figures border the Soldiers’ Monument at Green-wood Cemetery, which was erected three years later). Adjacent to Calvary’s Civil War monument is a memorial to New York City’s famed Fighting 69th Infantry Regiment of the New York Army National Guard. Formed in 1849, this Irish-heritage unit gained notoriety for its members’ bravery and valor in the Civil War.

Near the Civil War/69th Regiment plot is a metal fence enclosing a “cemetery within a cemetery”—a small burial ground that predates Calvary Cemetery. When the Trustees of St. Patrick’s Cathedral were assembling land to form Calvary in 1845, they purchased a tract from Mrs. Ann Alsop, part of a farm that had been in the Alsop family for generations and included the old family graveyard. When the property was sold, the agreement provided that the Alsop family burial ground would remain inviolate and the Trustees have maintained it to this day. About 30 gravestones stand in the old burial ground, dating from 1743 to 1889.

The showpiece at Old Calvary is the massive Johnston mausoleum that sits atop a hill near the cemetery’s eastern edge. Built of huge granite blocks, this domed neo-Baroque chapel and tomb has a figure of Christ holding a cross at its summit and sculpted angels at each corner of the roof, gazing heavenward. Magnificent but blackened by age and pollution, with a decaying marble frieze above its fragmented bronze ornamental doors, it has an atmosphere of neglect and dissipation that is a visible symbol of the rags-to-riches-to-rags story of the family that reposes within.

John Johnston, head of the dry goods firm J. & C. Johnston, was one of the city’s most successful merchants when he built the mausoleum in 1873, reportedly at a cost of $200,000 (roughly equivalent to $4 million today). Born in Ireland in 1834, Johnston came to New York in 1847 and worked his way to the top of the mercantile trade. His successful dry goods firm included brother Charles Johnston, who died in 1880. John bore a deep affection for his brother Charles and never recovered from the latter’s death; he died in 1887, leaving the family fortune and business in the hands of his younger brother, Robert Johnston. The once-thriving firm closed a year after John’s death and Robert gradually lost the family millions as well as his palatial home along the Hudson River in Riverdale. He spent his final years in poverty, living as a recluse in a barn on his former estate. Robert was found there in 1904, sick with pneumonia and insane, and died in the hospital at Ward’s Island. He was interred alongside his brothers in the family crypt.

An aerial view of part of Old Calvary Cemetery in 2015. The Johnston Mausoleum is in the foreground (James Sengul)

A number of notable individuals are also buried at both Old Calvary and New Calvary, including Olympic gold medalist Martin Sheridan, considered the greatest all-around athlete of his time; Annie Moore, the first immigrant processed through Ellis Island; Joseph Petrosino, a trailblazing NYPD detective who was a pioneer in the fight against organized crime; and four-time New York governor Al Smith, the first Roman Catholic to run for United States president (in 1928). Moreover, Calvary is legendary as the fictional burial site of Vito Corleone in The Godfather. One determined urban explorer has identified the exact spot in the cemetery where the burial scene was filmed for the 1972 Mafia classic: Old Calvary, Section 1W, Range 18, Plot P, Grave #17.

Location of Calvary Cemetery in Queens (NYCityMap)

View more photos of Calvary Cemetery

Sources: Calvary Cemetery; Beers 1873 Atlas of Long Island, Pl 52; The Cemeteries of New York (Judson 1881), 3; History of Queens County, New York (Munsell 1882), 379; King’s Handbook of New York City (1893), 522; The Leonard Manual of the Cemeteries of New York and Vicinity (1901), 16-19; “The Catholic Cemeteries of New York,” Historical Records and Studies 1 (1899), 375-177; Silent Cities: The Evolution of the American Cemetery (Jackson & Vergara 1989), 34-35; Encyclopedia of New York City (Jackson 1991), 176; 300 Years of Long Island City (Seyfied 1997), 179-180, 183; “You Can Come and Go. They’re Staying Awhile,” New York Times Nov 30, 2008; “A Protestant Burial Ground Maintained by Catholics,” New York Times Apr 12, 1950, 29; AIA Guide to New York City (White et al 2010), 765; “Most Remarkable Mortuary Chapel in America,” Popular Mechanics Sep 1909, 292-293; “Burial of Charles Johnston,” New York Tribune May 4, 1880, 8; “An Old Merchant Dead,” New York Times May 17, 1887; “Poor, but has a $200,000 Tomb,” The Sun May 10, 1903, 3; “Once Rich, Now in Morgue,” New York Times May 4, 1904; Calvary Cemetery, Queens New York Est 1848 (aerial video); NYCityMap

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)

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.

Pelham Cemetery

Pelham Cemetery overlooking Long Island Sound, June 2014 (Mary French)

One of the best views in City Island, that scenic village off Pelham Bay Park in the north Bronx, is from the cemetery on the island’s east side. There’s no hint that you’re in New York City here in Pelham Cemetery, where tombstones overlook boats bobbing rhythmically in the waters of Long Island Sound. The people of City Island have always had strong ties to the water. Once home to oystermen and shipmakers, today the island is a haven for those who seek recreation and refuge in its Cape Cod-like environment.

Throughout the cemetery there are vivid reminders of the island’s past as a hub of maritime production and signs that the water is the community’s soul—numerous tombstones are marked with nautical ranks of those who made their living on the water or are decorated with images of ships, sailboats, anchors, compasses, fish and other animals, all emphasizing the aquatic connection, whether commercial or recreational. An inscription on one gravemarker perfectly captures the spirit of the place:  Rest in peace on this island where you were born and raised; home again on the shores of these waters you loved.

Pelham Cemetery in 1868 (Beers 1868)
Gravesite of Orrin Fordham at Pelham Cemetery, June 2017 (Mary French)

A fire that destroyed the cemetery’s records before 1922 obscures its early history, but it seems it was established as the village graveyard by the mid-19th century. An 1868 map depicts the cemetery at is current location along the shore, and many of the early tombstones in the graveyard date to this time period when large numbers of settlers moved to City Island. The island was isolated and sparsely populated until Connecticut shipbuilder Orrin Fordham established an oyster planting business on the island’s east side around 1830, a concept that revolutionized the American oyster industry and ushered in settlers and a period of prosperity for City Island. The oyster business thrived here through the 1890s and oystermen became some of the island’s wealthiest residents. Many of these early settlers and their descendants are represented in family plots at Pelham Cemetery.

In 1881, the three-acre cemetery was officially incorporated as Pelham Cemetery Association, so named because City Island was within the boundaries of the town of Pelham in Westchester County until New York City annexed it in 1895. According to City Island legend, remains from an early burial ground on Fordham Street were transferred to Pelham Cemetery when Public School 17 was built  on the old burial site at 190 Fordham Street in 1897-98.

Also buried in Pelham Cemetery are men and women who worked in the shipyards and sailmaking lofts that opened on the island in the 1860s and flourished until the mid-20th century. Among the shipbuilding pioneers interred at the cemetery is Augustus B. Wood (1831-1902), a lawyer, yachtsman, and boatbuilder whose City Island shipyard developed a national reputation for building very durable, light boats, including oyster skiffs and the famed Hell Gate pilot boat.

Nautical themes are common on tombstones in Pelham Cemetery, illustrating the maritime connections of its inhabitants (Mary French)

The Hell Gate Pilots Association had their headquarters at City Island and in the 19th and early 20th centuries many of the island’s men made their living piloting vessels through the East River’s treacherous Hell Gate passage. A number of Hell Gate pilots are buried at Pelham Cemetery, including “Dynamite” Johnny O’Brien (1837-1917), a daredevil sea captain and gunrunner revered as a hero of the Cuban people for his expeditions supporting their revolution. Capt. Edward Sadler, a City Island icon who died in 2011 at age 95, is here at Pelham Cemetery, too. Sadler, a Hell Gate pilot and FDNY fireboat captain, was a lifelong islander and community activist; he died in the same home he where he was born in 1916.

Gravesite of Pietro Vaini at Pelham Cemetery, June 2017 (Mary French)

Pelham Cemetery is a nondenominational burial ground and more than 2,000 people are buried here; most spent their lives on the mile-and-a-half-long island or have strong connections here. One exception is Italian artist Pietro Vaini, whose life on City Island was a brief and tragic one. Vaini came to New York City from Rome in 1872 and had a studio in Manhattan, where his talents attracted attention and he was considered to have great promise. On August 31st, 1875, Vaini came to City Island to attend a picnic at a gathering of local politicians and Hell Gate pilots. At one point during the afternoon, Vaini rose to recite a poem in Italian; his intense and earnest delivery riveted his audience, although most didn’t understand his words. At the close of his recitation, he announced, “Dio è il giudice di tutti i giudici, ed è il giudice di questo, mio atto,” (“God is the judge of all judges, and is the judge of this, my act”); he then drew a small revolver from his pocket and fired into his right temple. The spectators, imagining his act was simply the denouement of a dramatic performance, broke into applause before realizing what had happened. Vaini died without regaining consciousness; subsequent inquiries determined that friends were worried about his mental state for some time before the incident. The story of Pietro Vaini’s suicide became part of City Island lore, with many variations and embellishments over the years. Two weathered wooden crosses just inside the cemetery’s main gate mark his grave.

Depiction of Pietro Vaini’s suicide at City Island, engraving from L’Illustrazione Italiana, Nov 7, 1875 (Scala Archives)

Today, City Island’s days of oystering, boatbuilding, and sailmaking are long gone. Gone too are the Hell Gate pilots, who were absorbed by the Sandy Hook Pilots Association in 1967. But the island is still alive with nautical pleasures and a walk through Pelham Cemetery tells the story of its rich maritime heritage, and of those who are still lured to the island and its waters.

View of Pelham Cemetery from Long Island Sound, July 1928 (NYPL)
Old wooden arch and fence at the entrance to Pelham Cemetery in 1923, later replaced by a wrought iron arch and fence (NYPL)
Location of Pelham Cemetery on King Ave between Ditmars and Tier streets, City Island (NYCityMap)

View more photos of Pelham Cemetery

Sources: Beers’ 1868 Atlas of New York and Vicinity, Pl 35; City Island:Tales of the Clam Diggers (A. Payne 1969); City Island and Orchard Beach (C. Scott 2004); The Other Islands of New York City (Seltz & Miller 2011), 106-128; The Bronx, in Bits and Pieces (B. Twomey 2007), 92-94; A Strange Suicide,” New-York Tribune, Sep 2, 1875, 1; “Causes of Pietro Vaini’s Suicide,” New-York Tribune, Sep 3, 1875, 8; “Funeral of Pietro Vaini,” New-York Tribune, Sep 4, 1875, 12; “’Dynamite Johnny’ O’Brien to be Buried Wednesday,” New-York Tribune, Jun 25, 1917, 7; “Shaft to Rise from Lonely Grave of ‘Dynamite Johnny,’ Liberator,” New York Herald, Jun 27, 1924, 17; “City Island Mourns the Loss of Captain Ed Sadler,” Bronx Times, Nov 23, 2011; NYCityMap; Barbara Harrison Kaye & Darrell Smith, personal communication, July 3, 2017

Mount Zion Cemetery

Aerial view of Mt Zion Cemetery, 2015. Long Island Expressway at left, Dept of Sanitation complex at right, Calvary Cemetery and Manhattan skyline in background (G.Tushev)

There is a remarkable sight just north of the elevated Long Island Expressway as it travels through Maspeth, Queens—a vast expanse of tall, thickly crowded stone monuments sprawls before two massive, blackened smokestacks that arise from a strange nest of metal and tubes. The towering smokestacks are part of a defunct New York City Department of Sanitation incinerator, and they loom over Mount Zion Cemetery, one of the city’s most fascinating graveyards.

Mount Zion Cemetery began in the early 1890s when a small group of Jewish land developers purchased about 130 acres in rural Queens to accommodate the burial needs of the burgeoning Jewish immigrant populations of urban Manhattan and Brooklyn. Of the original acres, only 73 were approved for burial use and most of the rest of the land was sold for other purposes. By the 1920s, about 250 Jewish burial societies had purchased all the approved acreage. In the 1950s, five more acres were approved for burial use and made available for private and family lots. The original association that managed the cemetery was a religious one, Chevra B’Nai Sholom; in 1929 it became Elmwier Cemetery Association, a not-for-profit corporation that still oversees the cemetery today.

Location of Mount Zion Cemetery (OpenStreetMap)
Tombstones in Mt Zion Cemetery, May 2016 (Mary French)

The first burial at Mount Zion was in 1893 and by the 1920s the cemetery interred more than 3,000 individuals per year. Now there are 210,000 graves in the 78-acre cemetery, making it one of the city’s densest graveyards. Most of the graves are organized into gated areas owned by various burial societies founded by Jewish immigrants, usually those from the same town or region in Europe. Because most of these immigrants were poor and their burial societies could not afford to reserve land for landscaping or ornamental features, they would use every inch of space for graves that sold for a few dollars each. Society burial grounds often lack walkways and space between monuments or headstones, and the graves, designed for small, Orthodox-sized caskets, are so closely placed that digging of new graves must be done by hand. This spatial practice and the sense of claustrophobia it creates is often mystifying to modern cemetery visitors but was a familiar environment for those buried here. Most Jewish immigrants of the turn of the 20th century came to the crowded neighborhoods of New York City from compact Jewish ghettos in their European homelands, where the governments restricted both living space and cemetery land. Jewish immigrants had already developed practices for maximizing burial space under these conditions and the burial grounds at Mount Zion mirror a tradition of closeness and communalism that testifies to this history.

Visitors at Mt Zion Cemetery during the Jewish holidays, ca 1940 (Mt Zion Cemetery)
Mt Zion’s original main gate and office building on 54th Avenue, seen here ca.1940, was torn down about 1960 (Mt Zion Cemetery)

A number of celebrated individuals are buried at Mount Zion, including Pulitzer prize-winning composer Marvin Hamlisch, Broadway lyricist Lorenz Hart, novelist Nathanael West, and several prominent Orthodox rabbis. Notorious figures are also interred here, including brothers Morris and Joseph Diamond, who the State of New York executed at Sing Sing prison in 1925 for the robbery-murder of two Brooklyn bank messengers. “Stay away from bad company and love your mother,” was Morris Diamond’s last statement before execution. “She is your dearest friend. If you search all the treasure of the world you will not find a treasure like your mother.”

Morris Diamond’s Sing Sing Prison Admission Record, 1924 (Ancestry)

Mount Zion Cemetery is the final resting place of 44 victims who died in the 1911 Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire in New York City. The Triangle fire, which claimed the lives of 146 young immigrant workers, is one of the most infamous workplace accidents in American history, a tragedy that brought widespread attention to dangerous factory conditions and set a in motion an era of labor reforms to better protect the safety of workers. In the Workmen’s Circle section at Mount Zion, several monuments honor the fire victims. One early monument surrounds 14 graves with victims’ names inscribed on individual pillars, and carries the message, “In Memory of the young men and women who perished in the fire at the Triangle Waist Company’s shop, Asch building, N.Y. March 25th 1911. Erected November 1911 by their sisters and brothers, members of the Ladies Waist and Dressmakers Union Local Number 25.” Rose Rosenfeld Freedman, the last survivor of the Triangle fire, is also buried at Mount Zion; a lifelong crusader for worker safety, she died in 2001 at 107 years old.

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A 1912 photo of the marble monument surrounding graves of 14 victims of the Triangle Fire that are interred at Mt Zion Cemetery (Kheel Center)

Secluded off Path C in the southwestern part of Mount Zion is another noteworthy feature—a family burial ground dating to Queens’ colonial period. In 1656, Capt. Richard Betts established a homestead and family graveyard at the northeast corner of 54th Avenue and 58th Street, a site now part of Mount Zion. The burial ground holds the remains of Capt. Betts and his descendants, and Mount Zion maintains it for the Queens Historical Society.

The urban features surrounding Mount Zion add to its unique character today and the area has had a distinctive atmosphere since the cemetery’s early days. During the first half the 20th century, the locale was a known desolate spot that was popular for criminal misdeeds; murder victims were frequently found next to Mount Zion’s fences along 58th Street and Maurice Avenue. Also part of the cemetery environs during this time period was a famed shantytown of Ludar Romanian gypsies that stood immediately south of Mount Zion on 54th Avenue from 1922 to 1939.

Gypsy shantytown at Maspeth, located opposite Mt Zion Cemetery, 1937. The cemetery’s 54th Avenue entrance gate/office building can be seen in the background (QBPL)
View of Mt Zion Cemetery, Betts Avenue Incinerator in background, June 2017 (Mary French)

View more photos of Mount Zion Cemetery

Sources: Mount Zion Cemetery; “Trip to Mount Zion Cemetery,” Jewish Genealogical Society Newsletter 2(1) Sept 1980; Mount Zion: Sepulchral Portraits (Yang 2001); “American Jewish Cemeteries,” (Halporn 1993), Ethnicity and the American Cemetery, p131-155; “Sallie Diamond Faints at Brothers’ Burial in Maspeth,” Brooklyn Daily Eagle, May 2, 1925 p24; The 1911 Triangle Factory Fire; Woodside: A Historical Perspective, 1652-1994 (Gregory 1994) p6; “Man Found Shot to Death,” New York Times, June 12, 1926 p21; “D’Olier’s…Murder,” Brooklyn Daily Eagle, Sept 4 1928 p1-2; “Can’t Oust Gypsy Camp,” Brooklyn Daily Eagle, June 8, 1923 p26; “Colorful Maspeth Gypsy Camp Now Just a Memory,” Long Island Star-Journal, Mar 30, 1939 p5; Mt. Zion Cemetery & Queens Garbage Incinerator (aerial video); OpenStreetMap; Sing Sing Prison Admission Registers, 1865-1939 (Ancestry)

Rossville A.M.E. Zion Church Cemetery

A view of A.M.E. Zion Church Cemetery at Sandy Ground, May 2017 (Mary French)

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 A.M.E. 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 A.M.E. Zion Church and Cemetery in 1874 (Beers 1874)

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.

Location of Rossville A.M.E. Zion Church Cemetery (NYCityMap)

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.

A view of the Rossville A.M.E. Zion Cemetery, ca. 1980 (LPC)

Rossville A.M.E. 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 A.M.E. 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.

George H. Hunter ca. 1940, with the “Honey Wagon,” the name Sandy Grounders gave to the truck he used for cleaning cesspools (SI Advance)

Visiting the A.M.E. 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.

Gravestone of Dawson Landin (1826-1899), an oysterman who moved to Sandy Ground from Maryland in the mid-1800s. He owned a forty-foot sloop named the Pacific and was the “richest man in the settlement,” according to George Hunter (Mary French)

View more photos of Rossville A.M.E. Zion Church Cemetery.

Sources: “Mr. Hunter’s Grave,” (J. Mitchell), New Yorker, Sept 22, 1956; LPC Rossville A.M.E. Zion Church Cemetery Designation Report, 1985; LPC AME Zion Church Designation Report, 2011; Sandy Ground Memories (Mosley 2003); “Sandy Ground: Archaeological Sampling in a Black Community in Metropolitan New York,” (R. Schuyler 1974), The Conference on Historic Site Archaeology Papers 1972, Vol. 7, pp.13-52; “Early Black Settlement Struggles to Preserve Heritage,” Los Angeles Times, Dec 15, 1991; “Repairs Start After Vandalism In Historic Black Cemetery,” New York Times, July 8, 1998; “On Visionary Soil, the Dream Turns Real, New York Times, Nov 7, 2008; Vintage Photos of Sandy Ground (SI Advance); Beers’ 1874 Atlas of Staten Island Sec 23; NYCityMap