Saturday, April 30, 2011

The Watery Remains of Monument Cemetery

Normally, I don’t find myself checking tide tables before going on a photographic excursion to a cemetery. But when my friend Leo and I decided to search for underwater tombstones from Philadelphia’s defunct Monument Cemetery, we needed to heed the table, as most of the stones are covered at high tide. No, these are not photographs of one of those offshore cemeteries in a coral reef − nothing quite so romantic. You’re looking at the remains of Monument Cemetery, Philadelphia’s largest vanished Victorian graveyard. 

Friday, April 22, 2011

        Tide       Height Sunrise  Moon  Time    
        Time       Feet    Sunset   

Low     12:13 AM   0.6   6:13 AM   Rise 12:11 AM   
High     5:43 AM   7.6   7:45 PM   Set   9:43 AM
Low     12:57 PM   0.4
High     6:21 PM   6.6

Offshore burial?
So my cemetery travels have taken me this time not to an actual cemetery, but to the Delaware River waterfront under the Betsy Ross Bridge (Philadelphia side), where the remains of this once grand cemetery lie. In this secluded, wooded, and posted (“No Trespassing”) area, scores of granite headstones, monuments, and ironwork lie on the shore, protrude from the embankment, and peek out of the murky river water.

How did tombstones get in the river?

I’d originally read about the demise of Monument Cemetery in Tom Keels’ book, Philadelphia Graveyards and Cemeteries, but I still thought it might be an urban legend.  When I read in his “Vanished Cemeteries” chapter  that the monuments and grave markers were dumped into the river and you can see them sticking out of the water at low tide, I knew I had to check this out personally. At my request, Tom graciously gave me quite specific directions to get there, adding:

 “… this is a fairly desolate, industrial area.  Please take all precautions − go with one or two people during the daytime, bring your cell phone, and be on the alert. ”

As with any attempt at urban exploration, you need to be prepared — hiking shoes, tough clothes, weapons. You never know what kind of nutters you’ll run into — members of the transient community, kids having beer parties, ne’er-do-wells. But success only comes to those who brass it out.

So after some months of planning and reading other people’s accounts of their treks to the riverfront (some successful, some not), I figured out when low tide would occur and enlisted my friend Leo to come along. As it turned out, access to the riverfront is made near the intersection of Delaware and Castor Avenues, in the Bridesburg section of Philadelphia, right between an abandoned power plant and an active industrial complex. The power plant was actually the site of my first official urban exploration excursion with a group of experienced explorers. At the last minute, I chickened out. It just seemed too risky − I’d already been arrested once for trespassing. The aborted power plant experience paid off, however, in that the vicinity was now familiar to me - the dumped gravestones from Monument Cemetery were at the same riverfront area, only on the opposite side of a canal.

The Demise of Monument Cemetery

Eighty gravestones vandalized at Monument Cemetery in 1938.

Monument Cemetery in Philadelphia (located at North Broad and Berks streets), was the city’s second Victorian garden cemetery, established in 1839, just after Laurel Hill (1836). Originally called Pere-Lachaise, after the first ever rural garden cemetery in Paris, it was renamed Monument Cemetery.  The history of the cemetery is not well-publicized, but it grew to a fairly large size (28,000 graves despite its relatively small 7-acre spread). The last burial occurred in 1929, and by 1938, the cemetery had fallen into disrepair. By the 1950s, the land became more desirable that the cemetery itself, and Temple University, across the street, wanted to buy it and build a parking lot.

Monument Cemetery found itself waning, but Temple helped it to hasten down the wind. According to Tom Keels:
 “Neighbors wanted to keep the cemetery, but Temple held public hearings and brought in local church people to convince the city to condemn it and let the school buy it. They claimed it was attracting teenagers who drank, then went out and robbed people. The tone was that not only was Monument Cemetery an eyesore, it was a moral blight. It was bringing down the entire North Philadelphia neighborhood [um, look at North Philly now − destroying that cemetery was supposed to prevent this?]. Of course, every single person I've spoken to who lived and worked in the Temple area at the time says it was a little rundown. The lawn needed mowing, but it was where they went to have lunch. It was the only quiet green place in the neighborhood."

How was this allowed to happen? To put things into historical perspective, at this point in American history, people were not keen on Victoriana (anything from the era 1837–1901). Many Victorian era cemeteries fell into disrepair because people thought they were old fashioned.  Lot owners in many cemeteries across the U.S. were actually embarrassed by the old-fashioned gaudiness of their own family plots and removed the decorative fencing and other ironwork to sell for scrap. So even though many of Monument Cemetery’s lot owners fought the eviction of their ancestors, there really was not much public outcry against plowing over the cemetery and building a parking lot and playground (as Temple and the City’s Board of Education wanted). The photo above shows the 1956 dismantling of a memorial dedicated to George Washington and General Lafayette. Keels says, "Today they probably wouldn't be able to get away with that, but in the 1950s it was, 'This is an old moldy Victorian cemetery. Who cares.'"

Photo showing Betsy Ross Bridge (NJ 90) from an industrial area in the Bridesburg section of Philadelphia. (Photo by Steve Anderson.) from site:

So Temple got its wish in 1956. They removed the bodies (most of which were reburied in a mass grave at Lawnview Cemetery in Rockledge, a northeastern suburb of Philadelphia) and took most of the headstones, monuments, and other decorative stonework and dumped it all into the Delaware River. The tombstones were used as the foundation for the Betsy Ross Bridge. Today, they can still be seen at low tide. To get to them, you need to walk over the canal bridge on Hedley Street (map link), approach the industrial site (shown above), and cut into the woods on the right side of the road. Your access is a break in the fence almost under Betsy herself. Close to the road this area is a dumping ground for old mattresses and sofas, further in its partyland for transients. Walk the quarter mile path along the canal through the woods to the river.

So we found the stones. I expected to see a few broken ones here and there poking out of the water, but was quite unprepared for the sight that presented itself.  As we approached the river, we could plainly see gravestones scattered along the rocky shore. In fact, much of the rock that made up the shore itself were broken tombstones − some marble, but mostly elegantly carved and polished granite stones, coping from family plots, huge blocks of foundation granite used for large monuments. These apparently are the ones that tumbled off the dump trucks, rolling over the stones that had already been dumped. I realized this as we climbed down the ten-foot embankment, using tombstones for steps. They protruded out from the dirt, making you wonder just how many were there. Certainly more than were obvious.

Shoreline under the Betsy Ross Bridge, Philadelphia
River tides are a funny thing. I learned this from one of the fishermen I work with. I just assumed that all water bodies connected to an ocean had low tide in the morning and high tide at night. Turns out that most places have two high and two low tides each day, and the actual hour at which these occur depends upon the phases of the moon (so low tide times for a particular day, for instance, can be eight hours later on the same day a week later!). While tides are predictable, their timing was not very practical for my photographic purposes. Low tide was to occur at 1 p.m. on Good Friday during the month of April. Therefore, take a vacation day from work.

Leo on tombstones, facing north
Good Friday was a perfect overcast day − flat lighting is good if you’re not sure what the shooting  conditions will be. As you can see from the chart excerpt at the beginning of this article, low tide occurred at this point in the Delaware River (tide times also change with your location!) at 12:57 pm, a good time to make photographs. We arrived about 2 pm. The timing was fairly critical since (according to the chart above), by 6 pm the sea level would rise six feet above its lowest point (which was about where it was on our arrival), covering most of the stones we photographed. You’ll notice mud on many of the stones, indicating they were all underwater earlier that morning.

Leo and I walked along the shore maybe the length of a city block and counted about 50 whole stones, with an additional eight peeking out of the water. After 130 years, inscriptions are still clearly visible on them − granite doesn’t fade as fast as people’s memories.

Standing near the water, looking up at an embankment made primarily of tombstones, I felt like I was at the foot of Golgatha − this was Good Friday, after all.  Seeing piles of grave markers and monuments, shaded by trees hung with condoms and other trash, made me wonder how anyone could do this to a cemetery. Couldn’t they at least bury the monuments, or smash them up into gravel? At the foot of the rubble was this headstone, which originally marked the grave of Capt. Babel H. Irons’ wife, Mary. No sign of Irons’ own marker, but what a great name! Every stone here has a story. After his death, it seems that Captain Irons had a 223-ton Philadelphia-based merchant sailing vessel named after him, so he must have been well-respected at the time.

According to the New York Times, a Marine Intelligence telegraph was received on Nov. 27, 1874 from the brig Castilian, which mentions Babel H. Irons. “…on the night of the 23d inst., in a south-east gale, lost boat, split foresail and jib, stove bulwarks, and had deck swept of galley, &c.” The Irons stone here on the river shore stares at you like the final flare from a shipwreck.

Frequently, I'm asked me how a cemetery becomes ‘abandoned.’ Well, that’s a topic for another blog. Monument Cemetery was not abandoned, let's be clear on that − it was destroyed. After reading what little is available on the Web about Monument Cemetery and after seeing the dumped stones, I had so many questions. I made an appointment to do some research at the Pennsylvania Historical Society in Philadelphia. Tune in next week to see what I dig up (pun intended).

Further Reading:
Nicole Clark's End of the road - Philadelphia's graveyards