Tuesday, January 24, 2012

The Graves of Old Tampa Bay

It’s so cold here in Philadelphia in mid-January that the veiled threat of snow makes me want to go to Florida for a while. So here we go. I was in Tampa a couple years ago, and spent some time in its quaint downtown Oaklawn Cemetery. If you think Florida has been northernized by all the tourists and retirees, a quick look at some of the gravestones will remind you of where you are (and where your ancestors have been!).

Oaklawn is Tampa’s oldest public burial ground, established in 1854, not long after the city itself came into being. Not having much in the way of stone quarries, the early graves had wooden markers. It was only later that residents became wealthy enough to afford “imported” (by ship) stone with which to mark their graves. 

It’s a small, lovely place – quietude in the midst of a commercial area about half a mile north of Tampa Bay’s convention center. Oaklawn is surrounded by mostly government buildings, a bus depot, and bail bondsmen – a typical urban area, yet with a startling number of vacant lots. It’s almost as if all of the cemetery’s surrounding urban decay was razed in the past ten years, leaving only the Baptist church across from the entrance.

Along with the old cemetery, the church’s mission bell (lodged into its front wall) is the only extant reminder of Tampa’s historic past. It’s a colorful past with a cast of characters that includes the Ybor cigar-making family (whose tomb is here), statesmen, businessmen, Confederate soldiers, scalawags and pirates. The latter, I must confess, is the main reason I sought the place out. Photos of its pirate graves were all over the Internet and I needed to see them!

As you roam the grounds, you notice the strange old ironwork and mosaic tile unique to the craftsmen of the area (read more about that in a previous blog I wrote). Everything is shaded by trees with hanging Spanish moss. There’s an ancient oak on the side of the cemetery where the pirate graves were supposed to be (“Morgan” Street, I swear!), that is so ridiculously huge that its branches swoop down to the ground then back up again! 

The place is very quiet, still, and contemplative. Maybe a little spooky. A large, rolling, concrete bed-shaped family crypt is the first thing you see as you hop over the wall from the parking area. This large (twenty feet square?) concrete structure most likely has bodies buried under it, but I can’t for the life of me figure out how they would actually do that. Usually when you see an above-ground family monument, it marks the spot of an underground mausoleum. There has to be a way to access the opening in the roof of the mausoleum to add bodies. This thing didn’t seem to allow such access. Curious. 

More so than the impending snow storm, what prompted me to recall my visit to Oaklawn was a blog I just read yesterday by a woman who had visited the cemetery in 2008. Something she said rang true with me, though at the time I was there, I couldn’t really put the feeling I had into words. She writes:

I always got this feeling when I walked into this particular cemetery like you are being watched, but not by anything sinister necessarily.” (ref)

Without a doubt, I had the same feeling. Not a scary feeling, just a feeling like I was being watched. It didn’t seem to be anything worth noting at the time, but when I read the woman’s account of her visit, it brought back the feeling quite distinctly. I mentioned that Oaklawn is surrounded by a commercial area, but there weren’t many people around. It’s not a tourist site and the locals know better than to spend much time outdoors in 100-degree high-humidity heat. Not sure what was watching me.

The writer also thought she had captured orbs and apparitions on film, as she stood on the porch of the white sexton house (maintenance shed). This quaint little Victorian-type structure, whose porch overlooks a mass grave of yellow fever victims, didn’t appear on any of my memory cards, even though I photographed it. You can see a photo of it here.

As I mentioned earlier, my main reason for visiting Oaklawn was to cadge a few pics of the pirate graves, but damn if I could find them! I had directions off the Internet, I KNEW what they looked like, but I never found the blasted things! However, I might have caught a pirate spirit (below). 

The cemetery was very pleasant and relatively cool, what with the majority of it shaded by trees covered with low-hanging Spanish moss. I had a Holga with me, loaded with slow film, but there really wasn’t enough light to expose the film.  The only notable exception being this image of some grave markers in the vicinity of where the pirate graves were supposed to be. Now, if you want to think of the misty business in the photo as some sort of piratical apparition, be my guest. I just like it because its wonderfully creepy.

Pirate lore is rampant along the Florida coast, and for good reason.
"Florida, like all other states, has a fascinating and romantic history. Seven different flags have flown over her, not to mention the black flag of the pirates. Florida became the haven of many notorious pirates, including Blackbeard, Lafitte, Gasparilla, Kidd, Rackham, Bowlegs, Bonnett, and possibly even Morgan himself [Morgan Street  borders the west side of Oaklawn] . They roamed the waters of the Caribbean Sea, and captured every ship in sight. Often, they brought their loot back to Florida, and buried it on some lonely shore. When they finally died, the location of their hidden wealth died with them. The majority of all buried treasure in Florida is the work of pirates." (ref)

A few nights later I witnessed an unexpected squall on the bay that had palm trees bent over as sheets of rain pummeled the shore and six-foot waves rocked the docks. As lightning flashed it was easy to see how a treasure-laden ship could capsize just off shore in such a tempest. Pirates that made it to land could easily have buried their booty anywhere in the area. Maybe the phantom "watchers" of Oaklawn are just checking to make sure their buried treasure is still safe.

Further Reading:

Saturday, January 14, 2012

What to Do with those Broken Old Tombstones?

I heard something rather shocking the other day from the owner of a farmhouse near an old graveyard in rural Leeds, Maryland. It had to do with old broken tombstones. But just to keep you on edge for a bit, here’s the lead-in to the story.

Rural graveyards can be quite small and are difficult to locate.  Even with a map, you’ll drive right past them. As I attempted to find Leeds cemetery in the rural northeastern part of Maryland, I got turned around a few times going up and down hilly country roads. Finally caught a glimpse of headstones up ahead, but it turned out to be Halloween decorations in someone's front yard! 

Eventually I found the cemetery, just up the road a piece. I saw some old tombstones beyond a very old old stone wall on the north side of Leeds Road, as well as some newer ones beyond a newer stone wall on the south side. One of the most memorable things about the visit was the fact that I found the rusty old gate latch to be rusted OPEN, allowing me easy access to the graveyard.

The other side of the road had newer burials, ranging from perhaps the 1880s to this most recent one, 1984. Most of the monuments and headstones were nondescript, thought someone obviously takes care of the grounds. Everything was neat and the grass was cropped close. Woods lined the back side of the cemetery. 

The older of the two halves of the cemetery, on the north side of the road, has as its showpiece, a walled-in memorial to the founder of the town of Leeds, John Wilson (you can see it at the back in this photo at right).  It’s a very old, small graveyard, only about 100 by 200 feet.

The old barn bordering the cemetery had a big barking dog standing in its doorway. Its owner came home in his pickup truck as I was walking around making photographs. I waved hi, wanting to make sure he knew what I was doing, namely, NOT trespassing on his land. I was hiding behind the cemetery’s lone bit of foliage – a big old holly tree − so the dog would stop barking its fool head off. I was actually trying to photograph the barn, the dog, and the 150-year-old cemetery with the odd juxtaposition of a trailer and a Porche 928.

The dog-Porsche-home-owner came over and began telling me the history of the town and the cemetery. He believed there to be two Civil War soldiers buried beneath the holly tree (it being so florid and close to the ground that it covered whatever grave markers may have been there). Guess he didn’t realize there was also a Revolutionary War Vet here. (SAR stands for "Sons of the American Revolution.") Appropriate that this organization seeks to maintain "respect for our national symbols," as I find this old cemetery to be quite a testament to honoring the dead in a most respectful manner. At least in 2011, this seems to be the case.

Small-town graveyards often have a more interesting past than relatively larger and fancier modern cemeteries. According to this graveyard neighbor, the town’s founder, John Wilson, began by building a wool mill on nearby Little Elk Creek, then a church in 1812 up the road. (Wool from Wilson's mill was used to make a suit for then President Thomas Jefferson.) After a few houses were built, I guess it became a town. As townspeople died, they needed a graveyard. As I search for information on Wilson on the Internet,  I come up with multiple familial connections, Wilson's 'Marriage Register (1832 - 1845), and this fascinating mini-biography which someone at the Maryland Historical Society photocopied in 1970. This local hero came to America from Leeds, England, and named his new town in its honor.

What I took to be a grotto for Wilson's monument, I later found to be the actual foundation of the original church that he built in 1812! Call me crazy, but I love history that you can see and touch!

So if the surrounding stone houses were built around the same time as the church (1812), the cemetery would have been about forty years old by the mid-1800s. This brings me to my point about what some of the old headstones were used for. The house bordering the cemetery (one of the town’s original three dwellings which you can see in the photo at right) belonged to the fellow who told me about the headstones. Around 1860, when bathing became all the rage (indoor plumbing), a septic tank was dug near this house. Guess what they used to line the inside walls of the tank? You guessed it, old broken tombstones!

I've run into all sorts of of uses for headstones in my cemetery travels, but that was a first for me. I did hear of a homeowner near Laurel Hill Cemetery in Philadelphia  who has headstones laid into the inside wall of his basement. Even as recent as the 1940s, people just discarded old broken tombstones. There seemed to be little desire for historic preservation.

A friend of mine has his study floor tiled with small white marble headstones from an abandoned nuns’ graveyard. All of uniform size, all beginning the name with “SRM” (for “Sister Mary ____”). Apparently, a nunnery (with a graveyard out back) was abandoned at some point near his home in the 1970s. As the property fell to ruin, one enterprising individual decided to make use of the headstones. My friend is probably the third owner since the installation.

It's not unusual to see discarded headstones cemented into a cemetery's wall, or just stacked to make a wall, as I've seen in Florence Italy. Kind of a shame, really, since some of these are a fabulous testament to the stone carver's art. I mean, just look at the intricate lettering and sculpting of the willow tree on this marble stone from Leeds Cemetery. Still, people find surprising uses for these memorials and monuments to people long forgotten. For example, the paving stones that are arranged in an arc around Johnson Cemetery "Park" in Camden New Jersey, are actually laid-down headstones from African-American Civil War soldiers who are buried under the park. At Philadelphia's Mount Moriah Cemetery, you'd be surprised to see that the 'gravel' used to make up the roadways is actually bits of marble monuments and headstones. I've seen the same at the Metairie Cemetery in New Orleans.

When Philadelphia destroyed Monument Cemetery (near Temple University) in 1956, headstones and grave markers from about 28,000 graves were hauled to the Delaware River and dumped in, to be used as "rip rap" (rubble from building and paving demolition commonly used to protect shorelines from water or ice erosion). Ah, but the city planners had further use for these monuments and tombstones (which were whole, not broken up) - they eventually became part of the foundation for the Betsy Ross Bridge (construction was completed in 1976)! You can still walk to the shoreline and still see them sticking out of the water (read about the rip rap atrocity here.) 

So does it come as a tremendous surprise that someone used old broken tombstones to line the wall of a septic tank? Not really. As a society, I guess that's just how we roll sometimes.

Further Reading:

Sunday, January 8, 2012

Wintering at Philadelphia's Mt. Moriah Cemetery

I sit in the heated sidewalk enclosure of Tony Luke’s cheese steak shop in deep South Philly, eating what may be the second best breakfast sandwich I ever had. (The first one by the way, also came from Tony Luke’s.) I’m watching the UPS trucks and car haulers take off for their morning runs as I sit inside the warm seating area.

St. Alban's Court
Cold outside, this early winter day, and supposed to get colder and windy. Perfect for an abandoned cemetery run – a hike through the wilderness that is Mount Moriah Cemetery. I pick up my friend Bob, who appropriately lives on St. Alban’s Court in West Philadelphia, where they filmed the movie, The Sixth Sense. Together we’re off to see dead things.

We park at the cemetery’s Cobb’s Creek Parkway entrance, which has been barricaded with concrete highway dividers. Before we begin our exploration around the abandoned mausoleums, I weapon up and load my cameras. This is only Bob’s second time here, so he’s not fully aware of all the things of which to be afraid. I had been told that the city pound confiscated all the wild dogs, but I took my iron ice hook just in case.

Mausoleum Ridge, Mt. Moriah in winter
Summer view of Mausoleum Ridge
As we clambered around inside the circle of mausoleums, I was surprised to see things I’d never seen here before. It’s almost as though the foliage has died a fuller death than usual − in summer, you can hardly see anything for the wildly overgrown bushes and trees, vines and pickers. The pickers and vicious thornage are REALLY what keep you from accessing any of the quaint old headstones and even the grand memorials.

It’s still a wilderness here, even though the city and volunteers spent the entire summer cleaning up portions of the place. Most of the effort had been spent on the Kingsessing Avenue side of Mt. Moriah, with its hundreds of relatively new Muslim graves and its tumble-down gatehouse. So I was surprised to see an entire section (above, Sect. 127, perhaps – see map) on the Cobb’s Creek side cleared of brush and looking the way a cemetery SHOULD look. Not only that, but we found a beautifully cared for family plot nearby, trimmed nicely with Christmas decorations at the top of the hill. This, in the midst of thousands of other graves covered with dead weeds and fallen trees.

As we make our way through the dense underbrush toward the giant rusting hulk of an iron memorial fountain, Bob tells me about growing up in a house surrounded by nine cemeteries. He’s comfortable around (and in) them, but his friends were afraid to go to his house. He’s also used to the dangers of abandoned cemeteries, as he has researched, explored, and photographed many of them in Edinburgh, Scotland. Apparently, many Scottish cemeteries are in the same deplorable condition as Mt. Moriah.

Climbing out of the tangles of vines and dead trees, we entered a clearing, and heard the dogs. Then we saw them. A small pack – three maybe. I tried to photograph them, but when I put the camera up to my eye, they darted into the high dead thicket. The barking continues as vehemently as ever. We head off in the opposite direction and talk about how stun guns and mace are illegal to buy or carry in the city of Philadelphia (though you can buy them in neighboring counties).

Winter is strange here at Mt. Moriah, with all the foliage gone – it’s almost as though you’re looking at the skeletal remains of the cemetery itself. There are hundreds of acres of dense woods shrouding massive marble and granite monuments, but the dirt roads are now walkable after the summer’s big clean-up. These roads weren’t made for giant garbage trucks, however, so the granite coping around some family plots has been scraped and broken. At least one tall granite monument is knocked over. The price of progress – at least all the piles of trash, building materials, and old tires are gone. (Just so you know, it wasn’t the barricades that stopped the illegal dumping – it actually stopped BEFORE the city locked the place down. All thanks to the zeal of one nearby resident who shall remain nameless).

People look at my photos and assume the cemetery is out in the boonies somewhere. Well no, I say, its in a densely populated, yet run down area of Southwest Philadelphia. Its size is estimated to be between 300 and 400 acres – most of which is an overgrown wilderness. A forest filled with all the grandeur of a Victorian cemetery, from the lowliest sweetly sleeping tombstone to massively ornate marble and granite monuments erected for the purpose of remembering God knows who, at this point. Bob points out that with all the negative publicity Mt. Moriah has achieved, those buried here are now remembered for a completely different reason.

Pet carrier, headstones in background
This is only Bob’s second visit to Mt. Moriah. I’ve been here so many times that nothing seems to surprise me. The more you learn about a thing, the less you pay attention, I suppose. For instance, the pet carrier we walked past. I though nothing of it, just Mount Moriah weirdness. Bob, however, deduced that someone had let their small animal loose in the wild, to fend for itself or get eaten by a coyote. He must have a sixth sense about such things. I thought of the small lame dog I saw here once, dragging itself through the weeds. But why leave the carrier here, with the door open? Because the person didn’t want to be seen leaving with an empty animal carrier. Ah.

We spend a few hours first on the Cobb’s Creek side, then make our way over to the Kingsessing Avenue side. I’ve been here so many times I’ve lost my early, wide-eyed reaction to this overgrown wrecked hull of a cemetery.  Still, I’m surprised at the piles of deer droppings here and there. You’d think with the dense woods, this place would be lousy with deer, but I’ve never seen one.

Most of the picker bushes at Mt. Moriah are dead for the season. Those that survive, however, can tear through armor. They are the worst here in the Circle of St. John as we try to navigate around the central marble monument to the Masonic Grand Tyler. It‘s shocking that someone went to the trouble to get all the way in here just to spray paint the monuments. It does seem to be a popular destination – empty beer cans abound and I find a burned American flag on the ground.

We talk about how to restore this place, on a piecemeal basis. When you think hundreds of acres of overgrown woodland, it does seem rather impossible. The place looks more like an improbable act of will than a result of simple neglect. So why aren’t movies being filmed in here? Certainly it would be very difficult to build something like this as a Hollywood movie set. Maybe film producers would think the viewing public would never believe such a place could exist. Why did Philadelphia allow this to happen to an historic landmark? Whatwould the Eiffel Tower look like today if it were in Philadelphia instead of Paris?

More dogs circle us. Great – we’ve got them on both sides. (Why is it that wild animals never attack people you WANT them to attack?) I kind of wanted to move further back to where dense trees hid some quite ornate dynasty plots, but Bob indicated that there were more dogs coming from that direction. I fondle the hook in my large coat pocket, enjoying the menacing power it gives me whenever I touch it. Then it occurs to me that one hook might not be adequate protection if TWO of us are attacked by several dogs. I blithely asked him what he would rather do. He said, we should probably head in the direction of the gatehouse (away from the dogs). I said, well, yeah, that would be the sensible thing to do, but what do you want to do? He was a bit uncomfortable with the proposition so we moved out of harm’s way.

I had this notion of an action hero called “The Hook,” who sits down with Bob at this point and says, “Now listen – this is CEMETERY photography we’re about here,” as our hero, without turning, takes a mighty swipe at a vicious dog leaping through the air toward them. The hook connects, the dog cries and runs off.

We walked toward the back of the crumbling gatehouse, really nothing more than a fa├žade of crumbling brownstone, at this point; the clinging vines actually holding what’s left of the structure together. I spent a few minutes photographing the statue of Father Time behind it while Bob investigated the ruins of the gatehouse. “Looks like they’ve cleaned this place up a bit,” he said, noting the absence of broken tombstones, piles of old tires, and assorted garbage.

A few minutes later he came walking toward me and I asked him if he wanted to go around to photograph the front of the gatehouse. He said, “I don’t think so − someone has taken up residence in there.” Yikes. Bet that guy hasn’t had a Tony Luke’s breakfast sandwich in a while. So we headed off back in the direction of my car, a good twenty-minute walk across the cemetery. The weather turned windy and colder as I thought about Philadelphia’s upcoming Homicide Parade, meant to lament the city’s Big 300 murder rate for 2011. Yay.

Gatehouse at Kingsessing Ave., Mt. Moriah Cemetery

Thanks to Bob Reinhardt, Tom Bera, and Donna for their inspiration in helping me write this article.

Tuesday, January 3, 2012

Evergreen for the Holidays

For a totally joyless experience, drive or walk through an abandoned cemetery at Christmas time. That said, I waited until New Year’s Day to take a drive through Camden, New Jersey’s Evergreen Cemetery  (an ironic name if ever there was one). I'd like to say that it is old, elegant, and beautifully restored, but such is not the case. A wreck of a graveyard, the shock of its graffiti-painted roadways are only eclipsed by sunken graves into which you can see ancient brick vaults and exposed wooden coffins.

A light, intermittent rain is hurrying to go nowhere, the wan sky casting an even illumination on the busted monuments. I expected to take some photos out the car window or through the rainy glass, making all blurry and cool images (but I forgot to do that). One thing that threw my concentration was the fact that the workshed door was ajar.

Note bike at lower right in photo
I’d never before seen this small cinderblock building open. As I drove by, I could see it was empty, except for a bicycle. Two scraggly artificial Xmas wreaths hung awkwardly off the edges of the wire door corners. Huh. I drove past, getting out to photograph the graffiti painted on the driveway in front of it. As I got back in my car, I was startled to see a man in his early thirties come out of the doorway holding the bike. He stood there all nonchalant. As I drove past him, I started to roll down the window to jokingly ask with faux sincerity, “Are you the caretaker?” But I reconsidered  – I could end up on the wrong side of a gun. 

So I slowly drove past, avoiding eye contact. This is always a good tactic as they know you can’t identify them. Camden is the second most dangerous city in America, cemeteries included. City officials and police have stated that massive budget problems and a deteriorating infrastructure have eroded the city's ability to keep the peace. In an article for The Philadelphia Inquirer, one resident summed up Camden's woes with what is surely the scariest quote you'll hear all day, "We don't have any real policing in Camden. They're just out here to pick up the bodies."

Sunken grave, Evergreen Cemetery
I drove around the back of Evergreen, making photographs here and there, when I noticed from across the cemetery the guy with the bike guy was still standing at the entrance of the workshed. Then I noticed another man, about the same age, walking into the cemetery carrying a white plastic bag. Um, there really is no LEGAL reason for two guys to be in an abandoned cemetery in the middle of the day in the RAIN. As I was ready to head out the entrance and leave them to their dealing, I noticed a sunken grave. The earth had collapsed about three feet down and you could see the brick arch of an underground crypt roof – and an old wooden coffin! Well, their business matters would just have to wait. Though I certainly didn’t want to get shot, I needed to get this shot. 

Even in this pseudo-maybe, maybe not really abandoned cemetery, you see leftover Xmas decorations on some of the graves. I saw six small stones in a family row, each with its own wreath and red bow. So relatives still visit decrepit, tumble-down cemeteries. There are still people who care about those who’ve set out ahead of the rest of us. While that doesn’t make the experience joyful, per se, it does to some extent restore one’s faith in humanity. Xmas decorations in a cemetery are like angel statues – they don't do anything for the deceased, but they benefit the living by softening the blow and honoring the memory of those long gone. 

After driving around for another ten minutes, the wind and rain got stronger, so photographically, I stuck a fork in it – I was done. I drove out the gate, past the guy with the plastic bag who was just STANDING inside the cemetery entrance waiting for me to leave. I made sure not to make eye contact. Cemeteries are filled with good discovery. You hang around them and you can’t help but learn things – mostly about yourself.

Further Reading:

Camden runner-up for most dangerous city

 Camden Named 2nd Most Dangerous City in America