Friday, March 16, 2012

Beachcombing in Hell – The Gravestones of Monument Cemetery

Well this is a new experience for me – I just uploaded twenty-five names and dates to the website "" for Philadelphia’s defunct Monument Cemetery. I’ll add photos of the headstones this week. 

I recently found myself in a strange situation - well, stranger than usual. After publishing two blogs last year about the remains of Philadelphia’s aforementioned (demolished) 28,000-grave Victorian-era cemetery, I received an overwhelming number of comments and questions. These ranged from anger and indignation at the very idea of paving over a cemetery, to pleas from readers looking for traces of lost ancestors. 

I’m not going to dwell on the how’s and why’s of that situation for this blog - you can read about all that in my previous postings (The Watery Remains of Monument Cemetery [April  2011] and How Monument Cemetery was Destroyed [May 2011]). The short story is that in 1956, Monument Cemetery was condemned and leveled by the City of Philadelphia so that Temple University could build a parking lot. Thousands of monuments, tombstones, and other grave markers were dumped into the Delaware River, later used as part of the foundation for the Betsy Ross Bridge. The human remains were re-interred in mass graves at Lawnview Cemetery, in the northeast section of the city.

Comments on my postings ranged from intense moral outrage to defense of the project by Temple sympathizers. There were questions about how to access the cemetery records (as I had done) at the Historical Society of Pennsylvania, and there were people wondering if I photographed any of their ancestors’ headstones. Regardless of your position or interest level, this heap of marble and granite at the river’s edge tells a very human story.

From a memorial at Lawnview Cemetery, Rockledge, PA
When I received the following comment from a reader, I realized that people might be interested in the names and dates on the stones piled under the bridge:
While their graves may never be found, their information would be of great interest to family, historians, and genealogists.
Betsy Ross Bridge
At one point during the year, a Facebook friend of mine posted three of my photographs on the “Find A Grave” website (which boasts records of 77 million grave records worldwide). To my surprise, someone had already taken the time to log in 747 names of those buried in Monument Cemetery, but unlike those of most other entries, none of these included a photograph of the gravestone.

Frankford Creek enters Delaware River
Therefore, I decided to make another trip, for the sole purpose of recording names and dates, and uploading them to “Find A Grave.” Names and photographs are important to people, they are tangible links to the past. So at the beginning of March, 2012, I trekked out to the Bridesburg section of Philadelphia near the Tioga Marine Terminal on the Delaware River.

To be honest, my first visit to the water’s edge was to gawk at the piles of tombstones like they were some sideshow attraction. Many people have. I even received one email from people who had “reached it via jetski rather than by land” - an adventure outing.  For a good idea of what you must go through to reach this remote and squalid area of riverfront, check out this YouTube video: The Local Frontier: The Lost Cemetery. I’m sure you’ll agree with the narrator, that “Death remains the final frontier.

So armed with some cameras, a weapon, and my friend Bob, I parked outside the gate labeled “Private Property” and cut into the woods through a break in the fence. It’s about a fifteen minute walk through the thicket along the muddy Frankford Creek, opposite the abandoned PECO power plant.  The homeless have set up an encampment here. About six tarp-tents lay in our path, with a few people sitting in front of them. “What do you want?” asked one of them as we walked through their midst. “Just passing through,” was Bob’s reply, and to me, it seemed as though we would indeed be passing through a number of peoples’ lives.

It’s a chancy undertaking, this short journey to the water. You never know what, or who, you may run into. But as author Neil Gaiman says in his novel, The Graveyard Book, "If you dare nothing, then when the day is over, nothing is all you will have gained. When you get to the Delaware River, you must negotiate your way down the twelve-foot embankment, which is literally a jumble of granite monuments sticking out of the ground. You throw yourself against the big tree whose roots have grown around Dr. Charles Ayer’s headstone. You step on the bluish granite Lunney family grave marker as you maneuver yourself down to the water’s edge.

Monuments in foreground
It’s low tide, so you can see more of the Witham monument that is typically underwater. As you walk along the shore, you can easily lose your footing on pieces of wet marble monuments, bricks, iron fencing, and glass. Climbing around the five-hundred pound granite monument chunks, you catch glimpses of names on stones sticking out of the mire. Bob called it “beachcombing in Hell” as he picked up fragments of tombstones and bits of old funerary ceramic.

I spent about two hours photographing the faces of as many whole tombstones and monuments as I could find. The list below consists of 25 names that appear on 17 separate stones:

Ayers, Charles A. , M.D. (1851 – 1913)
Classey, Robert (Died Jan. 16, 1855) and Jane Classey (Died Dec. 12, 1888)(“Father and Mother”); James W. Classey (Died Aug. 5, 1891) (“Son of the Above, Brother”)
Cousley, Andrew (Born April 15, 1861 – Died Dec. 28, 1895) “Husband” and Cousley, Margaret (1856 – 1934) “Wife”
Eppelscheimer, Amanda, Died 1918 and Eppelscheimer, (Name obscured) Died 1924
Green, Bartholomew (1853 – 1906)
Heilman, William Henry (1846 – 1909) (“Late Captain 15th U.S. Infantry, Born Philadelphia, Pennsylvania”)
Heilman, Magdalena (1818 – 1906)
Irons, Mary H. (1823 – 1917) (“Wife of Capt. Babel H. Irons”)
Leeman, Adelia Harriet (1854 - 1901)
Leeman, Mary Ann (1829 - 1894)
Lunney, James, “Died 1883, Aged 67 Years” (1816 – 1883) and Mary, “Wife of James Lunney, Died 1892”
Mortimoore, Charles (July 17, 1817 – May 2, 1873) and Catharine (Feb. 9, 1818 – Jan. 11, 1889); Phoebe  “Born Dec. 26, 1789, Died Jan. 19, 1861.”
Platt, Mary Leeman (1857 – 1893) and Charles C. (1853 – 1929)
Sagee, Mary F. (1853 - 1931) (“Daughter of Francis and Anne J. Sagee” )
Stark, James, “Departed This Life March 9, 1890, Aged 42 Years” (1848 - 1890)
Witham, (Name obscured) (1840 – 1909)
Wright, Harrison G. “Husband, Died May 3, 1881, Aged 36 Years, Rest in Peace” (1845 - 1881)

Alas, I found none of the names that descendants had asked me to look for. The odds, of course, were not in my favor – 25 names out of the original 28,000 people buried at Monument is a drop in the bucket. But hey, these 25 names may be beneficial to someone someday, since I’ve just added them to the list of people in the Monument Cemetery section of the “Find A Grave” site (see link at end of article), which now totals  772 entries. Doing so also gave me an appreciation for the tremendous amount of work other people have exerted inputting all this data.

Author on Tombstones
Low tide was at noon that day, and a couple hours later, Bob was surprised to see the tide obviously coming in. And when I say “tide,” I mean the filthy, oil-slicked sluice of this River Styx.  He'd thought I was joking when I told him that we needed to be here at noon. Rivulets of dark water snaked in over the twenty feet of muck that temporarily separated land from sea.  It was like watching time leak through from the past. Soon the broken bottles, rusting bits of metal, and low-lying headstones would be covered. All these people have had their lives - these people whose names appear in chiseled stone. The names would be obscured until the next low tide, but because of current public interest in what happened to Monument Cemetery, their memory lives on in ways they never could have expected.

References and Further Reading:

Ed Snyder's blogs on Monument Cemetery:
The Watery Remains of Monument Cemetery [April  2011]
How Monument Cemetery was Destroyed [May 2011]

The Local Frontier: The Lost Cemetery (YouTube video)
Find A Grave website:  Listings for burials at Monument Cemetery, Philadelphia, PA