Before There Was Central Park, There Was Green-Wood Cemetery
While few New Yorker’s today take Central Park for granted, there was a time in the city’s history that open spaces where nature could be enjoyed unimpeded by noise and pollution were scarce.
The great public parks which we enjoy today did not come into existence until the late 1850’s with the creation of Central Park followed by Brooklyn’s Prospect Park in 1867. From the 1840s until the 1860s, the rural cemetery was the place to go if a New Yorker or visitor wanted to experience rolling hills, plains, lakes, fabulous artworks and stroll peacefully while contemplating life.
The oldest of these rural cemeteries in New York City is Brooklyn’s Green-Wood Cemetery which was founded in 1838.
Green-Wood itself put out its own tour book soon after its creation to give visitors what they called “the tour.”
What could you expect when you got there besides mausoleums and tombstones?
Nature in abundance.
To give you an idea of how popular it was to visit Green-Wood, this section of Appleton’s New York City and Vicinity Guide by W. Williams, published by D. Appleton and Co. (1849) extols some of Green-wood’s virtues:
Greenwood Cemetery is in the s. part of Brooklyn, at Gowanus, about three miles from the Fulton Ferry, at which place visitors take the stages, which leave hourly, for the Cemetery. Fare 12 cents. Another way to Greenwood is by the new ferry at Whitehall, which lands its passengers in the vicinity of the Cemetery, on a pier of great length jutting out from the shore: carriages run from the landing-place to the Cemetery, carrying passengers at a trifling charge.
This Cemetery was incorporated m 1838, and contains 242 acres of ground, about one-half of which is covered with wood of a natural growth. It originally contained 172 acres, but recently 70 more have been added by purchase, and brought within the enclosure.
Free entrance is allowed to persons on foot during week-days, but on the Sabbath none but proprietors of lots and their families, and persons with them, are admitted; others than proprietors can obtain a permit for carriages on week-days. These grounds have a varied surface of hills, valleys, and plains. The elevations afford extensive views; that from Ocean Hill, near the western line, presents a wide range of the ocean, with a portion of Long Island. Battle Hill, in the N. W., commands an extensive view of the cities of Brooklyn and New York, the Hudson river, the noble bay, and of New Jersey and Staten Island. From the other elevated grounds in the Cemetery there are fine prospects. Greenwood is traversed by winding avenues and paths, which afford visitors an opportunity of seeing this extensive Cemetery, if sufficient time is taken for the purpose. Several of the monuments, original in their design, are very beautiful, and cannot fail to attract the notice of strangers. Those of the Iowa Indian princess, Do-hum-me, and the ” mad poet,” McDonald Clarke, near the Sylvan “Water, are admirable.
Visitors by keeping the main avenue, called The Tour, as indicated by guide-boards, will obtain the best general view of the Cemetery, and will be able again to reach the entrance without difficulty. Unless this caution be observed, they may find themselves at a loss to discover their way out. By paying a little attention, however, to the grounds and guide-boards, they will soon be able to take other avenues, many of which pass through grounds of peculiar interest and beauty.
” In Greenwood, are quiet dells, nestling little lakes in their bosoms, shaded by locusts and willows from the sun, made cool by the sea breezes, and musical by the songs of birds; or you may loiter in a village of graves, as it were, with hundreds of visitors, like yourself, poring over sculptured tokens of affection,”
These delightful grounds now attract much attention, and have already become a place of great resort, and they will continue yearly to attract additional crowds of visitors, as their beauties become more generally known, and the ties more extended that bind many in the surrounding country and neighboring cities, to the once-loved — not, to the eyes of Faith and Affection, dead, but sleeping — forms of those who lie in this beautiful resting-place of the departed.
Over the years Green-Wood Cemetery expanded to 478 acres. But after the opening of Central Park and Prospect Park, visits for leisurely strolls through the cemetery began to decline in popularity. Still, into the late 19th century the New York guide books still promoted Green-Wood, Cypress Hills, Woodlawn, Moravian, and the Evergreens as rural cemeteries to visit.
Today there are nearly 600,000 people interred at Green-Wood. Relatively few people visit with the exception of relatives of the deceased. That is a mistake, as Green-Wood remains a treasure that 99.9% of tourists fail to see and few New Yorker’s even know about. The cemetery itself has changed since the 1849 tour book description, it is far more crowded with burials and some of the views have vanished with real estate development. But Green-Wood remains a serene place to visit, view sculpture, take in nature and contemplate life… and death.