Volunteers want to bring one of the city’s oldest cemeteries back to life


Peter Monro of the Stewards of the Western Cemetery gives a tour of the cemetery on Friday. Derek Davis/Staff Photographer

The tallest monument in Portland’s second oldest cemetery is an obelisk that bears the name of Henry Jackson, who died in August 1850 at the age of 67.

The inscription indicates that the pillar was placed there the following year:

“Erected by the students of Master Jackson, as a memorial to his faithfulness as teacher for twenty-five years of a boys’ grammar school, Portland.”

Peter Monro pointed out the obelisk from afar as he led a small group of tourists through the Western Cemetery on a sunny afternoon.

“I think it’s wonderful that, in a graveyard largely populated by hardy, ordinary citizens of the city of Portland, the biggest monument does not go to someone important, but to a teacher, he said.

Monro is the clerk of the Stewards of the Western Cemetery, a group of neighbors who have come together to preserve this historic but long neglected site. He lives on May Street and took part in the first iteration of the Stewards over 20 years ago, around the time when the 12 grassy acres were the site of a clash between dog owners who wanted to leave their animals run free and advocates who thought the dead shouldn’t be bothered by what these dogs often left behind.

The city banned dogs from the cemetery in 2001, and stewards remained active for a few years, replacing a rusting chain-link fence and assisting the city with other projects. But their efforts failed because, monro said, the city would not let them work on tombstones without permission from hard-to-find descendants.

The years have passed. Then Sam Wilson had his hip replaced.

“I ended up taking longer walks on my own, and I live in the West End so I’ve been to the cemetery quite often,” Wilson said. “I innocently thought, ‘This could be fixed.’ ”

Last year, Wilson and his neighbor Monro began learning the intensive process of cleaning and repairing headstones from Spirits Alive, a group dedicated to preserving the city’s oldest cemetery, Congress Street Eastern Cemetery.

The revived Stewards became a non-profit organization earlier this year.

“There are a lot of people who care about this place,” Monro said. “We are just the standard bearers.”

The first people buried in what became Western Cemetery were members of the Vaughan family, who sold the land to Portland in 1829 for a second cemetery. The site was isolated at the time, near an orchard and a few houses. It served as the city’s primary burial ground for more than two decades, until the sprawling Evergreen Cemetery opened in 1852. While only 1,600 markers remain in the Western Cemetery, there are approximately 6,600 graves.

The West Cemetery remains a public space with multiple uses: walking and jogging, bird watching, study of native plants, school outings. But it’s also still a graveyard, and Peter Monro pointed out the different sections of it during a tour on Friday. Derek Davis/Staff Photographer

The cemetery is laid out in a unique shape – like a soccer ball, or maybe an eye. An old map shows tombs arranged in long arched rows, and in their center is an open grove. Its design is different from the Eastern Cemetery, its smaller predecessor, or the Evergreen Cemetery, its sprawling successor.

“The cemetery is an important public space for many reasons,” said Sarah Hansen, executive director of Greater Portland Landmarks, which named the Western Cemetery as one of its places of peril in 2013. “As one of Portland’s Designated Historic Landscapes, it is a wonderful example of the transition from traditional early burial grounds to cemeteries functioning as planned gardens and more public space.

The Western Cemetery was beginning to fill in the 1850s when the city purchased the land for Evergreen, which is still active today.

Portland Cemetery Director Mike Ciamaga said the city is allowing people to move their family plots from the Western Cemetery to the new cemetery for free, and many remains have been exhumed.. The Great Fire of 1866 destroys a lot of records from that era, though.

The Western Cemetery was largely inactive after 1910, although engravings there show that some people still chose to be buried near their ancestors later in the 20th century. There is a headstone from 1957, another from 1975. But the cemetery has fallen into a general state of disrepair and has often been vandalized. The marble that was popular for headstones during the cemetery’s heyday began to disintegrate with time and acid rain, and the iron features were removed during World War II or simply rusted away.

Yet when Monro announced a tour a few weeks ago, over 75 people showed up.

“I had a man tell me on the first tour that he played baseball here,” Monro said. “He earned a Boy Scout merit badge camping here. …And he learned to drive here. His dad brought the car here and they drove around because there was no traffic.

The area remains a public space with many uses: walking and jogging, bird watching (Monro pointed to a hawk’s nest in a tree), study of native plants, school trips. But it’s also still a cemetery, and Monro pointed out the different sections of it.

A rose inscription is found on one of the graves in Portland’s West Cemetery. Derek Davis/Staff Photographer

Along the fence adjoining Vaughan Street is the Strangers’ Land, once the burial place of the city’s poor. There is also the Catholic Cemetery, designated in 1843 when Mary Dickey died aged just 20 days. The many Irish immigrants who rest there were children of families who fled famine and, in 1999, the Ancient Order of Hibernians placed a black marble monument there recognize the victims of An Gorta Mór, or the Great Hunger. A planter of red flowers in front of the memorial holds an American flag and an Irish one. Flags also mark the graves of veterans from the Revolutionary War to World War I.

Monro stopped in front of a large stone that had fallen flat on the ground. The blank side was facing up, but Monro revealed that someone (who would remain anonymous, he said) had lifted it just enough to confirm that it marked the grave of John Neal, a writer, 19th century lawyer, art critic and boxer. Neal was known for advocating for women’s and black rights, Monro said, and he was also apparently the first person to use the phrase “son of a bitch” in a work of fiction.

Monro also pointed to what is often said to be a witch’s tomb, where the remains of a wax candle sat atop the stone and the actual remains belong to a deacon. And he told the mystery of the missing Longfellows. The hillside grave that is believed to be the final resting place of the relatives of famous poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow is actually empty, and no one knows what happened to the bodies.

Monro carried a lime green binder as a reference for the many stories on his tour, but he spoke mostly from memory and only used the binder to show his small audience prints of historic photographs.

The cemetery has gone through periods of neglect and interest, he said. and even though the interest is there now, the money is not.

Ciamaga, The Portland cemetery superintendent said his budget of about $838,000 was stretched across 13 cemeteries and the city didn’t have many additional resources to preserve this one. But he plans to compile a central register of burials at the Western Cemetery and wants to work with the stewards to find money for their projects. He said he enjoyed looking for the intricate markings on some of the graves there, which he described as an early form of public art.

“There is no real outcry over cemetery funding among the general public,” Ciamaga said. “There are other things happening in the city. There are living people who need help.

This does not discourage the stewards. They are trying to raise $7,500 right now for preliminary work: insurance coverage, a visit from a professional headstone restorer this summer, starter tools for cleaning, such as plastic trowels, toothbrushes and buckets. They expect to launch a larger campaign once they have mastered some cost estimates. It would be money for projects like a tool shed, an extension of the water line to make it easier to wash headstones, improvements for accessibility.

One stone away, two women from the tour group peered intently to read Abram Newcomb’s name. Marked with the symbol of an anchor, its stone leans back in the tall grass.

“It’s going to be a three-day project here,” Wilson said, explaining the painstaking steps to straighten the marker. They will have to extract the heavy stone, put the base back in place, use epoxy to glue the pieces back together. They will use a special solution for gentle cleaning and plastic tools that do not scratch. For some stones that have been completely broken, they will need to use the limited available records to ensure they put them back in the correct resting place.

Shop stewards know the job won’t be easy – you don’t just put glue on the broken parts, glue them together and call it a day – and they think their goals could take 20 years to accomplish. But this will only be a small piece of the cemetery’s long history, before and after them.

“Our average age is 75,” Monro said. “You have to find young people who will take over.

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