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NSG Visit October 12, 2002

Mount Hope Cemetery

Rochester, New York


Bill Treichler

Society members were met Saturday morning, October 12, 2002, by Richard O. Reisem at the cemetery main gate. He began our tour by telling us that Mount Hope was the first public, municipal, rural, Victorian cemetery in the country. It was dedicated on October 3, 1838. At that time churchyard burial grounds were becoming filled. Rochester, a city with an expanding population, needed a sizeable area for burials outside the business and residential districts.

The site chosen was really ideal for a cemetery because the terrain had been formed with mineral aggregates collected and dropped from a melting glacier along a stream course. The glacial till could readily be dug for graves and was generally well drained. And very appropriately the landscape, naturally divided into many secluded and scenic areas, provided a sense of privacy, protection and peacefulness. Moreover, the grotesquely uneven topography made the property nearly worthless for commercial use. The cemetery became a park where people on Sunday afternoon outings in carriages viewed the impressive monuments that were erected.

Mount Hope cemetery has 14 miles of roads and 375,000 permanent residents. The first settlers, the surveyors, the millers, mechanics, merchants, inventors, manufacturers, horticulturalists, moralists, and artists, who founded the city and created great institutions are nearly all here in graves, often marked by simple tombstones but sometimes by grandiose monuments displaying pride and vanity.

On our two-hour walking tour, Mr. Reisem showed us examples of grave edifices resembling ancient sarcophagi, Greek temples, Egyptian obelisks. Many were designed by architects, and most are handsome, as well as imposing. Celtic crosses, endless knots, wreaths and garlands were frequent ornaments. We saw many beautifully carved statues on pedestals. All the monuments had family names displayed at least on one side. For each marker we visited, it seemed Richard had a story that revealed the personal-ity of the resident. Mount Hope expresses the values of the Victorian period: success, status, prestige, family honor, leisure.

In addition to showing us the massive stones of prominent Rochester families, he pointed out the elegant slate stone at the grave of landscape architect Fletcher Steele, and showed us several handsome zinc metal grave monuments still in excellent condition that were less expensive than stone monuments. We saw many smaller and simpler markers including the round-top stones for Susan B. Anthony and her sister, Mary B. Anthony. Colleen Hurst pointed out that not far away was the stone of Elisha J. Keeney who had arrested Miss Anthony in Canandaigua for voting.

Frederick Douglass, who published the liberation paper The North Star, is buried at Mount Hope with his second wife beside him, but where is Anna Murray

Douglass his first wife of 43 years, buried? It is strange that she does not occupy a marked space on one side of her husband.

Among the many unusual markers there, is a stone carved to look like an old wooden cross. There are stones shaped as tree stumps to indicate a life cut off. The world-famous collector of natural curiosities, Henry A. Ward, chose a jasper-flecked boulder from Canada to be his tombstone.

The living monuments planted around Mount Hope are spectacular. A gigantic European Purple Beech tree was one of 50 rare trees given in 1847 by the Ellwanger and Barry nursery to encourage the beautification of the cemetery. The nursery was on 650 acres just across the avenue. Their gift has grown into many beautiful specimen trees growing among the graves and the natural trees.

Richard Reisem is a wonderfully informed and entertaining guide. He is author of eight books; the most recent is Erie Canal Legacy: Architectural Wonders of New York State. He also wrote the text of Buried Treasures in Mount Hope Cemetery, a delightful field guide to the cemetery. The book is filled with brief biographies of the people who made Rochester. It also contains beautiful photographs of the cemetery's monuments, mausoleums, statuary, buildings and landscapes. Published by The Friends of Mount Hope Cemetery, the spiral-bound, 176-page book is available for $19.95 plus tax. You can purchase it in the north entrance gatehouse that was designed by Rochester's most famous architect, Andrew Jackson Warner in the High Victorian Gothic style. His own grave marker is a simple stone.

© 2002, Bill Treichler
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