While in Rochester, NY for the Frontiers in Optics 2010 meeting of the Optical Society of America, the wife and I had a little free time available to take a tour of the lovely and venerable Mount Hope Cemetery. Founded in 1838, it is the first municipal rural cemetery founded in the United States, and only 4 years after the city itself was chartered.
This was perhaps the best time to visit the cemetery — the fall foliage is a spectacular kaleidoscope of color right now, and that makes the area absolutely beautiful and photography nearly idiot-proof. The tours are given on weekends during the warmer months by the Friends of Mt. Hope, and I can highly recommend a visit (and a donation).
In this post, I thought I’d share some of the knowledge I gained on the tour — and some of the wonderful sights I was able to see!
Mount Hope Cemetery is situated on the southern side of the city, right next to the University of Rochester. The cemetery consists of nearly 200 acres of land and 350,000 graves — quite impressive, considering the city’s population is around 200,000 people. The northern half of the property consists of steep hills and narrow valleys, carved by a retreating glacier some 12,000-14,000 years ago. The extreme reach of the glacier, in fact, was about halfway through the cemetery — its southern end is relatively flat terrain.
It is a bit odd these days to see a cemetery built on such uneven ground, but at the time of its founding, cemeteries served a double service as public parks. The landscape was viewed as a perfect place for people to escape the hubbub of the city during their days off. Its beauty also drew some very famous people to use it as their final resting place, as we will see.
The best entrance to the cemetery, and the starting point of the tours, is the north gate. The gatehouse, built in 1874, was originally the cemetery office but now serves as the office of the Friends of Mt. Hope:
The cemetery itself, with the changing leaves, was oddly simultaneously solemn and festive:
For me, the highlight of most graveyards is the wonderful statuary. The first pair of figures that caught my eye adorned the grave of Michael Filon (1820-1893), who was mayor of Rochester over 1862-1863, and his wife:
I have been unable to confirm this with certainty, but it seems likely that this Michael Filon was also one of the initiators of the venerable Rochester amusement park Seabreeze, began in 1879 and the fourth-oldest operating amusement park in the United States. It seems that Filon attended the 1876 Centennnial Exposition in Philadelphia, and noted the train used to transport passengers around. He envisioned a similar train line to ferry folks from downtown Rochester to the lakeside Seabreeze area, and gathered investors to make the vision a reality. With the new rail line in place, the investors bought land at the end of the line to start a recreational resort that became the amusement park.
A detailed view of the monument, with a different background, gives a completely different impression:
Lovely figures abound in the cemetery; I was particularly struck by this monument to the Sankey family, which appears to be weeping:
By no means was yellow the only color present in the graveyard; a huge Japanese maple stood out in a fiery red:
Turning left at the maple, we crossed into a lonely little valley:
In this valley we came across the resting place of a very famous and truly amazing American:
Susan B. Anthony (1820-1906) was one of the leaders of the women’s rights movement of the 19th century in the United States. She actually played an early role in opposing slavery in her teens, and later joined the temperance movement at age 29, about the same time she moved to the family farm in Rochester. A newspaper account of a women’s rights meeting in Massachusetts inspired Anthony to take up the cause, and she became a very active and powerful speaker. She was also not afraid to get “into the fray”, so to speak: in 1872 she was arrested for voting in the Presidential election. She was tried and sentenced to pay a fine, but she refused to pay it!
Sadly, Anthony did not live to see her goals reach fruition. She died in 1906, and it would not be until 1920 that the 19th Amendment would give women the right to vote.
Traveling further down the valley, we find more fascinating monuments:
Center left, you can see the white tombstones of the Anthony family in the distance.
Some of the most eerie and heartbreaking monuments are the least ostentatious; a nearby child’s grave is adorned only with a tiny weather-worn lamb:
It turns out that fall colors are not the only ones to make a suitable backdrop for monuments:
In this next picture, I really liked the play of colors:
As I’ve noted, many famous and important people are buried in Rochester, including Rochester himself! The hill in the following picture is Rochester Hill, and on the far side of it is buried Nathaniel Rochester, the city founder:
In addition to establishing the town of Rochesterville in 1817 (which would become the city of Rochester), Nathaniel was part of a committee that petitioned for the formation of the Erie Canal. I therefore owe a personal debt to the man, as I used to do long-distance runs along that very canal!
As I noted, the cemetery is roughly divided in half by the point at which an ancient glacier stopped its southward encroachment. Near this dividing line one finds the odd memorial to Henry Augustus Ward (1834-1906):
Ward was a Rochester-born naturalist and geologist who traveled the world in search of specimens and worked as a geology professor at the University of Rochester. In 1862, he formed Ward’s Natural Science, a company that provides science education materials for high school and college classes and is still around today!
Ward himself was struck and killed by an car in Buffalo, New York, the very first auto-related fatality in that city.
While I’ve got geology on the mind, I should note the following, seemingly not very impressive, depression near Ward’s grave:
This is what is known as a glacial kettle, a depression that is formed by a huge, house-sized block of ice calving off the retreating glacier. Sediment carried by the melting glacial waters are deposited around the block, which eventually melts and leaves a deep depression.
It’s quite amazing to think about the forces of nature at play here, and the monumental scale at which they worked. The glacier itself is estimated to have been a mile high; this massive ice sheet was shedding massive blocks of ice as it retreated.
Not far from Ward’s grave we find a monument that also marks a very dark and tragic event in the city’s history:
The monument marks the group plot for the Rochester Orphan Asylum, founded in 1837. The records of the asylum burials show how horrifyingly vulnerable children were in that era — fatalities from measles, whooping cough, cholera, and dysentery are common. The greatest tragedy occurred in January of 1901, however, when apparently the boiler of the asylum ignited a fire that killed 31 people, at least 26 of which were children. Many, though not all, of the children were buried in Mount Hope. A shocking report of the fire appeared in the New York Times; an analysis of the tragedy led to Rochester revamping its fire codes. For those interested in learning more about the ROA’s early years, an 1843 pamphlet “The Orphan’s Souvenir” can be read on Google books.
Group plots are not reserved for the poor and disadvantaged, however; the next stop on the tour was the group plot for the University of Rochester, that included the first president of the university:
The next monument that caught my eye had more than just beauty going for it:
What really grabbed my attention was the name attached to it:
I chuckled at first, because Seth Green is the actor who, among other roles, played Dr. Evil’s son in the “Austin Powers” films! It turns out, though, that I had inadvertently photographed the memorial of another rather important person! Seth Green (1817-1888) was a fish farming pioneer (which is sometimes referred to by the cool name of pisciculture), and established the first fish hatchery in the United States in 1864 in Caledonia, New York.
Green’s achievements, though large, seem absolutely trivial in comparison with his near neighbor’s in Mount Hope:
Frederick Douglass (1818-1895) is, like Susan B. Anthony, not only a champion of civil rights but one of the most amazing Americans in history. Born into slavery, he learned to read and write first from the sympathetic wife of an owner and then from white children in his neighborhood. His knowledge made his more “uppity”, and when he was given to a notoriously harsh slave owner to break him at age 16, he eventually fought back and scared the man from attempting to hurt him again.
Douglass escaped from bondage at age 20, moved north, and married a free black woman Anna Murray. He was rapidly drawn into the abolitionist movement, where he eloquence of writing and speaking made him both a leader and a symbol of the intellectual capabilities of black people. He traveled extensively, both through the U.S. and abroad, and also aligned himself with the Irish nationalist movement. He was the only black man to attend the landmark 1848 Women’s Rights Convention in Seneca Falls, essentially arguing that he could not accept the right to vote as a black man until women could vote as well. After the Civil War, Douglass worked to counter the racism still ingrained in people, both northern and southern.
His wife died in 1882, and in 1884 Douglass remarried, joining with Helen Pitts, a white woman 20 years his junior! He died in 1895, shortly after attending a meeting of the National Council of Women in Washington, D.C., at which he was given a standing ovation.
This is only an abridged version of all the amazing things Douglass did in his lifetime! I’ve often said that my goal is to live my life so that, if there’s a heaven, I get a round of applause when I arrive. Both Douglass and Anthony would surely have gotten an extended standing ovation in heaven.
It is interesting to note that there is a discrepancy between the date of birth listed on the tombstone (1817) and the later memorial slab (1818). Douglass himself, being born a slave, did not know for certain his own birth date — it was only much later that slave records were found that conclusively showed he was born in 1818.
Other interesting and influential people are buried nearby. The Ellwanger monument is quite lovely and noteworthy:
In 1840, George Ellwanger and Patrick Barry founded the Mount Hope Nursery, which grew rapidly and played a great role in changing Rochester’s nickname from “the Flour City” to “the Flower City”. Other members of the Ellwanger family had similar interests; Henry Ellwanger wrote a book on the cultivation of the rose, which can be read in pdf form at Google books. With such horticultural specialists in the family, it is no surprise that the monument has a colorful array of plants about it in the fall:
This is about where the tour of the cemetery ended; let me conclude my own virtual tour with a few final lovely images:
This monument, for the Likly family, is likely the resting place of Henry Likly, who built and sold steamer trunks!
Near the entrance to the cemetery, one finds the chapel and a lovely vintage fountain:
I was sorry to depart at the end of the tour; the next time I’m in Rochester, I’m going to have to do a bit more exploring of this fascinating cemetery and its significant history!