Bunkers To Tombs:
What happens when volunteers decide to clean up
an abandoned 19th century cemetery?
The Historic Jersey City and Harsimus Cemetery fell into disrepair as a result of its inability to adequately maintain the lots in use and to expand its capacity. Incorporated in 1831, the gates to the oldest cemetery in New Jersey was forced to close its doors in 2007.
It was only a matter of time until nature began to reclaim the land, reports Luke Spencer who wrote a story about the cemetery for Atlas Obscura.
“Their (the volunteers’) first job was to start uncovering tombstones long hidden from view by weeds, lying at right angles half buried in the earth. It was a chaotic scene: Homeless people were living on the grounds in tents. The old caretakers’ cottage, dating back to 1831, was in a sorry state. Vandals had written all over the walls and the floor was littered with hypodermic needles.”
The efforts resulted in the discovery of a metal canister that held the original cemetery map. A stone staircase was also found. It led to a rusted iron door in the hillside that revealed an antechamber. Untouched for approximately 100 years, it exposed a series of tunnels.
Research showed that the tunnels beyond the marbled antechamber were linked to War of 1812. In fact, the antechamber and other builders were originally bunkers that in time became the site for luxury vaults.
Other finds included several boxes of munitions and a few coffins for children that remained unburied.
Records indicate that the old bunker, like many others in the area, was used for cold storage of the dead. During the winter the ground was too frosted for graves to be dug.
Other interesting historical elements resurfaced. They included the ruins of a Victorian greenhouse and flower garden where visiting mourners would buy forget-me-nots, roses and peonies.
Thanks to volunteers, the cemetery’s recovery and its place on the Historical National Landmarks registry is now well under way.
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