Many years ago when I did my first Masters (in History) I wrote a major paper on Toronto cemeteries. As part of my research, I read a lot about the rural/garden cemetery movement in both Europe and the U.S., which had multiple intended purposes – to clear the expanding cities of old, unsightly, overpopulated graveyards, to improve public health, for city planning, and to provide every person a place to be buried, regardless of religion, race, or manner of death (up until then the churches had the final say on who could or couldn’t be buried in their graveyards). These rural cemeteries became attractions in and of themselves, and provided the public a free, natural place to spend the day – they were the forerunners to the large public parks most modern cities have today. However, there are some cemeteries that don’t quite fit the mold of church graveyard, nor of the large garden cemetery. In my paper, I labelled these cemeteries “transitional” cemeteries as they often had elements of both, but couldn’t really be labelled either. In Toronto I felt that both the Necropolis and St. James Cemeteries fit that categorization, and I felt the same on my most recent visit to Harsimus Cemetery in Jersey City.
Harsimus Cemetery is old – established in 1829 – but the area has a longer history than that. As it is located on a hill it had strategic value as a military site, with several Revolutionary War skirmishes that happened here; in addition, it was used as an ammunition bunker in the war of 1812. Seventeen years later was established as an early prototype of the garden cemetery, even though Mount Auburn in Cambridge gets the honour of being the “first.” The bunker (in the hillside) was meant to be turned into luxury vaults, but they didn’t have enough takers to make it worth the effort to do so, and over the years those hillside tunnels were completely forgotten about until the volunteers pried open some doors and discovered what lay beyond. Those volunteers are a group of dedicated people who decided to restore the cemetery after it was abandoned in 2008. Two former Vietnam War vets make the cemetery their own, living in the old caretakers house and providing a kind of security for the grounds.
I remember reading about this cemetery a few times over the years, and decided to visit on a gloomy morning before heading over to Ellis Island for the abandoned hospital tour (well worth the visit!), since the cemetery and the ferry to the island (from the Jersey side) are not that far from one another.
Based on the articles I read (plus the website), I expected the cemetery to be in far better condition than it was. Everything was terribly overgrown, with just a few paths kind of beaten down by people to mark the safe places to walk (I didn’t dare go into the longer stuff). I had read that they had goats here to help with the upkeep of the grounds, but they were penned in in an enclosure up on the hillside. That enclosure was stripped clean of grass, but the fences didn’t look very moveable, so I wondered how much of the grounds the animals really get to roam over. Needless to say, they were very curious when I went over to visit them, clearly hoping I had some treats for them (I didn’t).
There were a couple of men at the end of the main path by the hillside (the caretakers?) but they didn’t seem that friendly to me and my attempts to talk with them were quickly rebuffed. So I visited the more overgrown hillside opposite the goats, which seemed to be where a lot of soldiers were buried. But the mosquitos and biting insects were even worse here, so I didn’t stay too long.
There were a couple of interesting statues, one being the classic girl draped on the cross, and many of the grave markers were well worth exploring further, but often the vegetation got in the way. I didn’t want to inadvertently damage (or fall into) anything by going blind into the long grass, so my explorations were a bit limited.
Although this cemetery was a bit of a bust for me (in terms of expectations), I’m still quite impressed with the dedication of the volunteers to reclaim this historic cemetery, and it made me wish I lived somewhere where I could do the same. This is not the first time I’ve had that impulse to help, and I know I’m not the only one, although it often feels like it.
Monuments: A few statues, and varying monuments of different styles over the past 200 years. There’s a rich history here, but so far it seems a bit difficult to access.
Grounds: Extremely overgrown, there are a few “paths” through the grass, but I would recommend good shoes or boots for sure-footing on the uneven ground that slopes up on all sides. The main path into the cemetery is in good repair.
Visitors: Not surprisingly, I was the only here save the 2 guys by their cars at the edge of the hill.
Notes: Bring the bug spray – long grass is a haven for the little biters and they will find you.
Cemetery: The Historic Jersey City and Harsimus Cemetery
Notable Internments: The Colgate family were originally interred here, but due to issues with the cemetery were reinterred at Green-Wood
Location: 435 Newark Avenue, Jersey City, NJ
Hours: 08:00-18:00 daily