Oakwood Cemetery is one of the most exceptional cemeteries in the United States. Organized in 1848 at the height of the rural cemetery movement, Oakwood Cemetery was created as a park-like setting north and east of the City of Troy and the Village of Lansingburgh. The beautiful trails, ponds and views of the Hudson River Valley are the spectacular backdrop to the history of its “residents.” Nine Civil War generals, a leader in women’s education and the progenitor of our nation’s symbol all call Oakwood their final resting place.
The Rural Cemetery Movement
The rural cemetery movement can best be described as a response to the Puritan ethic of pre-determined destiny so prevalent in the 17th, 18th and early 19th centuries in New England and Upstate New York. Village and church burial grounds contained hundreds of marble or slate stones placed in straight rows, and engraved with stern epitaphs promoting the notion that a person’s place in heaven and hell was pre-determined.
Proponents of the rural cemetery movement believed that a person should be laid to rest in a beautiful park-like setting, where ornamental plantings, beautiful fences and sculptural gravestones reflected the deceased’s personality, while representing their accomplishments on earth and their expectation of glory in heaven. This landscape also eased the pain of the bereaved relatives, who could be comforted by the thoughts of their loved ones being forever interred in such a peaceful and scenic environment.
The rural cemetery movement followed closely on the heels of the optimistic religious revival movements of the 1830’s and the writings of American authors such as Thoreau, Hawthorne and Emerson. Artists could be commissioned to create tombstones as sculptures, and they embraced cemeteries as settings for public display of their work. In fact, the rural cemetery movement laid the groundwork for grand public parks such as Central Park in New York City and the development of American landscape architecture.
The Industrial Revolution and the Growth of Troy
The City of Troy developed from a commercially-based town along the banks of the Hudson River to an increasingly industrial city by the mid 1840’s. Troy’s population rapidly increased due to the demand for labor in the iron and bell factories of South Troy and the burgeoning collar and cuff industry north of the downtown area of the city.
Troy’s first burial ground was established in 1796. Located on the corner of Third and State Streets, portions of that burial ground were also given to the First Baptist Church and the Quaker Meeting House for use by those respective congregations. Two other burial grounds, the Troy Cemetery located on the southeast slope of Mount Ida (now Prospect Park) and the Mount Ida Cemetery on Pawling Avenue, rounded out the principal non-sectarian city burial grounds. The Rev. Peter Havermans, founder of the earliest Catholic parishes, established Catholic burial grounds by the 1860’s. Two Jewish burial grounds were established on the eastern outskirts of the city in the last quarter of the 19th century.
By the time the Troy Cemetery Association purchased the land for Oakwood Cemetery in September of 1848, Troy and Lansingburgh had an established upper class with sophisticated taste and a burgeoning middle class ready to spend money on purchasing family “plots.”
The site chosen by the cemetery trustees was 150 acres of land just north of Troy and east of the Village of Lansingburgh on an escarpment with views of the foothills of the Adirondacks to the north, the Cohoes Falls to the west and the Helderberg Mountains and Hudson River Valley to the south. Philadelphia landscape engineer, J. C. Sydney, was commissioned to lay out the curvilinear roads, plots and plantings. An abundance of natural water sources helped to create the many ponds and waterfalls that enhanced the landscape of Oakwood.
In 1871, the Troy Cemetery Association purchased an additional 150 acres, and hired landscape architect John Boetcher, who introduced a wide variety of rare shrubs and plants, many of which survive today, to the Oakwood landscape
Many of Troy’s wealthier families purchased plots in strategic locations that commanded some of the finest views in the cemetery, hiring architects and artists to design and build their family mausoleums and sculptures to enhance the final resting place of their family members. Hundreds of burials were also re-interred from old Troy Cemetery on Mount Ida and the old burial ground on Third Street, which by 1875 became the site of Troy’s first City Hall.