In the mid-1850's citizens of Syracuse began looking for a new burial ground. Many small cemeteries had met the needs in the past, but a larger and grander site was desired to fit the growing importance of the area.
The main burial site before the inception of Oakwood was Rose Hill Cemetery, which covered 11.8 acres in the north side of the city. People became dissatisfied with Rose Hill due to inaccessibility, the lack of natural beauty and the fact that it was not easily improved. Also within a few years, the growing city would encroach into the surrounding area. Between 1841 and 1935, 10,561 burials were made and only a few were moved to other cemeteries when it closed. In the 1950's, city workers buried most of the head stones in the interest of safety. The city planners wanted to make the land into a park but that could not happen until all of the bodies were removed which would involve obtaining permission from all families of those interred. Today, Rose Hill occupies about a city block and is a barren hillside with some tombstones at the top.
In the early 1850's a group of prominent men in Syracuse began looking for grounds for a new cemetery. In the forefront of this group were E.W. Leavenworth and John Wilkinson. Meetings were held on and off until the late 1850's when the group began to act. The men were interested in making the new burial ground a rural cemetery, which was a popular cemetery style during that time period. In contrast to burial grounds in the city which were overcrowded, odoriferous, and were prone to vandalism this cemetery was to be an attractive and civilized place to bury one's loved ones. The chosen site encompassed a glacial hill where springs carved valleys around steep slopes forested with massive oaks. The rural cemetery, designed as a series of landscape pictures, was to be a place of spiritual fulfillment for the living as well as a resting place for the dead. An overall picturesque effect was achieved through varied topography, irregular land division, winding roads and paths, and controlled internal views. The rural cemetery was designed to be a place of natural and man-made beauty, where individuals and families could escape their everyday lives and enjoy the surroundings.
The initial land purchase took place in 1857 and 1858. 72.29 acres were bought from Henry Raynor for $15,000 and 20 acres were purchased for $9,500 from Charles A. Baker. During the planning stages agreements were made to move an existing road which would have passed through the cemetery. The course of the Jamesville Plank Road had to be changed and its toll gate moved. Prior to the development, the road ran from Renwick Avenue southwest through the proposed cemetery land and crossed East Colvin Street. The toll gate was at the intersection of that road and Jamesville Avenue. The present Jamesville Avenue was the former Jamesville Plank Road. Also, rights of way across lands owned by Charles Baker and Dr. David Colvin had to be obtained.
With the preliminary tasks complete, Howard Daniels, a landscape architect from NYC, was engaged to design and lay out the cemetery grounds. With the hard work of 50 men the task was completed in two months. Additional acreage was purchased in 1859, first 30 acres and then 25 more acres for $22,600.
The Officers and Trustees of the Association of Oakwood were formally organized on August 15, 1859. Members included:
Oakwood Cemetery was dedicated on November 3, 1859. This event was significant in its day and many public offices and schools were closed so that employees and scholars could attend the ceremony. The first interment occurred on November 8th. A 21-year old woman named Nellie G. Williamson, who died of consumption, was the first person buried in Oakwood. Another noteworthy Oakwood burial was that of Benjamin Nukerck (or Newkirk) who was the first caucasian person buried in Syracuse at the age of 37, on December 7, 1797. He came to the area to trade with Native Americans in 1786, prior to settlement on the Military Reservation. He was originally buried in another cemetery by what is now West Genesee Street about 100 or 200 feet east of Geddes Street. He was later reinterred at Oakwood. His grave is apparently in the area of Sumner, but I'm told that the marker has disappeared in the last few years. The first monument erected in Oakwood was for the James Crouse family in1860.
In 1860, the first Rules and Regulations were printed for Oakwood. At that time the cost of lots which included opening, closing, and sodding the grave were $8.00 for an adult and $5.00 for a child. Just opening a grave cost $3.00 for an adult and $2.00 for a child. One dollar was requested to open a tomb. Each grave required about 40 square feet. The following rules were provided:
Due to a mistake by the US Army during the Civil War, Oakwood has an unnamed soldier. They mistakenly sent the wrong body which was subsequently buried in the Barnum family plot. Later, when the young man returned to his family, the unknown soldier was left buried and unmarked in the family plot.
In 1904, a stir was caused in the Syracuse area when Charles Crouse planned to memorialize his father, Jacob Crouse, by placing a large boulder in the family plot in Oakwood. The commotion was not caused by the act, but in how the boulder was to be transported to Oakwood. After an extensive search, Crouse found an appropriate rock on the Wilbur Farm on Terry Road in Split Rock. It weighed 80 tons and he paid $4,500 to have it delivered to the cemetery. It was initially proposed to move the boulder by train from the Fairmount station, but a crane large enough to lift the weight could not be found. The next idea involved having 40 teams of horses pull the rock on a sled in the winter, but there were too many sharp curves in the roads and no way to slow the boulder on downward grades. What took place instead occurred later in early spring when the roads were still covered in snow. A capstan, one team of draught horses and six men were employed to move two-inch planks and rollers individually to slowly move the massive rock. It moved about 900 feet per day and the six-mile trip to Oakwood took eight weeks. The newspapers reported on the progress of the boulder and crowds gathered daily to watch the slow progression.
On November 11, 1982, the Haggerty lion was placed in Oakwood as a memorial to Michael Charles Haggerty who died at age 14 in an auto accident in 1974. His brother Thomas, who was two years younger than Michael, was an art student at Syracuse University when his parents asked him to create a special and original memorial. Michael had always liked lions and his mother thought a lion would be appropriate - a friendly protector, inviting but with claws. Thomas began work on the monument in the summer of 1981. He formed the clay image in his garage, spraying and wrapping his work each night. After this initial phase, the large figure was moved outside of his home and his work was supervised by an SU instructor. After a year's work, the 620 pound bronze statue was ready for placement. Michael had originally been buried at St. Mary's in DeWitt, but the authorities responsible for the diocese cemeteries objected to the monument. Michael was then reinterred in a special spot at Oakwood with the lion standing guard. Many people do not know about the Haggerty lion because it is situated in a wooded area and during seasons with leaves, it is well concealed. The lion can be found across the road from the Chapel. At the corner where the woods begin is a small trail which leads about 20 feet up a small incline to the monument.
For additional information on the development of Oakwood, please visit the news clipping pages which provide a history through newspaper articles from the mid-1800's to today.