Visiting those who are buried here
“Graves Of Upstate New York” By Chuck D’imperio
In my mind, cemeteries are among the great underappreciated sources of local heritage and pride. I frequently wander graveyards when I travel. They help me gain a sense of an area’s history, remind me of the tragic epidemics that once plagued all communities and usually unearth stories about an area luminary or two. In addition, there’s the chance to see how funereal art has changed over the years, and to appreciate the wit and conciseness employed to represent a life in just a few words.
Chuck D’Imperio, a Syracuse-based writer, must share my fascination. He’s written “Graves of Upstate New York: A Guide to 100 Notable Resting Places” (Syracuse University Press, 2018). I’ve used the book as a source of historical vignettes and also as a modest travel guide. The chapters are organized by region, making it easy to plan a road trip and see a few spots.
As one might expect, there’s quite a range of personalities represented. For instance there are four former American presidents, a couple of men who lost presidential elections, and ahost of state governors. There are also baseball players, show business personalities, military heroes (though Zebulon Pike’s Plattsburgh connection isn’t mentioned), writers, Wells and Fargo and a host of names you’ve likely never heard before.
For this review, I’ll focus first on the Adirondacks. Some inclusions are expected, such as abolitionist John Brown and Brooklyn Dodgers baseball star Johnny Podres. Kate Smith, whose rendition of “God Bless America” still rings out regularly at Yankee Stadium, is another automatic choice. There are a few surprises. For instance, though I knew about William Johnson’s grave in Fulton County, I had no idea Broderick Crawford of early television’s “Highway Patrol” lay interred in the same community.
I feel compelled to point out the number of people buried in other regions whose main associations were with the Adirondacks. For instance, there’s Ned Buntline (real name E. Z. C. Judson), the dime novel writer and popularizer of Buffalo Bill who came to the North Country for respite from his tempestuous urban life, and who built his camp Eagle’s Nest overlooking Eagle Lake. And Grace Brown, whose drowning in Big Moose Lake served as the basis of Theodore Dreiser’s classic novel “An American Tragedy,” which was spun off by Hollywood in “A Place in the Sun” starringElizabeth Taylor. A shrine to Father Isaac Jogues near Auriesville should mention he was purportedlythe first European to see Lake George. Even James Fenimore Cooper qualifies; the eponymous cave, featured in “The Last of the Mohicans,” sits in the Hudson River by Glens Falls.
You won’t need my help identifying the most famous people–Lucille Ball, Frederick Douglass, Susan B. Anthony, Mark Twain, Rod Serling, Grandma Moses. Most readers will identify Ann Lee, who brought Shaker theology to America, and Pop Warner, who popularized football among kids. But look for some lesser known ones, like the inventor of volley ball (William Morgan), holder of U.S. Patent #1 (Samuel Hopkins), a Space Shuttle Challenger astronaut (Gregory Jarvis), and the man who made the first potato chip (George Crum).
Consider the juxtaposition of Charles Howard, who ran a Santa Claus school in the Western New York village of Albion, and Virginia O’Hanlon, the eight-year-old girl whose 1897 letter to the New York Sun asking if there was a Santa Claus spawned one of America’s most famous editorials.
And don’t forget Samuel Wilson, buried in Troy’s Oakwood Cemetery. He wasn’t merely a meat packer in Troy. He’s our nation’s “Uncle Sam.”
This is a book conducive to reading in spurts, but it’s also a handy one to have around as a reference. Check it out if you’re planning a trip to some place in upstate New York. Breezily written, it has detailed directions, plus plenty of information useful as anecdotes in social settings. Expect to find yourself more engrossed than you expect.