The Newtown Pentacle

Altissima quaeque flumina minimo sono labi

The Cemetery Belt

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City of stone 1

Visible from space, the Cemetery Belt  is contained entirely within the Newtown Pentacle – First Calvary, Second CalvaryCypress Hill’s, St. Michael’s, Mt. Olivet, and Mount Zion represent the interments of tens of millions of New Yorkers. Three million lie in new Calvary alone. The estimated number of those at rest is triple the live population of Queens.

The vast majority of these graves were laid down in the first half of the 20th century. The names on the headstones are the names of forgotten celebrities, politicians, mobsters and molls. The movers and shakers of their time, many had elaborate mausoleums and tomb markers built for themselves- but the vast majority of those who lie here were ordinary people. Old Calvary in particular is home to some of the most interesting stone work in the entire city. However, like much of the Newtown Pentacle, respect for the dead didn’t hinder Robert Moses from pushing through.

Old Calvary looking toward Newtown Creek

this is a stitched panorama- check out the huge original at flickr. (click “all sizes”) The funeral scene in “the Godfather” was filmed at Old Calvary for instance, not too far from the spot pictured above.

City of Stone 2

Mount Zion

Cemetery Statuary, Mt Cavalry 3

New Calvary

The vast Necropolis was built in response to deadly outbreaks of cholera in Manhattan’s tenements in the 1830’s and 40’s. At the time, cemeteries were all over the place- including back yard plots and storefront church cellars, and the belief amongst the body politic was that these bodies were poisoning the ground water and causing the cholera. Thus, a proclamation (the Rural Cemeteries act of 1847) that no new cemeteries would be allowed in Manhattan was announced, and the creation of the Cemetery Belt began. What’s more, between 1854 and 1856- the exhumation, transport, and reinterment of nearly 15,000 bodies from Manhattan to Queens was accomplished. Here’s an article from newsday about it.

 Kosciuszko bridge

This is fairly close to, if not the actual location of the ferry dock and LIRR train station and fairly close to the spot where Penny Bridge crossed the Creek. photo by Mitch Waxman- this is a stitched panorama- check out the huge original at flickr. (click “all sizes”)

Death was and is big business, and Long Island City was and is all about business. Ferry service ran from Manhattan and Brooklyn bringing the bereaved up Newtown Creek to the New Calvary Pier in Blissville.

The Long Island Railroad maintained a station at Penny Bridge carrying mourners from all points east. Funeral processions involved marching bands and extensive paegentry. A trip to the graveyard was like visiting a sculpture park for the whole family, with exquisite landscaping and an arboretum of exotic trees and flowering plants sprouting from a grassy hill. Clothes were crisply laundered in boiling water (using lye as a detergent), children ordered to behave or else . What a change, if only for a few hours, from the gaslit darkness of Manhattan’s tenement alleys. A beautiful day with the family, spent at the Newtown Creek.

Old Calvary, Memorial Day 2009 longshot

Old Calvary

from bridge over BQE

St. Michael’s

Quoting from James Riker Jr.’s “Annals of Newtown”, here’s how the area around Calvary came to be called Laurel Hill. from Brooklyn Genealogy

This village is located in the extreme northwestern corner of the town of Newtown and is separated from Brooklyn by Newtown Creek, which is spanned at this point by the old “Penny Bridge” built in 1836. A large portion of the land included in the village plan was formerly a part of the Alsop property. Here was the home of the Alsop family- a family now extinct in Newtown, although for more than two centuries they were among the most prominent residents of the town. Edward Waters once owned a farm here of a hundred acres, which he sold in 1852 to Jacob Rapelye. Augustus Rapelye, his son, became owner of seven or eight hundred acres of land here, and in 1853 laid out the first village lots. His map is known as “the four hundred lots.” George W. Edwards in 1845 bought a portion of the Alsop property, and subsequently that was laid out into building lots. The laboring people, who compose a large part of the population of the village, are principally employed in Calvary Cemetery, located here, and in the marble works in the immediate vicinity. In 1858 Henry Schafer established his cabinet manufactory here, and for several years manufactured a general line of cabinet ware; but for the last ten or twelve years he has made a specialty of children’s cribs and cradles, in which he and his sons are doing a business of considerable proportions. The shirt manufactory of Edward H. Inglis furnishes employment for twenty or thirty female operators. A post-office was established here in the summer of 1881, with James Duffy as postmaster .

THE LAUREL HILL CHEMICAL WORKS. These works were established in 1866, by C.W. Walter and A. Baumgarten, but remained comparatively small for several years. In 1871 G.H. Nichols and W.H. Nichols entered the firm, and A. Baumgarten retired. In 1872 their first oil of vitriol works were erected. The acid gave such satisfaction that increased manufacturing facilities were required, and one factory after another was erected, until now the works comprise the largest plant for the manufacture of oil of vitriol in the United States. Muriatic, nitric and other acids are made in quantity, as well as Paris white and whiting. The proprietors have recently purchased a copper pyrites mine in Canada, and intend taking the ores to Laurel Hill, extracting the sulphur in the manufacture of oil of vitriol, and smelting the copper in works about to be erected. In May 1875 Mr. Walter and his family were lost on the “Schiller,” and the works have since been the exclusive property of G.H. Nichols & Co., and are only one of several enterprises in which they are engaged. The superintendent of the chemical works is J.B.F. Herreshoff; of the whiting warks, E.V. Crandall. The analyist is Lucius Pitkin. The buildings shown in the illustration, where the business is now conducted, have all been erected by the present proprietors, the first plant erected by Walter & Baumgarten having been entirely removed. The present buildings cover one block, 200 by 300 feet on one side of the railroad and on the other side 200 by 240 feet, with a dock frontage on the creek of about 400 feet. The capacity of the works at present is the production daily of about 600 carboys of oil of vitrol, besides muriatic and nitric acid made from sulphuric acid as a base. The whiting works produce about 10,000 bbls. annually. Forty thousand pounds of sulphur is burned daily in cold weather, but less during the summer months. The business employs from sixty to seventy-five men steadily. The manufacturers are redeeming several lots now under water, and contemplate a new dock on the creek, to cost from $5,000 to $6,000, on which they are to erect copper furnaces for smelting ore. CALVARY CEMETERY. This cemetery, which is located at Laurel Hill, was set apart and consecrated in 1848. It is one of the most accessible rural cemeteries near New York, and it would be difficult to select a lovelier or fitter spot as a place of sepulture. The old ground comprised one hundred and ten acres, but in 1853 a charter was obtained from the State by the trustees of St. Patrick’s cathedral, New York city, for 250 acres; 165 acres of this are now enclosed. The artesian well in that part of the enclosure called New Calvary was sunk in 1879. It is 606 feet deep and 6 3/4 inches in diameter, and was bored in white granite for a large part of its depth. Last year 32,000 persons died in the city of New York, and of this number 15,500 were buried in Calvary. The cemetery keeps one hundred and fifty men regularly employed, and two hundred more are kept at work by the relatives and friends of the deceased. Here may be found some of the choicest of materials and the finest models in monumental structure; and here we may mention as worthy of note the vault and chapel built by John Johnston, at a cost of $75,000, and regarded as one of the finest to be found in any ground. This cemetery is to the Catholics of New York what Greenwood is to the Protestant population. Since 1872 Hugh Moore has been the general superintendent, and to his ability much of the beauty and attractiveness of the place is due; he has been assisted by Michael Rowen. The mortuary chapel, of fine architectural design and finish, was built in 1856. The present chaplain is Rev. M.J. Brennan.

Written by Mitch Waxman

June 4, 2009 at 7:52 pm

Posted in newtown creek

13 Responses

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  1. I don’t have the attribution, but I once read that the reason Greenpoint Avenue is so wide was because funerals would take a ferry across the East River and then go up Greenpoint Ave. to the cemetaries.

    really enjoying your blog.


    June 4, 2009 at 9:34 pm

    • This would make sense, all my reading on the subject suggests that the Cemetery trip was a VERY popular excursion. Thanks for the comments, I’ll try to keep the Pentacle interesting.

      Mitch Waxman

      June 5, 2009 at 3:24 am

  2. Really lovely photos and very interesting article. Breathtaking, actually.

    catherine penfold

    June 5, 2009 at 2:38 pm

  3. I have been roaming Old Calvary for years, and have done a fair amount of research into the mighty Johnston Mausoleum, as well as the Civil War Memorial — the latter is one of my favorite cemetery finds in New York, while the mausoleum is an ongoing fascination of mine.

    The War Memorial is in bad shape after 150 years of exposure to the elements but in 2007 Parks began a restoration of the work, starting with a coat of paint placed on one of the 4 life-size statues. I may be in a small minority when I say this but I was excited to see this charming memorial get some sorely needed attention, and I anticipated that the job would mirror the restoration of a similar monument (by the same family of sculptors) at Green-Wood Cemetery several years earlier.

    Alas, the work begun on the Calvary War Memorial in 2007 seems to have halted, probably for want of financing to continue the project, and now the marker is decidedly lopsided with three of the statues looking like pulverized metal with just one of them sporting a coat of dark green paint. It seems further unfortunate that the work done on that one statue appears to be wearing away already. It is an unfortunate situation but in these strained financial times I guess it is not surprising that a relatively obscure project like this might fall off the radar of the city’s attention.

    I have several pictures of the War Memorial (maybe a few too many pictures) at this address:

    I plan to summarize the research I’ve shared in those pages into a single page, and I hope to open it up for discussion on a new message board I’m setting up at

    The War Memorial is only one of the many items I have followed with interest at Calvary over the years. I love that place.


    June 18, 2009 at 6:24 pm

  4. […] a comment » This is a comment reply to my “The Cemetery Belt” posting a while back, and I didn’t want it to get buried in the comments. I started up […]

  5. […] Dead is what you’ll be if you don’t pay attention when crossing this street. Luckily, where we’re heading- you’ll fit right in. This may be a good time to remind you of a Newtown Pentacle posting from a few weeks back- “The Cemetery Belt“.  […]

  6. […] The Cemetery Belt […]

  7. […] Old Calvary is the original cemetery- second, third, and fourth Calvary are the metastasized and sprawling additions to the venerable original- and a significant portion of the Cemetery Belt. […]

  8. I’ve always wondered about the cemetery belt. You’ve provided fascinating information and great photos. Thanks!


    April 21, 2010 at 10:44 am

  9. Fascinating reading! I was born on the Brooklyn side of Newton Creek ( St. Catherine’s) and grew up on the Queen’s side ( Harold St. ( 39th St,) & Greenpoint Avenue. I’ve always wanted to know more about the history of the area and now you are doing it. I found this through the article in the NY Times June 17, 2012.

    I remember the smell from the glue factory when the wind was blowing “the wrong way.”

    I wish my health permitted me to take one of your walking tours or the boat tour of the area.

    Many of my ancestors are buried in Mount Olivet Cemetery. As kids we used to play in Calvary Cemetery,with its lovely green grass and trees. I remember some of what we were told were ‘gangster’s funerals’ with long processions of open Flower Cars accompanying the hearse.

    Lily Froese

    June 18, 2012 at 5:49 pm

  10. […] made of cemeteries. 3% of the land in Queens is devoted to cemeteries, much of it along the “Cemetery Belt,” which stretches from Sunnyside to Glendale. He points out that Calvary Cemetery in Maspeth […]

  11. […] made up – entirely or almost entirely – of cemeteries. Queens is the home of the “Cemetery Belt,” which stretches from Sunnyside to Glendale. And while at one point he says that all the […]

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