The Newtown Pentacle

Altissima quaeque flumina minimo sono labi

ordinary interpretation

with 7 comments

First Calvary Cemetery, in today’s post.

– photo by Mitch Waxman

It’s been a while since a post about my favorite place in Queens has been offered at this, your Newtown Pentacle. For those of you who have recently arrived, Calvary was the official burying ground of the Roman Catholic Church  for about a century. There are four sections, which contain more than six million interments, and the oldest section (First Calvary) was consecrated in 1848 by the Archbishop “Dagger” John Hughes. It adjoins the lugubrious Newtown Creek, a century of its expansion has largely consumed a 19th century community called Blissville, and it is the final resting place for mobsters, governors, and the rightful king of Ireland.

Calvary Cemetery is a movie star, having provided Hollywood with the setting for funereal scenes in multiple films. Fictional characters buried here in the movies range from Don Corleone in the Godfather to both Uncle Ben and Gwen Stacey in Sony’s Spider Man franchise. Bruce Wayne’s parents are buried here as well.

– photo by Mitch Waxman

Calvary Cemetery is a built environment, the crown of what was once known as Laurel Hill. A broad slope rises from the former swamps found along Northern Blvd., gaining altitude and moving through what is now called Sunnyside, and cresting at the former family farm of the colonial era Alsop family. Laurel Hill’s altitude then drops precipitously to the flood plains of Newtown Creek. In the 1850’s and 60’s, Church laborers extensively remodeled Laurel Hill to fit its mission, creating a private drainage system and removing millions of tons of top soil. By the late 19th century, Calvary had become a major destination for mourners from the largely catholic population of lower Manhattan and it was served by both ferry and trolley lines. Along its borders – road houses, saloons, and hotels were found.

That is, until the age of industry really kicked into gear along the Newtown Creek.

– photo by Mitch Waxman

One of Calvary’s neighbors was a company originally called General Chemical, but which is better known today as Phelps Dodge. General Chemical manufactured sulphuric acid (amongst other things) and Phelps Dodge, which was engaged in the copper business, acquired General Chemical at the start of the 20th century. They would use the acid produced here to free valuable metals from the ore it was laced into. General Chemical was not popular with its neighbors, due to the effluent which would drift out of its smoke stacks.

According to anecdotes from the time, coming from both Blissville and the town directly east of it – Berlin (now known as West Maspeth) – this effluent would wither gardens, ruin laundry hung out to dry, and in the case of Calvary Cemetery right next door – dissolve the tombstones.

– photo by Mitch Waxman

Marble is particularly vulnerable to acidification, and visibly rots away when exposed to ph’s high enough to be classified thusly. Pictured today is an 1866 monument dedicated to a person named “Mary Kiernan.” This monument bears the classic “rot” and weathering exhibited by acid damaged marble. Touching the stone, you’d pull your hand away and discover a sandy grit sticking to your fingers.

– photo by Mitch Waxman

General Chemical found itself in a real pickle on this issue, as “public relations” hadn’t been invented yet, and the Church was pressuring the largely Irish political establishment of Tammany Hall to do something to help them. The company’s response was to build the tallest smoke stack to be found anywhere in the United States (at the time), with the goal of keeping the noxious emanations of the plant as far away from the ground as possible. They also planted a series of vegetable gardens in Blissville and Berlin, and began inviting reporters to witness the thriving patches of cabbage growing within throwing distance of their acid factory.

– photo by Mitch Waxman

Here’s the inscription on the Kiernan monument, and as you’ll observe, most of the fine detail in the carving has the appearance of melted ice cream. Like General Chemical, and so many other of the great corporations which once distinguished Newtown Creek – Phelps Dodge has come and gone.

Of all that was here along the Creek in the decade leading up to the Civil War, only the genuine antiquity that is  Calvary Cemetry remains.

– photo by Mitch Waxman

Across the cemetery, you’ll notice statuary bearing similar damage. The main source of acidification today comes from the exhaust of automobile traffic, as it mixes with atmospheric humidity, which eats away at the stone. Calvary Cemetery is bounded by the Long Island Expressway on its northern side, and the Brooklyn Queens Expressway is found less than a half mile to the east. Greenpoint Avenue, and Review Avenue are local truck routes which host extremely heavy traffic.

All told, nearly a half million vehicles a day pass by the cemetery every single day of the year, here in the Netwon Pentacle.

“follow” me on Twitter- @newtownpentacle

Upcoming Tours –

August 8th, 2015
13 Steps Around Dutch Kills – LIC Walking Tour
with Atlas Obscura, click here for details and tickets

Written by Mitch Waxman

August 5, 2015 at 11:00 am

7 Responses

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  1. 6 million Catholics lying in the ground? Where did they bury all the Protestants which I assume outnumbered the Catholics?

    Also, when the church laborers removed the millions of tons of topsoil. where was it deposited? And how was it removed? There were no dump trucks in those days. All by horse carriage?

    georgetheatheist . . . Inquiringly inquisitive.

    August 5, 2015 at 11:56 am

    • can’t speak to the prots, but they were far outnumbered in NYC by the 1870’s by the Catholics.

      The soil went to Jamaica, Kings Manor and others by train and by carriage. Lawsuit in NYS court on the matter.

      Mitch Waxman

      August 5, 2015 at 12:38 pm

  2. Things that are acidic have a low pH, not a high one.


    August 5, 2015 at 5:26 pm

    • and therein lies one of the reasons why my chemistry regents back in high school didn’t go too well

      Mitch Waxman

      August 5, 2015 at 6:53 pm

  3. Did the Alsop tobacco plantation have slaves ?


    August 5, 2015 at 10:37 pm

  4. […] element.” Calvary Cemetery in LIC’s Blissville neighborhood was profiled in “ordinary interpretation.” Closer to home, Astoria’s Broadway was invaded this summer by an army of drunks which […]

  5. Hi there Mitch, I’m a freelance photo researcher working on a book cover. I’m looking for images of the Calvary Cemetery. Can you please email me, eseramur (at) selectedshots (dot) photos if you’re interested in this opportunity? Thanks! Liz

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