Historian restores New York's early burial grounds

Queens contains 5 million graves,triple the live population

January 19, 2001|By Sarah Kershaw | Sarah Kershaw,NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICE

NEW YORK - After a decade of digging through old graveyards in Queens, piecing together crumbling tombstones and peering at fieldstones scrawled with faded letters, Dr. Stanley Cogan has developed a sense of humor about his obsession with the departed.

"They call me the Head Stone," said Cogan, a retired teacher and assistant principal who is now president of the Queens Historical Society.

Queens is cemetery central: more than 5 million people - almost triple the live population - lie beneath the borough's soil in dozens of cemeteries. Many are buried in vast and visible graveyards that stretch for miles along major roadways, their tombstones rising from the landscape in a sea of marble and stone.

But Cogan, 75, who is also the official historian for Queens, has made his focus the obscure and largely hidden family burial grounds that hold the remains of some of the borough's earliest settlers, many of whose names - and gravestones - have long been forgotten. Queens is dotted with these tiny cemeteries, tucked away behind houses, churches and office buildings or hidden under the brush and weeds of vacant lots.

Across New York, interest in finding and protecting family burial grounds swelled after the city in 1993 designated a black burial ground near City Hall as a protected landmark. By then, Cogan had already spent three years investigating the family cemetery situation in Queens, where more than 100 small burial grounds existed in the 17th and 18th centuries, according to historians.

Today, by Cogan's latest estimate, there are 11 family burial grounds left in Queens, the oldest dating back to the 1660s. Saving and restoring them "is about doing the right thing," Cogan said recently, as he set out for a tour of three of the old burial grounds. "It's about heritage and history. These are people who helped shape Queens."

Smaller cemeteries vanish

When the larger cemeteries opened - many of them were established after an 1847 state law allowed corporations to buy land and charge for burial plots - the smaller resting places began to disappear. The families moved out or died off, churches closed, or the plots were neglected and abandoned. Some, like one in Rego Park, where a post office now stands, were built upon or paved over, the grounds now used for parking lots and other purposes.

About two dozen of the old cemeteries were rediscovered in 1919, when Queens was designing a street system, and engineers and others mapping the roads discovered burial grounds at intersections or within the curb lines of projected streets.

The chief engineer of the Queens Topographical Bureau, Charles U. Powell, published a book in 1932 listing 23 of the cemeteries, with detailed maps showing the inscription on each stone and the location in the burial ground. That later became a guide for Cogan.

While some might consider Cogan's expertise a bit odd - even downright dark - local historians say a crucial piece of the Queens story would have been lost by now if it had not been for the Head Stone.

"There was no one person you could turn to until he came on the scene," said Jeff Gottlieb, president of the Central Queens Historical Association. "His work has pointed out to us that there are burial grounds that tell the history of the borough, proving that Queens did not start in 1898," he said, referring to the year Queens was incorporated into New York City.

Cogan's wife, Lee, who edits the Historical Society newsletter, often putting into words Cogan's latest findings and thoughts, said, "Everyone knows him for his association with and interest in cemeteries."

Started 10 years ago

Cogan's mission began 10 years ago, when he went to visit the borough's oldest known family burial ground, the Richard Cornell Family Burial Ground in Far Rockaway, as a member of the Queens Historical Society. At that point, Cogan, who started his career as a piano player, went on to teach elementary school and then to work as an assistant principal at Public School 40 in South Jamaica, knew very little about cemeteries.

The Cornell cemetery, a small plot - 66 by 77 feet - is behind a nursing home and a house on Gateway Boulevard. It was designated a landmark in 1970, but had fallen into severe decay. So the Landmarks Commission asked the Historical Society to "adopt it" and fix it up. There were no visible headstones or other evidence that the land was a family burial ground, holding 29 descendants of Richard Cornell, a wealthy ironworker who lived in Flushing. The first burial there was in 1693, the last in 1820.

Cogan and several volunteers spent the next decade restoring the grounds, which typically involves using a pickax to dig for any stones left untouched by vandals and grave robbers, searching for artifacts and other clues as to where each family member was buried, digging trenches for the stones and sprucing up the premises.

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