Tuesday, October 31, 2006

City of the Dead

Union Hill Cemetery
(photo by John Williams)

Apropos of Halloween, about a week and a half ago Barrier Island Girl posted an excellent photo-essay on historic St. Michael's Cemetery in downtown Pensacola. The cemetery certainly is worth seeing if you're a history buff and BIG's stunning web photos are worth viewing even if you're not.

The Pensacola area is littered with so many historic cemeteries, marked and unmarked, it might be called "City of the Dead." A few years ago "A Student of New York Institute of Photography" -- said to be known in real life as John Williams -- web-published photographs of a number of these cemeteries. "Student of New York Institute" doubtless has matriculated by now, but luckily the site hasn't. It's still here.

One of the more interesting and forlorn cemeteries "Student" visited is Union Hill. One he didn't is Mount Zion Cemetery, located alongside a railroad track. You're not likely to fine any trick-or-treaters there on All Hallow's Eve. Too scary, even for the dead. The last time we stopped by with a grad student friend who was doing some research, several of the graves had collapsed or were left open after resident bodies were moved -- or perhaps they just crawled out and walked away from the drug dealers, pimps, and prostitutes that crowd the area.

A number of other forlorn cemeteries in the Pensacola area have been pinpointed by the intrepid folk at USGenWeb. Among them Pensacola Beach residents, tourists, and campers will remember Chasefield Plantation Cemetery, that odd little fenced-off collection of graves just outside the gates of Ft. Pickens.

We aren't sure if it survived Hurricane Ivan, but you can look for the only cemetery on Pensacola Beach this coming Saturday during the guided "Full Moon Walk" at Ft. Pickens. Access is by foot or boat, only, since the road still hasn't been repaired.

Hickory Ridge, being an early Mississippian aboriginal burial ground, is much older. Archaeologists at the University of West Florida aren't saying exactly where it's located, for obvious reasons, other than it "lies west of Pensacola on a large peninsula that is formed by Perdido and Pensacola Bays."

One cemetery you aren't likely to find on the web is a small, empty block that sits unobtrusively in the midst of a neighborhood of neat, small frame houses on the near north side of Pensacola. To passers-by it looks like three or four undeveloped lots with randomly-scattered mature trees. In fact, it's an old graveyard whose headstones collapsed long ago and were hauled away. Only a very few grave markers, flush with the earth and usually hidden beneath dead leaves, tell the tale. Our grad student friend gave us a snapshot of it. Sadly, Hurricane Ivan buried it along with our house two years ago.

Today seems the right time to point out that one of the lesser-known but persistent challenges facing all of Florida is identifying and preserving abandoned and neglected cemeteries.
"There are literally thousands of abandoned cemeteries in Florida, many of them unknown and forgotten as old homesteads are subdivided and sold off, cemetery operators go out of business, churches are moved, and new property owners are unaware of old burying grounds.
* * *
Maintaining cemeteries that are no longer active is a widespread problem throughout the state. A review by the Task Force on Abandoned and Neglected Cemeteries appointed by the Legislature in 1998 determined that some counties had more than 100 such cemeteries, and that thousands probably remain undocumented and uncared for in the state."
When in Florida, be careful where you tread. You may be walking over someone's final resting place.

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