All posts by New York State Parks

What Is Bathing without Water?

It’s always made good sense.  If you feel down or need to clear your head, go out and take a walk. That is what happened recently at Minnewaska State Park Preserve, when 10 people and Abe, an energetic Golden Retriever, set out for a hike on a cool, somewhat damp autumn morning in October.

But it was a hike with a special purpose – to explore a Japanese-inspired concept called “Forest Bathing” (Shinrin-yoku ), which is a form of nature therapy that requires no actual bathing. The term was coined by the Japanese Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry, and Fisheries in 1982, and can be defined as contacting and taking in the atmosphere of the forest.

Forest Bathing guide Jane Dobson leads the recent group at Minnewaska State Park.

Japanese officials began exploring the concept in response to what government officials saw as rising levels of unhealthy stress among residents of an advanced industrialized nation that was undergoing rapid technological change.

The basic idea in Shinrin-yoku is to observe and experience natural surroundings with a slowed and deliberate focus, rather than treating a hike as a distance between two points to covered briskly in competition with whatever else pops into one’s head.

And while to some forest bathing may sound like a gauzy abstraction, there is a growing body of scientific evidence showing real and measurable physical and mental health benefits from spending time in nature.

For example, this 2010 study in the peer-reviewed journal Environmental Health and Preventative Medicine, based on field experiments with 280 people across 24 different forest and urban locations in Japan, found “forest environments promote lower concentrations of cortisol (the so-called “fight or flight” stress hormone), lower pulse rate, lower blood pressure, greater parasympathetic nerve activity, and lower sympathetic nerve activity than do city environments … The results of the field experiments also provide a platform for interested enterprises, universities, and local governments to promote the effective use of forest resources in stress management, health promotion, rehabilitation, and the prevention of disease.”

Since then, other studies have reconfirmed these results. Some of these studies can be found online at the International Society of Nature and Forest Medicine, which is linked at the bottom of this story.

That’s something to pay attention to when average Americans spend 93 percent of their time indoors or in automobiles, according to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). And it is especially important when many of us are stressed due to the COVID-19 pandemic, and have been turning to healthy and safe outdoor activities, like hiking and other activities in State Parks, where there are more than 300,000 acres of forest to “bathe” in throughout the year.

Visits to Parks during this season remained strong, with overall 2020 attendance through October down only 2 percent compared to 2019, even given the density reduction requirements, cancellation of the early camping season, and closure of indoor facilities during the pandemic.

At Minnewaska’s program on an introduction to the concept of forest bathing, Michael and Geralyn O’Reilly, of Troy, along with Abe, their Golden Retriever, went with the group along the park’s Mossy Glen Trail to a bridge over the Peterskill creek.

During the walk (where people used masks when not social distancing), participants were encouraged to move slowly, deliberately, while pausing to focus on breathing, putting thoughts of everyday issues out of their minds, and taking in the sights, sounds and smells of the woods filled with oak and laurel around them.

On starting a hike, participants first took time to quietly stretch and breathe, focusing on slow movement of various joints like the ankles, knees, shoulders and neck.

One of the “forest bathers” takes a few moments to sit quietly at the Peterskill to focus on their surroundings.

Key to that is the idea of “settling into” a present moment, rather than thinking about anything else that presents itself, which relates to the Buddhist concept of the “monkey mind,” referring to a parade of thoughts that are unsettled, restless and intrusive in the manner of a non-stop “to do” list.

“A program like this helps us to slow down and better experience this beautiful place,” said Geralyn O’Reilly. “And as someone who loves the outdoors, I enjoy being here with like-minded people.”

Growing up in the Bronx, Robert Dosch now lives in Orange County and visits Minnewaska often. Relaxing after the hike, he said, “I have always enjoyed being in the outdoors. A program like this gives you a new perspective … It helps to be reminded that there are times when you should put everything aside and just be where you are.”

Forest Bathing is a practice that reconnects us with nature and its healing properties.  This is not just about hiking, getting to a destination, or exercise.  This is downshifting and unplugging, which can be difficult when smart devices can bring distractions and demands for attention.  Urbanization and the saturation of technology in our lives has disconnected us from our direct sensory experience of sight, sound, smell, touch, taste.

Forest Bathing is the antidote this type of sensory anesthesia.  Like a bath, you are soaking; only you are soaking in all your senses.  A Forest Bathing walk offers different sensory invitations to allow you to connect more deeply with nature.  This connection allows nature to quiet our busy minds and reveal the beauty of the present moment. 

Although the term Forest Bathing is relatively new, by no means is this a new practice.  The healing properties of nature have been recognized throughout time by virtually all cultures.  The only change is that now we have scientific data to back up this intuitive knowledge.

Of course, it is important to remember that nature, including its health benefits, is not just a resource to be taken.  There is something more innate at play.  Forest Bathing helps reconnect humans with the outdoor world to which we are naturally adapted, where we have spent more than 99 percent of our time as a species.  The recent pandemic has made one thing clear as unprecedented numbers of people have flocked to parks and preserves across the United States – people need nature.  As we restore our relationship with the natural world, we are reminded of the vital reality that we, too, must take care of nature as it takes care of us. 

Post by Jane Dobson, Mindful Outdoor Nature Guide, MindtheForest LLC


Learn more about forest bathing from the International Society of Nature and Forest Medicine. The website includes links to reports on the concept from such outlets at the Wall Street Journal, the BBC, The Guardian and the China Times.

Try Forest Bathing Yourself

  1. Don’t worry about being in the forest if that is not possible. Any nearby park or natural open area will do, any time of the year.
  2. Before you begin your hike, do some basic stretches of your ankles, knees, neck, wrists and hips. This relates to a practice in yoga called “the eight churnings,” which will stimulate the fluid that lubricates joints.
  3. Allow yourself three full minutes before starting the hike to just breathe deliberately and relax. This quiets the mind and allows you to notice more.  It may be hard to sit still at first, but that will come easier with time.
  4. Once on the hike, move slowly and deliberately. Take time to pause from time to time to take in the surroundings. Pick a feature, like a tree, rock or portion of a stream, that appeals to you. Try to avoid letting your thoughts wander off from where you are and what you are experiencing.
  5. Take time to sit down. Experience quietness, which can allow you to notice small sounds and events that might otherwise have gone undetected. By just sitting, you will begin to connect more deeply with nature. 

Targeting a Watery Invader at Lake Taghkanic

Thanks to a “hands-on” kayak mission against invasive water chestnut this summer at Lake Taghkanic State Park, this popular lake ought to be clearer of these aquatic invaders for next paddling season.

And timing is critical in dealing with water chestnuts, floating plants which can rapidly spread to create dense patches that can clog a lake, damage the native ecosystem and make it hard for canoeists and kayakers to paddle.

Water chestnut (Trapa natans) is one of the several Aquatic Invasive Species (AIS) that are monitored in hopes of reducing abundances in state waterbodies. Widespread in the state, water chestnut is now found in 43 counties.

The aquatic invasive water chestnut can be found in 43 countries across the state. Counties shaded green are known to be infested. (Photo Credit – NYS Department of Environmental Conservation)

Invasive species, like water chestnuts, are organisms that are non-native to an area, typically causing harm to human health, the economy, and the environment. If left unchecked, AIS can spread quickly from one body of water to another, threatening biodiversity and potentially impeding recreational opportunities.

The key to battling the an infestation discovered this season at Lake Taghkanic in Columbia County was to remove hundreds of plants before going to seed. Water chestnuts are annuals, and thus must reseed themselves each year to propagate.

Anyone who has been out along a shoreline and came across a strong, spiny, star-shaped brown nut-like “fruit” or seed pods has found a water chestnut nut. Bearing four sharp spines or points, each nut contains a single seed that can produce 10 to 15 stems.

Anchored to the water bottom, the plants have submerged, feathery brownish leaves on stems that can grow up to 15 feet long. On the water’s surface, these stems come to an end with a floating rosette, or circular arrangement of leaves. The leaves are triangular shaped with toothed edges.

These clusters can float on the surface due to buoyancy bladders connected to the leaf stems, forming dense floating mats that can be nearly impenetrable. Each rosette produces about 20 of the hard nut-like fruits in the late summer and early fall which, after dropping from the plant to the water bottom, lay in sediment over the winter to sprout in the spring

You can imagine the concern when water chestnut showed up in Lake Taghkanic State Park, a park focused on boating, swimming, water sports and beach activities. Controlling water chestnut at the park was vital to support these recreational opportunities as well as the native fauna of the lake, including one rare species known there.

Due to the fast-growing nature of water chestnut, it is important to control newly introduced infestations as soon as possible, also known as “early detection, rapid response” (EDRR). If left unchecked, patches of water chestnuts can spread prolifically.

A map of Lake Taghkanic, showing the area of water chestnut infestation highlighted in green. (Photo Credit – NYS Parks)


Water chestnut is an invasive species of high concern for many waterbodies in New York State, having potential ecological, economic and health impacts. The plant can form dense mats on the water’s surface, greatly impacting the organisms below. These layered mats can block sun and oxygen from submerged plants, resulting in a die back of native species and fish populations. Recreation is also inhibited by dense patches of water chestnuts, making it difficult to swim, boat, kayak, or fish. The spiny nuts often drift to shore, creating an additional hazard for pets and people to step on.

Effective control of water chestnut depends largely on preventing seed formation. By manually removing the plants in mid-summer before mature seeds can drop, managers can halt such potential reproduction.

At Lake Taghkanic, staff from the Office of Parks, Recreation and Historical Preservation, state Department of Environmental Protection, and Capital Region Partnership for Regional Invasive Species Management (PRISM) worked to rapidly respond to the infestation. This team of ten individuals were well-versed in the control of invasive species, and several team members had prior experience manually removing water chestnut.

Held July 16, the pull was led by Matt Brincka (NYS Parks Invasive Biologist), with other participants including Falon Neske (NYS Parks), Lindsey DeLuna (NYS Parks), Lauren Gallagher (NYS Parks), Rebecca Ferry (NYS Parks), Kristopher Williams (Capital Region PRISM), Lauren Mercier (PRISM), Lauren Henderson (PRISM), Steven Pearson (DEC), and Catherine McGlynn (DEC).

The team navigated to the water chestnut infestation in kayaks, maintaining social distancing and wearing face coverings when necessary. When manually pulling water chestnut plants, it’s important to reach as far down the stem as possible to pull the root system from the bottom sediment.

At Lake Taghkanic, water chestnut was mixed in among lily pads, presenting a challenge to pulling by hand from kayaks. (Photo credit – NYS DEC)

Once pulled, the water chestnuts were collected in garbage bags, drained, and weighed. Within a day, more than 100 pounds, or from 300 to 400 plants were removed! The information was recorded for upload to iMapInvasives so that the infestation of water chestnuts can be tracked.

Afterward, the team also surveyed the 3.7 mile lakeshore to ensure there were no other visible water chestnuts. Parks staff developed a control plan that will include monitoring and hand-pulling at Lake Taghkanic annually in order to deplete the seed bank (seeds can remain viable for several years at the bottom) and keep the problem at bay.

Over the years, NY State Parks has organized and participated in several invasive species pulls, additionally having a seasonally staffed AIS Strike Team and Boat Steward program. Reader more about these programs in the posts below.

Selkirk Shores State Park has been one focus area for State Parks staff in efforts to control a water chestnut infestation. In 2015, about 240 bags of water chestnut were removed there, visibly reducing the biomass by 40 percent. During the 2016 season, another 12.5 tons were pulled out. This removal resulted in a decrease in abundance of water chestnut during from 2017 through this year, further maintaining the value of this State Park.

Prompt invasive species responses, such as water chestnut pulls, work towards ensuring recreational enjoyment and preserving natural ecosystems in our parks. Early detections of invasive species are often reported by patrons.

The next paddling season may be months away, but remember: If you believe you have found a new population of an invasive species at a State Park, tell a park staff member or reporting it in iMapInvasives will ensure that swift eradication action is taken.

Protecting Our Waterways

You may have seen them in a park near you, these super heroes and heroines in disguise. Since 2008, New York State Parks have deployed Invasive Species Strike Teams. These Strike Teams conduct invasive species surveys and manually remove non-native invasive plants in areas of significance. The goal is to protect native plant and animal … Continue reading Protecting Our Waterways

Cover shot: Members of the removal team spread out in kayaks on Lake Taghkanic.

Post by Lauren Gallagher, State Parks Water Quality Unit

Nature Education At Letchworth During COVID

On the second weekend in March with spring in the air at Letchworth State Park, maple sap was being boiled down into tasty syrup in the newly built sugar shack at the park’s Humphrey Nature Center. Maple weekends were coming soon, and many gallons of syrup were needed to treat hundreds of visitors expected for outdoor education programs in one of western New York’s most popular State Parks.

But the next day, the sugar shack at Letchworth went cold. Because of emerging COVID-19 pandemic, Parks workers were told to immediately start working remotely from home. So public events at State Parks like Maple Weekends were cancelled. And a completely booked public field trip season at Letchworth for May and June disappeared as well.

If people could no longer brought to nature by park naturalists, perhaps those naturalists could bring nature to people remotely?

Immediately, newly hired NYS Parks Corps member Conrad Baker tapped prior video production experience to make a weekly video series called ‘Nature Detectives,’ for Letchworth State Park’s Facebook page. The approximately five-minute videos invited viewers, especially kids, to use their senses, or ‘nature tools,’ to make observations, or ‘notice nature clues’ about a mysterious plant, animal, or fungus found outdoors. Then, the video solved the mystery and encouraged viewers to find the same species in their own neighborhoods.

Conrad Baker tees up a video for the Nature Detective series on the NYS Parks Facebook page. (Photo credit – NYS Parks)


While using these  videos satisfied the Park’s short-term goal of providing some safe, educational public programs,  none of the Nature Center’s field trips were happening for the foreseeable future. But within this challenge lay an unexpected opportunity. Now unable to deliver in-person programs as usual, Environmental Educator Elijah Kruger could use the sudden schedule vacancies to adapt existing field trip lesson plans into safe, immersive, virtual programming. With   Baker at the camera, Kruger took to the field.

Letchworth State Park educators and interpretive staff Mike Landowski, Steph Spittal, Karen Russell, Sandy Wallace, Doug Bassett, and Brian Scriven reviewed draft videos and gave crucial program design advice.

There are currently five virtual field trip videos on the NYS Parks YouTube channel. The playlist is accessible here.

Since previous records showed that the topics of Geology, Mammals, and Invasive Species were the most in-demand field trips, those videos were made throughout April and May, and released June 1. Next came more scientifically complex field trips about the natural world and the human relationship with it. A field trip on Forest Ecology was released Sept. 18. Life of the Monarch butterfly is the most recent to go up.

Normally, an in-person Geology field trip group would hike about three quarters of a mile between several gorge overlooks, with the trip taking about 90 minutes.  But using video, viewers can move instantly between overlooks and cover the entire field trip in detail in 20 minutes. This work pushed the limits of cell phones, birding cameras, free editing software, and existing office supplies that had to take the place of top-end video gear.

A Mammalogy field trip group is often stationary, sometimes even inside the Nature Center. An educator invites the field trip group to see and feel up-close details of mammal furs and skulls to learn more about their adaptations and roles in the ecosystem. On video, such furs and skulls are presented next to real-world outdoor signs left by these animals. Close-up cutaway shots were key to highlight the animals’ homes, scat, and habitats. Deep detail in teeth, bones, and furs were only visible by building on the right cutaways.

Previously, in-person Invasive Species field trip groups never hiked through the territory now covered by the Invasive Species virtual field trip. This third field trip video was an opportunity to use cutaways and editing to visually capture complex, multi-stage forest succession changes, like deer overbrowsing, in which deer damage the ecosystem by eating away at all the young trees and shrubs.

And some improvisation was needed to get the right shots. By using rubber bands to attach lenses to cell phone cameras, close-ups showed fine details in macro shots, like crawling ticks and the hemlock wooly adelgid, a tiny insect that threatens the health of helmlock trees.

Previously, a Forest Ecology field trip group would walk about a half-mile of forest trail around the Nature Center, noticing content-relevant animals, plants, fungi, and environments along the way. Field trip video now assembles a kind of “best of” experience, with exceptional examples of lichens, woodpecker holes, short-lived fungi and quick glimpses of animals from miles apart and over several weeks into one cohesive experience.

The Life of the Monarch video is the culmination of skills and tools picked up from the four previous videos. The segments are carefully assembled from footage that was shot miles and weeks apart. Close-up cutaways show monarch butterfly handling and tagging. Footage of feeding caterpillars, time lapses of metamorphosis, and slow-motion videos of butterfly releases tie together the story of these creatures’ lives and how they benefit us in unseen ways.

The pandemic encouraged our environmental education staff to do what they do best – adapt and use the tools at their disposal to serve park visitors with safe, enjoyable, educational programs. In-person programming is now resuming with safety precautions. Still, teachers are already starting to request virtual guided field trips, where park educators join classes via video chat to answer questions and match virtual field trip video content to their class lessons.

So, what was born out of necessity and imagination has now become a regular part of Letchworth State Park’s mission to bring education nature programming to anyone, no matter where they might live.


Cover shot – Letchworth State Park Environmental Educator Elijah Kruger with a Monarch butterfly. (Photo credit – NYS Parks)


Post by NYS Parks Corps member Conrad Baker

Help Brewing For Rare “Chitt” Snail at State Parks

Since Ice Age glaciers retreated from New York nearly 12,000 years ago, a snail slightly larger than a dime has lived in damp, shaded and rocky terrain at the base of a towering waterfall in Madison County.

A moist and mild micro-habitat, the “splash zone” around the namesake 167-foot cascade at Chittenango Falls State Park is the last wild place on earth where the Chittenango Ovate Amber snail is known to exist.  The species is named for its home; its ovate, egg-shaped shell; and its amber coloring.

A close-up of the Chittenango Ovate Amber Snail. There are currently about 100 of the tiny mollusks known to exist in Chittenango Falls State Park, the only wild place on earth with a known population. (Photo credit – SUNY-ESF)
The spray from the waterfall at Chittenango Falls State Park creates the moist and mild micro-habitat needed by the snail, which has occupied this place in Madison County since the last Ice Age. (Photo Credit – New York State Parks)

This delicate mollusk leads a precarious existence, as a population now estimated at less than a hundred faces threats from floods, droughts, rockslides, another species of snail, climate change, and even the feet of irresponsible hikers.

The snail was abundant when it was first discovered at the falls in 1905. By the early 1980s, the population was estimated at less than 500 individuals, and the population continued to plummet in the 1990s. The snail is listed as an endangered species by New York State and a threatened species by the federal government. Historically, the species was found in a handful of sites from Tennessee to Ontario, Canada, but now is known to only exist in New York.

To fend off potential extinction of what is affectionately known as the “chitt,” a captive breeding program started five years ago, supported by State Parks, SUNY College of Environmental Science and Forestry (SUNY-ESF), U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, state Department of Environmental Conservation, and the Rosamond Gifford Zoo in Syracuse. Federal funding to support the program has come from the Great Lake Restoration Initiative.

Banding together on Facebook as the “Snailblazers,” these partners recently added another friend of the chitt – the Critz Farms brewery in Madison County, which has crafted an IPA dedicated to raise funds for the breeding program.



With each leisurely sip of the Endangered Species IPA, described as a “delightfully citrusy, medium-bodied beer,” funds go toward supporting a snail incubator program at SUNY-ESF in Syracuse and the hand collection of a mix of native plant leaves that form the diet of the finicky snail.

Since the program started, nearly 2,000 snails have been propagated in climate-controlled incubators at both SUNY-ESF and the Rosamond Gifford Zoo in Syracuse, said Cody Gilbertson, senior research support specialist at SUNY-ESF. Due to COVID restrictions this year, the zoo incubator program was consolidated into SUNY-ESF.

During field research at Chittenango Falls, SUNY-ESF researcher Cody Gilbertson holds an Ovate Amber snail (below). The captive-bred snails reside in a climate controlled unit back at SUNY-ESF in Syracuse. (Photo Credit – SUNY-ESF)

Of the captive-bred chitts, slightly more than 400 have been released into the park during this time, some as hatchlings and the rest as adults capable of reproduction. Even with these efforts, the snails are barely hanging onto their foothold.


About 500 snails reside in the incubators currently, protected as a “backup” population should some dire circumstances extinguish the Chittenango snails. Hundreds of snails have already lived their entire natural life spans – about two years – in the incubators.

When breeding started, there was an estimated population at the falls of about 350 snails, said Gilbertson. The most recent counts are now at about 100.

The habitat zone, a mix of boulders that have fallen from the limestone cliffs, is consistently moist from the mist of the falls. That nurtures water-loving plants, including a number of native wildflowers, including the snail’s favorite, Joe-Pye weed (Eutrochium purpureum), said Delaney Kalsman, project coordinator at State Parks.

Joe Pye weed, a favorite food of the snail. (Photo credit – State Department of Environmental Conservation)



Located along the park’s Gorge Trail, this area is fenced off and marked against trespassing. Anyone entering the area without authorization can be prosecuted under New York State Environmental Conservation Law and the federal Endangered Species Act.

Another count of the snail population is set for the summer of 2021, said Kalsman. The number of snails has been declining in recent years, with possible explanations including competition from a species of invasive snail and climate change.

“The environment is experiencing longer drought periods, reducing the flow and spray of the falls which the snail relies on,” she said. “When it does rain, large flooding events are happening at greater frequencies. In 2017, a major flood washed away large portions of Joe-Pye weed.”

Within such a small home, a potential extinction-level event can show up quickly. Such events like the 2017 flood, along with the other threats, put the chitt as “severe threat of extinction,” Gilbertson said. “This threat is further amplified because the entire wild population exists only at Chittenango Falls State Park.”

To propagate more snails, Gilbertson needed to understand what they ate from the flora and fauna around the falls. She learned the snails preferred the fallen leaves of black cherry trees collected in early spring, as well as leaves from pignut hickory, sugar maple and ash. And snails needed certain species of leaves at certain times, and at certain stages of decomposition. So, SUNY-ESF and Parks staff needed to collect leaves regularly and maintain a kind of “compost” menu for the snails. The leaves are stored dry and then rehydrated as needed.

“This diet for our snails is more natural than a synthetic paste or vegetables that is used in many other captive invertebrate programs. Survival was boosted by this natural diet,” she said.

A black cherry leave after being consumed by numerous snails. (Photo credit – SUNY-ESF)




State Parks staff is now designing a “garden” of native trees and plants in the park to supply the optimal forage that can be brought to the snails, as part of the efforts spearheaded by Kalsman, park Operations Manager  Shawn Jenkins, and SUNY-ESF FORCES (Friends of Recreation, Conservation and Environmental Stewardship) stewards Jordan Stransky, Sarah Petty, and David Rojek.

(And for the curious: Snails have a form of teeth, called “radula,” which is Latin for “little scraper.” The radula is a tongue-like ribbon with raised rasps, which the snail uses to scrape and tear away at whatever plant they are eating.)

Another issue to consider is that of a potential lack of genetic diversity, which could make the snails vulnerable to disease. To avoid having the captive offspring breeding only with other captive offspring, researchers periodically gather snails from the falls to be brought into the captive program.

Called “pulsing,” this method “brings new founders from the wild to breed and introduce hypothetically new genetic lines into our captive population,” Gilbertson said.

Snails mate between May and July, resulting in the female laying about a dozen tiny eggs. Each summer, about 200 to 300 snails are reared from those eggs. The hatchlings are so tiny that the safest way for researchers to move them around is by using paintbrushes, she said. The tiny creatures use their “foot,” a muscle that contracts to allow the snail to move, to grasp the bristles on the brush.

Each year, researchers bring more captive-bred snails to the falls to live and breed with the snails there. And this tiny population continues for another day, aided by the work of dedicated people at State Parks, other partners and now brewers and patrons of a farm-brewed IPA.

Happy Thanksgiving from the Chittenango Ovate Amber snail and New York State Parks! (Photo credit – NYS Parks)


(Cover Photo- Chittenango Ovate Amber Snail. Photo Credit- Cody Gilbertson, SUNY – ESF)

Post by Brian Nearing, Deputy Public Information Officer, NYS Parks


Resources

Read a five-year scientific review of the status of the Chittenango Ovate Amber snail by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFW).

Discover more about the snail from USFW.

Learn more about the snail in a online book for children created by staffers at the Rosamond Gifford Zoo.

Donate to the zoo’s snail conservation program.

Curated Cemeteries Tell Tales at State Parks

With Halloween coming up, the setting of an old cemetery might come to mind. Cemeteries are beautiful, poignant, old and sometimes just creepy, but these places are also a powerful reminder of the past and a record of the people who came before.

As part of its mission to preserve the state’s heritage, New York State Parks is responsible for the care of numerous cemeteries – from dozens and dozens of small old homestead cemeteries and large military cemeteries to burial vaults and even pet cemeteries. And cemeteries, just like any other historic item, do require maintenance and repair from time to time.

It is the job of the Historic Site and Parks Services (BHSPS) to preserve these cemeteries and the individual gravestones. That means tackling the challenges posed by time and weather, but also repairing the damage done by vandals, who break or damage stones.

Intact stones can be cleaned and inventoried in place, but fractured stones in need of repair are brought to our historic preservation labs Peebles Island State Park, where conservators perform the needed repairs. That work has been assisted by members of the New York State Excelsior Conservation Corps, who learn how to document, map, clean and reset gravestones.

A visit to a historic cemetery can be a time of contemplation in a quiet natural setting. For example, Grafton Lakes State Park in the forests of the Rensselaer Plateau in the Saratoga/Capital Region, has four historic family cemeteries.  The Old Snyder Cemetery is just above the Mill Pond and shadowed by the forest.  The small cemetery, dating to the 19th century is surrounded by a decorative iron fence and features obelisks, and marble and bluestone gravestones.

At the historic preservation labs at Peebles Island State Park, a fractured gravestone from a historic family cemetery within Grafton Lakes State Park is reset.
Gravestones freshly cleaned by State Parks staffers shine at Grafton Lakes State Park.

The gravestones tell the story of life in 18th and 19th century New York. Some stones simply feature a name while others feature beautifully carved weeping willows or crosses.  The Thomas West, Frances West and Hicks cemeteries are smaller and buried deeper in the Park.  The cemeteries are marked by fieldstone walls or split rail fence.  

At the other end of the state, the 1812 Cemetery at the Old Fort Niagara State Historic Site, is the resting place of the fort’s soldiers and their families from the War of 1812 through the 1930s. This cemetery is shaded by mature oaks, pines and maple trees and overlooks the Niagara River.  Traditional military tombstones are intermixed with large granite and marble memorials to the Unknown Soldiers who died during the campaigns of Western Expansion, the Revolutionary War and the war of 1812. The Victorian and Gothic gravestones feature finely detailed cannons, urns, flowers, shields and crosses.   

State Parks conservator Heidi Miksch gently cleans the bronze plaque on a tombstone at Old Fort Ontario State Historic Site.
Gravestones at Old Fort Ontario during and after a cleaning session. Use the slider bar to compare pictures.

The Herkimer Home State Historic Site and Fort Ontario State Historic Site in central New York also feature military and local cemeteries. The Herkimer Home cemetery has large memorials flanked by cannons intermixed with delicate 18th-century marble gravestones and 19th-century zinc memorials, and includes the resting place of Revolutionary War General Nicholas Herkimer, who died of wounds after the Battle of Oriskany.

A member of the Excelsior Conservation Corps (ECC) cleans a gravestone at the Herkimer Home State Historic Site.

Back at the historic preservation labs at Peebles Island, an ECC member repairs a broken gravestone from Herkimer Home State Historic Site.
A map of the Herkimer Home cemetery created by Excelsior Conservation Corps members.

In Oswego at Fort Ontario, a small cemetery features 77 marble military tombstones of veterans from the French and Indian War to World War II. Inside the fort are fragile and rare gravestone from the 1700s.

Sonnenberg Gardens & Mansion State Historic Park in Canandaigua has a small pet cemetery under an old oak tree near the 19th century Victorian mansion. The cemetery is surrounded by a low iron fence and features large boulders carved with the names of family pets owned by Frederick and Mary Thompson, the estate’s former owners.  A marble statue of a resting dog guards the small resting place.

Pet cemetery at Sonnenberg Gardens, where a statue of a reclining dog stands watch.

At Katonah’s John Jay Homestead State Historic Site, in the historic house’s Terrace Garden, there is a simple marker in the memory of Old Fred, a horse that served in the Civil War with Colonel William Jay II, with both rider and steed coming home safely at war’s end.

Its inscription reads: “In memory of Old Fred, who carried Colonel Jay through the Battles of Chancellorsville, Gettysburg, Peeble’s Farm & Appomattox, and who died at Bedford in May 1883, aged 28 years.”

The grave and historical marker for Old Fred, the faithful warhorse of Colonel William Jay II. At bottom, Colonel Jay is shown in uniform with his sister, Eleanor Jay Chapman.

So, a quiet October afternoon could be a perfect time to appreciate the hand carved stonework, and imagine the lives marked by the gravestones, which are another aspect our shared history being protected by New York State Parks.


Cover Shot: Members of the Excelsior Conservation Corps cleaning gravestones at the Herkimer Home State Historic Site. (All photos by NYS Parks)

Post by Erin E. Moroney,  architectural conservator, Bureau of Historic Site & Park Services