Tag Archives: Old Fort Niagara

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

You Gotta Have Friends (Groups) … And Parks Does!

There are 90 years of history separating Bob Emerson and Dave DeMarco, but a common cause uniting them.

Emerson is the executive director at Old Fort Niagara State Historic Site on Lake Erie, where a not-for-profit association was formed in 1927 to protect the then-decaying 18th century fort, making the organization the oldest “friends” group in the state Office of Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation.

DeMarco is the president of Parks’ newest volunteer group – The Friends of Peebles Island State Park – that just formed in 2017 to help at a park in the Capital Region with its own Colonial-era military history.

Their groups bookend a statewide array of 76 such local organizations filled by everyday people who provide critical support and stewardship in partnership with State Parks. More people are deciding to help out at their favorite park, as more than 20 such groups have formed during the last two decades.


Use this map to find a Friends Group at a State Park near you…


Understanding the value of Friends groups, the state helps by offering up grants for key projects. Last year, the budget for such grants could be doubled to $1 million..

While such groups are mostly volunteers, like Peebles, there are some organizations with paid staff that raise funds and manage budgets for operations and renovations, like the Old Fort Niagara Association.

No matter the size, these volunteer groups have a large impact, accounting for more than $17 million in fundraising to benefit their respective parks in 2018, according to a recent report released by the advocacy group Parks & Trails New York. That was on top of nearly 132,000 hours of work by more than 5,100 volunteers that was valued at more than $3 million.

It doesn’t take a big checkbook to make a big difference. The majority of such groups do it all on $10,000 a year or less, according to the Parks & Trails report. The Old Fort Niagara Association, which has a full-time paid staff of more than a dozen people to run the historic fortress, also has historically had one of the largest budgets at more than $5 million annually.

“We are kind of unique here at Old Fort Niagara, in that we came into existence when this was still an Army base, before State Parks took it over. So, we were used to running this site,” said Emerson, who has overseen the historic site and its French-era fortresses as the facility’s executive director for 22 years.

DeMarco, a Waterford resident and retired administrator for SUNY Central, had been visiting Peebles Island State Park for years, bringing his kids there when they were young.

“Some years ago, I started leading an informal group of volunteers, who helped with trails and cleanups,” he said. “About four years ago, I was asked by the park manager to consider forming an official friends group. So that is what we did.”

DeMarco started with about a dozen members, and now that is up to about 45 people who volunteer their time to help maintain some five miles of trails in the 190-acre park, located on an island in the Hudson River that has a historic former bleach works.

During the Revolutionary War, the Continental army encamped at Van Schaick and Peebles Islands with the intent to engage the British army heading south from Montreal. Colonel Thaddeus Kosciuszko designed earthwork fortifications on Peebles Island that still exist.

“Our members can also function as ambassadors to the parks, for when people come in. We can greet them, and tell them a bit about the park and its history,” said DeMarco. Members also help out on First Day Hikes on Jan. 1 and “I Love My Park Day” in the spring, and sponsor wildlife and naturalist programs at the park’s visitors center.

“I think our location here at Peebles is one of our advantages. We are easy to reach for a lot of people,” he said.

See Friends Group members at Peebles Island State Park involved with activities like First Day Hikes and trail maintenance.

At Old Fort Niagara, the not-for-profit association has more than 700 members, making it the largest such friends group in State Parks. Members were part of more than 32,000 hours of volunteer labor at the site last year, said Emerson.

The group is responsible for running programs at the fort, as well as overseeing research efforts and a collection of historic objects related to the site. It handles a food concession, a gift shop, and the hiring of up to 60 seasonal workers to run the operation during the primary tourist season.


Volunteers perform a range of roles at Old Fort Niagara State Historic Site.


Emerson has advice for those thinking about forming a friends group for their park. “First, have a relationship with your park manager and the regional manager,” he said. “Keep it up. Reach out to your local tourism promotion agency, too.”

DeMarco said he learned the “identifying your active core” of volunteers is a key step to setting up a friends group. Parks staff helped in the paperwork requirements, which include incorporation as a not-for-profit organization, and filing of appropriate paperwork with the state Attorney General’s Office and the U.S. Internal Revenue Service

“You then need to identify your purpose,” Demarco said. “Finally, collaborate with Parks & Trails New York. They have all the resources that you will need to help get you started.”


Cover Shot- Members of The Friends of Peebles Island State Park roll up their sleeves during some trail maintenance there. (Photo Credit- Dave DeMarco)

All photos courtesy of The Friends of Peebles Island State Park and Old Fort Niagara Association.


By Brian Nearing, Deputy Public Information Officer, New York State Office of Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation.

Learn more about how to start your own Friends Group.

Read about what Friends Groups have done in other parks across the U.S.

Explore the Parks & Trails New York webpage on Friends groups.

Training the Doughboys

Looking over the playing fields at Fort Niagara State Park, it is hard to imagine that 100 years ago those fields were used for a different purpose: training young New Yorkers headed off to the ‘Great War.’

In April 1917, President Woodrow Wilson declared war on Germany, ending 2-1/2 years of neutrality.  This was not an easy decision for President Wilson, but many factors influenced his decision. There was unrest in Russia and German U-boats were indiscriminately sinking US merchant ships. In addition, it was discovered that Germany had secretly offered to help Mexico recover land lost during the Mexican-American War (1846-1848) if Mexico would ally with Germany and declare war on the United States (Mexico did not take up this offer). With all this in mind, Wilson declared war on Germany.

When war was declared, the United States was not ready. The Army was small, with under 100,000 professionally trained soldiers, many of whom had never been on the battlefield.  Sixteen nations had armies larger than the United States.  With the declaration, the Army needed both enlisted men and officers to help defend United States’ interests and allies France, Belgium, and Great Britain.

As the United States inched towards war, Army officials were looking for places to train officers through the Reserve Officers’ Training Corps (ROTC).  One of the places that was chosen to train officers was Fort Niagara, an army training post at the mouth of the Niagara River in Youngstown, New York.  When Wilson declared war, Fort Niagara was training troops headed to Panama or to minor conflicts along the Mexican border.

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ROTC trainees, photo courtesy of Old Fort Niagara

The Army planned two ROTC trainings at Fort Niagara in 1917, one from May through August, and the second from August through November.  Each session would train men on field sanitation and hygiene, care of arms and equipment, drilling, military courtesies, and the realities of trench warfare.  The chief training officer was Colonel John W. Heavey.

Because housing for the trainees was in short supply, the camp quartermaster hired day laborers to build nine 20’ x 300’ barracks and four mess halls during the month of April. The buildings were completed before the first class of ROTC trainees arrived.  Telephone and electrical systems were also installed throughout the training facilities in April.

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The ‘Long’ and ‘Short’ spar in autumn 1917, photo courtesy of Old Fort Niagara

The first officer class consisted of 2,500 young men from Pennsylvania, including some from wealthy Philadelphia families.  Local newspapers noted that a few of the officer candidates “know more about the different brands of face powder than they do about gunpowder.”

Nora 3.2
Nora Bayes singing to the ROTC trainees

The second class consisted primarily of New Yorkers, many of which were from Buffalo. These “typical Americans, clean-cut, upstanding fellows, the kind that make fighters” were lucky enough to have a concert by Nora Bayes (Eleanora Sara Goldberg) just after their training started.  Ms. Bayes was a popular actress, singer, and comedian of the time who co-wrote Shine on, Harvest Moon with her husband Jack Norworth.

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Bayes’ concert was a brief reprieve from the daily 16-hour training.  Each day the trainees had inspections, signal practice, mapmaking, long marches, mock battles and marksmanship, and trench construction.  The trenches were dug on the Fort Niagara Beach.  Military ceremonies marked the end of the training, with the ‘graduates’ learning which regiment they were assigned in the American Expeditionary Forces. American Expeditionary Forces troops were also known as ‘doughboys.’

Advance Guard
Advance Guard, photo courtesy of Old Fort Niagara

After the second ROTC training, the fort became training grounds for 1,772 Polish-American soldiers who were part of the Polish Blue Army.  They trained at Fort Niagara from December 1917 through February 1918 before joining the Western Front.

After the war, Fort Niagara served as the home of the US Army 28th Infantry Regiment until the regiment was relocated to Fort Jackson, South Carolina in 1940.

Blog adapted from:  Emerson, Robert, Clean Cut, Upstanding Fellows: Fort Niagara’s ROTC Training Camps, 1917 March 2017 Fortress Niagara, p 5 – 15.

Sources

Wikipedia United States in World War I

Katonah Record, July 27, 1917

The Honeoye Falls Times, July 26, 1917

Buffalo Evening News, September 25, 1917

Special thanks to the staff at Old Fort Niagara for their assistance with this post.