Peter Monro of the Stewards of the Western Cemetery gives a tour of the cemetery on Friday. Derek Davis/Staff Photographer

The tallest monument in the second oldest burial ground in Portland is an obelisk that bears the name of Henry Jackson, who died in August 1850 at the age of 67.

The inscription says the pillar was placed on this spot the following year:

“Erected by the pupils of Master Jackson, as a Memorial of his fidelity, as Teacher for twenty-five years, of a Grammar School for Boys, in Portland.”

Peter Monro pointed out the obelisk from a distance as he led a small tour group through the Western Cemetery on a sunny afternoon.

“I think it’s wonderful that, in a cemetery that’s largely peopled by sturdy and everyday citizens of the city of Portland, the largest monument doesn’t go to somebody obviously important but to a teacher,” he said.

Monro is the clerk of the Stewards of the Western Cemetery, a group of neighbors who banded together to preserve this historic but long neglected place. He lives on May Street and was involved with the first iteration of the Stewards more than 20 years ago, around the time the grassy 12 acres were the site of a clash between dog owners who wanted to let their pets run free and advocates who thought the dead should be undisturbed by what those dogs often left behind.


The city banned dogs from the cemetery in 2001, and the Stewards remained active for a few years, replacing a rusty chain-link fence and helping the city on other projects. But their efforts petered out because, Monro said, the city wouldn’t let them work on any gravestones without permission from hard-to-find descendants.

Years passed. Then, Sam Wilson got a hip replacement.

“I wound up taking longer walks alone, and I live on the West End, so I came to the cemetery quite often,” Wilson said. “I thought innocently, ‘This could be repaired.’ ”

Last year, Wilson and his neighbor Monro started learning the intensive process of cleaning and repairing gravestones from Spirits Alive, a group dedicated to preserving the city’s oldest burial ground, the Eastern Cemetery on Congress Street.

The revived Stewards became a nonprofit earlier this year.

“There are a lot of people who care about this place,” Monro said. “We’re just the flag bearers.”


The first people buried in what became the Western Cemetery were members of the Vaughan family, which sold the land to Portland in 1829 for a second burial ground. The site was isolated at the time, near an orchard and few homes. It served as the city’s primary place of interment for more than two decades, until the expansive Evergreen Cemetery opened in 1852. While only 1,600 markers remain in the Western Cemetery, there are an estimated 6,600 graves.

The Western Cemetery remains a public space with many uses: walking and jogging, birdwatching, studying native plants, school outings. But it also remains a cemetery, and Peter Monro pointed out the different sections during a tour on Friday. Derek Davis/Staff Photographer

The cemetery is laid out in a unique shape – like a football, or maybe an eye. An early map shows graves arranged in long, arched rows, and at their center is an open grove. Its design is unlike the Eastern Cemetery, its smaller predecessor, or the Evergreen Cemetery, its sprawling successor.

“The cemetery is an important public space for so many reasons,” said Sarah Hansen, executive director of Greater Portland Landmarks, which nominated the Western Cemetery as one of its Places of Peril in 2013. “As one of Portland’s designated historic landscapes, it is a wonderful example of the transition between early, traditional burial grounds and cemeteries functioning as planned gardens and more public space.”

The Western Cemetery was starting to fill up in the 1850s when the city bought the land for Evergreen, which is still active today.

Mike Ciamaga, cemetery director for Portland, said the city made it free for people to move their family plots from the Western Cemetery to the new burial ground, and many remains were disinterred. The Great Fire in 1866 destroyed a lot of records from that time, though.

The Western Cemetery was largely inactive after 1910, although engravings there show that some people still chose to be buried near their ancestors later in the 20th century. There’s one gravestone from 1957, another from 1975. But the cemetery fell into general disrepair and was often vandalized. The marble that was popular for gravestones in the cemetery’s prime started disintegrating from time and acid rain, and iron elements were removed during World War II or simply rusted away.


Still, when Monro advertised a tour a few weeks ago, more than 75 people showed up.

“I had a man tell me in the first tour that he had played baseball here,” Monro said. “He earned a merit badge for Boy Scouts by camping out here. … And he learned to drive here. His father brought the car in here and they drove around because there was no traffic.”

The area remains a public space with many uses: walking and jogging, birdwatching (Monro pointed out a hawk’s nest in one tree), studying native plants, school outings. But it also remains a cemetery, and Monro pointed out the different sections.

A rose inscription is on one of the graves at the Western Cemetery in Portland. Derek Davis/Staff Photographer

Along the fence that abuts Vaughan Street is the Strangers’ Ground, once the burial place for the city’s poor. There’s also the Catholic burial ground, designated in 1843 when Mary Dickey died at just 20 days old. The many Irish immigrants laid to rest there were children of families who fled famine, and in 1999, the Ancient Order of Hibernians placed a black marble monument there to recognize the victims of An Gorta Mór, or the Great Hunger. A planter of red flowers in front of the memorial contains an American flag and an Irish one. Flags also mark the graves of veterans from the Revolutionary War to World War I.

Monro paused at one hefty stone that had fallen flat on the ground. The blank side faced up, but Monro revealed that someone (who would remain nameless, he said) had lifted it just enough to confirm it marked the grave of John Neal, a 19th-century writer, lawyer, art critic and boxer. Neal was known to advocate for the rights of women and Black people, Monro said, and he was also apparently the first person to use the phrase “son of a bitch” in a work of fiction.

Monro also pointed out what is often said to be a witch’s tomb, where the remains of a wax candle sat atop the stone and the actual remains belong to a deacon. And he told of the mystery of the missing Longfellows. The hillside tomb that is supposed to be the final resting place of relatives of famed poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow is actually empty, and no one knows what became of the bodies.


Monro carried a lime green binder as a reference for the many stories on his tour, but he spoke mostly from memory and only used the binder to show his small audience printouts of historic photographs.

The cemetery has been through periods of neglect and interest, he said and even though the interest is there now, the money isn’t.

Ciamaga, Portland’s cemetery director, said his roughly $838,000 budget is stretched thin over 13 cemeteries, and the city doesn’t have a lot of extra resources to preserve this one. But he is planning to compile a central record of the burials at Western Cemetery and wants to work with the Stewards to find money for their projects. He said he likes looking for the intricate markings on some of the graves there, which he described as an early form of public art.

“There’s not a real outcry of funding for cemeteries among the general public,” Ciamaga said. “There are other things going on in the city. There are living people who need help.”

That doesn’t deter the Stewards. They are trying to raise $7,500 right now for preliminary work: insurance coverage, a visit from a professional gravestone conservator this summer, some starter tools for cleaning, such as plastic trowels and toothbrushes and buckets. They expect to launch a bigger campaign once they get a handle on some cost estimates. That would be money for such projects as a tool house, an extension of the water line to make it easier to wash gravestones, improvements for accessibility.

At one stone, two women in the tour group peered closely to read the name of Abram Newcomb. Marked with the symbol of an anchor, his stone is leaning backward into the long grass.

“This’ll be a three-day project right here,” Wilson said, explaining the laborious steps for righting the marker. They’ll have to extract the heavy stone, reset the base, use epoxy to put the pieces back together. They’ll use a special solution for gentle cleaning and plastic tools that won’t scratch. For some stones that have been completely broken, they’ll have to use the limited available records to make sure they put them back in the right resting place.

The Stewards know the job won’t be an easy one – you don’t just slap some glue on the broken pieces, stick them together and call it a day – and they think their goals could take 20 years to accomplish. But that will be a small stretch in the long history of the cemetery, before and after them.

“Our average age is 75,” Monro said. “We’ve got to find young people who are going to take this over.”

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