LOCKPORT – Police officers in full-dress uniforms. A cadre of local officials. A bagpiper playing “Amazing Grace.”
It could have been the funeral for a fallen soldier or a famous dignitary, but Thursday’s ceremony came at the edge of the woods near the Niagara County Jail, where some 1,400 county residents, many unidentified, who died in the long-gone County Almshouse lie in mostly unmarked graves.
The ceremony, which included the dedication of a marble memorial bench at what used to be the entrance to the abandoned cemetery, marked the completion of efforts by People Inc., a Western New York human service agency, to restore the graveyard.
Work through the summer by the agency’s volunteers and Buffalo State College anthropology students, with assistance from Calamar Development, succeeded in clearing the brush, saplings and poison ivy from what is believed to be the entrance to the plot. It’s where the workers at the Almshouse, also known as the Poorhouse, buried the facility’s dead from 1830 to 1916.
It lies several hundred feet north of Niagara Street Extension, across the road from the jail, which stands on the site of the 19th century “pest house” where those with contagious diseases were housed.
This is the fourth cemetery in Western New York restored by People Inc., which has become involved in honoring the resting places of those who today would be the clients of agencies like it. People Inc. President James M. Boles, County Manager Jeffrey M. Glatz and Undersheriff Michael J. Filicetti joined in unveiling the bench, donated by Orleans Monument Co. of Lockport.
County Historian Catherine Emerson said local officials long recognized the need to care for handicapped, ill and destitute individuals. The Town of Cambria, which once covered all of what is now Niagara County, appropriated $100, the equivalent of $1,455 today, for the purpose in 1808.
But the care of the poor was contracted out to the lowest bidder, a system that Emerson said “led to abuse.” In 1824, New York State passed a Poorhouse Law, mandating that all counties operate such a facility.
Niagara County opened its poorhouse in 1829, and it remained on Niagara Street Extension until the county infirmary on Davison Road opened in 1915.
Thursday’s ceremony included the reading of one name from each year of the burial list from 1861 to 1916, as well as references to babies and others who died anonymously. “Before the 1850s, there are not good records,” Boles said.
The use of a ground-penetrating radar unit from Buffalo State established that the cemetery measures about 300 feet on each side. Most of it has not been cleared. “When we came here last year, I didn’t know what we were going to do, because a cocoon [of brush] had grown over it for 96 years,” said Dave Mack-Hardiman, People Inc. training director.
Most of the graves were marked with ordinary flat stones with no engraving. There were a few engraved gravestones, including a sizable but now-damaged marker for Sophia Wilson and Lewis W. Merritt of Newfane, a mother and son, and for Louis Spencer, an African-American man who died in 1884. His connection to Wilson and Merritt is unknown.
“We are going to make the death records accessible to people who want to research their ancestors,” Mack-Hardiman said.