As taken from “The Castle Genie,” Vol. 4, No. 3, March 1994
Newsletter of The Passaic County Historical Society
Through the years, many researchers have been baffled when searching for the “Sandy Hill Cemetery” in Paterson, New Jersey. Unfortunately for genealogists, Sandy Hill no longer exists. It is now the site of Paterson’s East Side High School. Also, it was not just one cemetery but rather a group of cemeteries.
The “Sandy Hill” section of Paterson is located on the east side of the city. For forty years, from 1814 through 1854, religious congregations of various denominations purchased land in this area and established cemeteries. (It is interesting to note that the custom of placing a cemetery adjacent to a church was not practiced in Paterson.)
The Dutch Reformed Church Cemetery at Totowa met the needs of the city for approximately 20 years after the city was founded in 1792. The first known purchase for cemetery purposes in Sandy Hill was made on July 11, 1814 by the First Presbyterian Church. This one-half triangular plot on Market Street formed the nucleus of the Sandy Hill complex. Sometime between 1814 and 1824, the Roman Catholic Chapel of Saint John also acquired a lot in this area.
As the city grew, other religious groups purchased cemetery grounds in Sandy Hill. In 1824, the First Methodist Episcopal Church bought a one acre tract, and in 1826, the First Presbyterian Society purchased a second plot of three acres adjacent to their original cemetery.
The Reformed Church of Totowa burned in 1827, and a portion of the land was sold as building lots. The remaining property continued to be used as a burying ground until about 1845. However, ten years prior in 1835, the church had also established a cemetery in Sandy Hill. They purchased a two acre tract adjacent to the Methodist cemetery.
In 1835, Saint Paul’s Protestant Episcopal Church bought five acres for cemetery purposes, and in 1839, the Roman Catholic Saint John’s Chapel bought a second tract of three acres beginning on the southeast line of the Presbyterian Cemetery. The next purchase was by the First Particular Baptist Church of Paterson of three acres in 1844.
The First Methodist Episcopal Church expanded their burying ground by buying 1.08 acres on Willis Street in 1851. The First Presbyterian’s then made their third purchase which contained 3.74 acres on May 11, 1854.
Besides those buried in this large complex of cemeteries, the victims of the cholera epidemic of 1832 were interred just outside the fence of the Presbyterian Cemetery on Vine Street, and African-Americans were interred on the face of the hill sloping toward Vine Street.
The Cedar Cliff Cemetery Company was formed in 1865 for the purpose of establishing a new public burial ground in the city. The resultant Cedar Lawn Cemetery, located along the Passaic River, was dedicated in 1867. Saint John’s R.C. Church made two attempts to situate a new cemetery in Paterson, but acts of legislature passed in March 1866 and February 1867, thwarted these plans. Saint John’s then purchased 73.19 acres in Totowa on May 1, 1867 and established Holy Sepulchre Cemetery. Another non-denominational cemetery, Laurel Grove, also located in Totowa, was formed in 1881. Mount Nebo Cemetery which adjoins Laurel Grove was established in 1887 by the Congregation of B’nai Jeshurun of the Barnet Memorial Temple.
As these new cemeteries were established, many families had their deceased members reinterred. However, in 1888, the First Reformed Church disinterred their Totowa cemetery and most of the removals were to their Sandy Hill cemetery.
The abandoned gravesites at Sandy Hill were frequently purchased by undertakers and resold as single graves. It was reported that often graves were sold more than once, and many interments were made without proper permits. One investigation determined that a great many bodies were buried at depths of six to thirty inches. Sometimes two or three bodies were buried in the same shallow grave. Although many individual graves were well taken care of by family members, there was an overall lack of interest in the cemeteries.
In an attempt to preserve Sandy Hill, a group of concerned citizens formed the Burial Ground Protective Association. In 1888, in an effort to stimulate public interest in the project, Dr. Oswald Warner, a member of the Association, wrote “Sandy Hill Cemeteries of the City of Paterson” in which he stated.. “fences became dilapidated and broken down, and they became a rambling ground and pasture for cattle, goats, pigs, and other domestic animals; brushwood, brambles, and thorns were allowed to grow wild; street grading encroached upon the hillsides; children jumped and played and made a sliding place of the steep sand embankment at its westerly boundary, and it was almost a daily occurrence to see the bones of somebody’s loved ones rolling down the sandy bank.”
The Burial Ground Protective Association could not reverse the decline and halt the decay of the Sandy Hill Cemeteries. The cemeteries were located in the direct path of the city’s eastward expansion. Unfortunately, there was never a master plan or one governing body to oversee the cemetery complex. This, combined with other factors, including the reluctance of some religious congregations to assume responsibility for their cemeteries, led to the demise of Sandy Hill.
In 1910, Saint John’s R.C. Church, removed all their Sandy Hill interments to Holy Sepulchre Cemetery in Totowa, and sold their Sandy Hill property to the City of Paterson. In 1912, the city instituted condemnation proceedings regarding the remaining cemeteries. and in 1914 moved the remains of all those still interred in Sandy Hill to either Cedar Lawn Cemetery or Laurel Grove Cemetery.
The Passaic County Historical Society has alphabetized a list of lot owners published in “Sandy Hill Cemeteries of the City of Paterson,” Oswald Warner, M.D., 1888. Additional information concerning Paterson area cemeteries can be found in “Cedar Lawn Cemetery,” Paterson, NJ, 1876, and “Paterson & Its Environs,” Vol. II, William W. Scott, 1920. These books and a list of Sandy Hill removals performed by the City of Paterson are in the Library of the Passaic County Historical Society.
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