In 1847, Saint John had a dilemma: it was rapidly running out of places to bury the dead. Both the Loyalist Burial Ground uptown and the Church of England burial site near the Marsh Bridge were filled to capacity and closed to further burials. That year, a committee of concerned citizens raised enough money to acquire the site they named the Rural Cemetery — consisting of 70 acres from Mr. James Peters, Jr. and 40 acres from Mr. Henry Gilbert — which would later become Fernhill. The entrance off present-day Rothesay Avenue, pictured, was originally the only point of access to the marshy, rural graveyard.
Poet Andrew Marvell wrote, “The grave’s a fine and private place / But none, I think, do there embrace.” And indeed, some people are repelled by the thought of hanging out in a graveyard.
But Fernhill Cemetery is much more than that.
Founded in east Saint John in 1848, Fernhill is the largest cemetery on the East Coast, rivalling in size both Toronto’s historic Mount Pleasant Cemetery, and rambling Mount Royal in Montreal — albeit with only 43,000 permanent residents, compared to the168,000 to 200,000 in those other urban burial grounds.
It remains one of the Saint John’s biggest, least-explored green spaces.
Two decades older than Canada itself, Fernhill is home to secret paths, quiet fountains, famous politicians, victims of tragic shipwrecks, and ordinary folks from all walks of life.
The CBC’s Julia Wright dug deep into its stories, and captured these photos.
A 19th-century footpath, lined with moss-covered boulders, leads from Rothesay Avenue uphill to the oldest section of the cemetery. There are eight kilometres of paved roadways in Fernhill, according to general manager Doug Forbes. That doesn’t include the ‘miles and miles’ of unpaved paths wending their way through wooded areas bisected by streams and rolling hills. Visitors ‘would come up here on Marsh Road, which was what Rothesay Avenue was called at the time, by trolley,’ Forbes said, ‘and have a picnic lunch. They would tend the graves and spend time in a rest house, which used to be located down by Rothesay Avenue.” In 2017, the original rest house no longer exists, but many of the paths used by horses and pedestrians remain.
A map created by Fernhill Cemetery shows how elaborate the paths lacing through the park-like grounds have become after 170 years of expansions and additions. Many of the laneways are named after trees and flowers — cypress, bougainvillea, iris, hyacinth, hemlock — while others, like Water and Hill avenues, are named after features of the landscape. Still others, like the sections reserved for infants, are indicated merely by numbers. The small Jewish cemetery, Shaarei Zedek, is on the upper left of the map. (Fernhill Cemtery)
The Ruel Fountain, a landmark on the Central Avenue of the cemetery, was dedicated in 1895 by the president of Fernhill’s board of directors, James. R. Ruel. Made of cast iron, it depicts the figure of a woman on a central circular dais. Water used to flow from goat heads around the outside into the large ground-level bottom section, but the heads had to be removed decades ago because of vandalism. One day, Forbes said, he hopes to have them recast and replaced.
The rest house, or pavilion, stands out in the centre of the cemetery with its ornate red and custard-coloured railings and decorative woodwork. Originally built in 1898 across the lane from the Ruel Fountain, it was painted and restored in 1991. Starting in 1914, streetcars started running to the cemetery from uptown Saint John, some five kilometres away. The rest house, according to Forbes, was a popular stop for those visitors, who would take their lunch there before returning on the afternoon streetcar.
Sometimes the most ordinary-looking graves have the most incredible stories. The inscription of the 1787 stone, pictured, reads: “Here lyeth the Bodies of Mrs Sarah Grant Aged 38 Years Widow of the late Major Alex Grant & Miss Elizabeth Chandler Aged 27 Years who were Shipwreck’d on their passage from Digby to St. John on the night of the 9th day of March 1787 & Perished in the woods on the 11th of said Month.” On the other side, it bears the names of Col. Joshua Chandler, 61, and his son William Chandler, 29, who died in the same shipwreck. According to the 1883 book The Chandler Family: The Descendants of William and Annis Chandler who Settled in Roxbury, Mass., 1637, the family was ship-wrecked at Musquash Head, west of Saint John. William drowned trying to swim to land, while Col. Chandler and his daughter died from exposure, allegedly two days after they reached shore. The family was originally buried in the Loyalist Burial Ground, but in the 19th century their remains were reinterred in the lot of Amos Botsford in Fernhill Cemetery.
All dogs go to heaven: Animals are a popular feature of many graves in Fernhill. These two stone pups eternally guard the feet of their masters, members of the Osgood family, who died in the 18th century. Yet to Forbes knowledge, there are no dogs actually buried in Fernhill. ‘This isn’t the [Stephen King novel] Pet Semetery,’ he said. Foot stones like the ones pictured are a way of ensuring that deceased loved ones are accompanied, at least symbolically, in the afterlife by their beloved pets.
Laser etching, photos, solar lights, and other hi-tech personalized touches are common on gravestones in 2017, but in the early 1920s, when Dora and Harry Hurwitz were buried, the insertion of photos onto a permanent memorial would have been cutting-edge technology. The cameo portraits of Dora Hurwitz and her 17-year-old son, Harry, pictured, have faded slightly with age but still give a haunting glimpse of the family they memorialize. The Hurwitz grave, inscribed in Hebrew, is located in the Shaarei Zedek Cemetery. The Jewish cemetery has been part of Fernhill since 1873.
The concrete Whispering Waters fountain, surrounded in summer by greenery, is clearly visible from Westmorland Road. Like the Ruel Fountain, it’s been dry ever since the City of Saint John undertook its safe clean drinking water project years ago, decommissioning the old cast iron water mains that ran through the centre of the cemetery from Westmorland to Rothesay Avenue. ‘The water mains were abandoned when the new systems were put into place,’ Forbes said, adding that in coming years, this aging and disused fountain will likely be removed.
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