LOCKPORT – In the days before Social Security, welfare and Medicaid, people would do anything to stay out of the Niagara County Almshouse – even go over Niagara Falls in a barrel.
According to Dave Mack-Hardiman of People Inc., that was the motive for 63-year-old Annie Edson Taylor, who in 1901 became the first person to attempt that stunt.
But hundreds of others entered the almshouse, also known as the poorhouse, and never left. Thursday was a day to remember those who died there.
A restored grave marker, the only legible one left in a cemetery that may hold as many as 1,400 bodies, was unveiled in the woods across Niagara Street Extension from the Niagara County Jail.
It’s a graveyard that was used to bury those who died in the county-run facility that stood on the site between 1829 and 1915. At its peak, the 120-acre almshouse site included a large residence, a working farm and a quarry.
The facility was operated in response to a state mandate that every county had to open a facility to take care of, as the plaque on a historical marker on the roadside puts it, those who were “poor, sick, homeless, mentally ill, injured or considered mentally deficient.”
No one was buried on the site after 1916, and eventually it was forgotten. According to Laurence Haseley, Town of Lockport historian and a former county legislator, the county actually sold the property at one point and had to buy it back.
“There was nothing here to indicate there even was a cemetery. We believe all people should be treated equally and fairly, even in death,” said Mack-Hardiman, People Inc. associate vice president. “Some of these people have descendants who live in the area.”
Haseley said there were previous efforts to maintain the property. “Our town historical society had the county sheriff’s work crew in here about 10 years ago,” Haseley said. “We had cleaned up some, but for some reason the work stopped.”
Two years ago, People Inc., the Buffalo-based human services agency, began clearing the brush from the overgrown graveyard. Students from SUNY Buffalo State’s anthropology department used ground-penetrating radar to try to determine the boundaries of the cemetery. It was estimated at about 300 by 300 feet.
Most of the brush hasn’t been removed, but there is a clearing with a marble memorial bench, which was unveiled at a similar ceremony in October 2012.
Friday’s ceremony unveiled a restored marker for Lewis W. Merritt of Newfane, his mother, Sophia Wilson, and an African-American man, Louis Spencer, who may have worked for them. Spencer died in 1884.
Participants in the unveiling included Rhonda Frederick, chief operating officer of People Inc.; Douglas Farley, director of its Museum of disABILITY History; Nancy Palumbo, chief administrative officer of People Inc.; and Mack-Hardiman.
Also, County Historian Catherine Emerson released two doves from a white, heart-shaped basket; they flew south, apparently heading for Orchard Park, where People Inc. had acquired them. County Legislature Chairman William L. Ross presented a citation of congratulations.
“The county does do the mowing and they have been coming up here regularly,” Mack-Hardiman said. “We plan to come up every year to make sure things don’t become overgrown again and to keep the faith with the dead.”
People Inc. has cleared three other abandoned cemeteries, two in Gowanda and one in Perrysburg. It is now working on one in Livingston County.
“Part of our mission is to try to give some identity to the people who lived in institutions,” Farley said. “They kind of lived a nameless existence and they died with a nameless existence. We’re trying to restore a sense of dignity and respect to those who are buried in institutional cemeteries.”
In 1915, Niagara County moved its health care for the poor to Davison Road in Lockport, where the county infirmary was built. That’s where Annie Edson Taylor died in 1921, her trip over the Falls having failed to bring her financial security.