NIAGARA FALLS – Government leaders and community members gathered Monday morning in Oakwood Cemetery to celebrate the 164-year-old facility’s designation to the National Register of Historic Places.
Traffic zipped by, but things were quiet behind the gates on Portage Road where some of the past movers and shakers of Niagara Falls have a final resting place. The 18.5-acre cemetery tells the story of Niagara Falls, said Rep. Brian Higgins, D-N.Y., 26th District, who along with Oakwood Cemetery Association President Whit Mallam unveiled a sign with the cemetery’s new designation.
The National Register of Historic Places is awarded through the National Park Service. The national list recognizes properties worthy of preservation that are an important part of our country’s history and provides these properties with a measure of protection.
The cemetery was founded in 1852 on land donated by Lavinia Porter, daughter of Judge Augustus Porter. He has been acknowledged as one of the founders of Niagara Falls and was one of the city’s largest landowners.
The cemetery’s still-existing topography of curving roadways and planned landscaping was designed by renowned engineer T.D. Judah, also known for his work on the first transcontinental railroad. The landscaping design was done by in 1882 by Drake Whitney, nephew of the three Whitney sisters for which Niagara Falls State Park’s Three Sisters’ Island is named. They were at the forefront of the “rural cemetery movement,” which preserved the parklike setting of the land in the heart of the city’s north end.
“It’s hard to believe this once was a rural area,” said Tom Yots, former city historian, former head of Preservation Buffalo Niagara and former Oakwood Board member. “If you saw an aerial view of the cemetery, it looks just as it did then, which is a tribute to those who have preserved this place.”
In addition to being well-known for its design, the cemetery is also a stop on the Niagara Falls history tour. Among the 22,000 buried in Oakwood, in addition to the Porters and the Whitneys, are the Schoellkopfs of hydroelectric fame, the Oppenheims, the Siberbergs, the Pfohls, the Haeberles, the Tattersalls and the Holleys. Also buried there is one of the area’s more well-known daredevils, Annie Edson Taylor, the first person to travel over the falls in a barrel, and Capt. Matthew Webb, the first man to swim across the English Channel.
Assemblyman John Ceretto, D-Lewiston gave credit to those who spent years working on the cemetery’s historic designation noting, “Nothing happens by chance. There’s a lot of work that’s involved with this.”
State Sen. Robert Ortt, R-North Tonawanda, agreed and issued a special proclamation to the Oakwood Cemetery board members for the work that went into putting the cemetery on the register.
Sara Capen, executive director of the Niagara Falls National Heritage Area, called Oakwood Cemetery a “tremendous cultural and historical asset.” She said work is underway to digitize the 20,000-plus records that exist in the cemetery so it can be a resource for many years to come.