The Founding of Fishkill Rural Cemetery
Before the formation of community cemeteries, a country churchyard was the only public burial ground available, e.g. the Fishkill Dutch Reformed Churchyard or that of Trinity Episcopal in the village. Sometimes an obscure corner of the family farm held the remains of family members. Gradually, the churchyards filled up; and conditions became unsanitary. So Fishkill citizens met to establish a suitable site for a cemetery. Our cemetery’s founding was part of a larger movement to create what were called “rural cemeteries,” in contrast them to smaller village burial grounds, which were often confined and constrained.
The rural cemetery plans included the retention of natural features such as ponds and mature forests. Roads and paths were added, which followed the natural contours of the land, as well as the planting of native and exotic trees and plants. From their inception, rural cemeteries were intended as civic institutions designed for public use. Before the widespread development of public parks, the rural cemetery even provided a place for the general public to enjoy the outdoors in calm serenity. That is why you will sometimes see photographs of families strolling, or even picnicking, on cemetery grounds.
The Fishkill Rural Cemetery was organized in 1866, with Isaac Cotheal as chairman and James E. Van Steenbergh as secretary at the original meeting. Van Steenbergh was in many respects the driving force behind our cemetery. One newspaper column noted that he “quietly endeavored to arouse the public interest in the laudable object and at the same time select and procure a suitable site.”
The committee unanimously agreed upon a 27-acre tract, which was purchased from James Smith, a local farmer. It was described as “laying a quarter mile north of the Village Main Street, west of Ephraim M. Schofield’s farm, extending forward to the post road, with a right of way thoroughfare. …Happily, Mr. Scofield readily supplied at a nominal price a strip of land for entrance purposes via the Poughkeepsie Road.”
They gathered on the night of April 25, 1866, at the Union Hotel on Main Street to organize under the laws of the state. The officers and trustees were: Dr. Lewis H. White, president; Samuel A. Hayt, vice president; Hyman B. Rosa, secretary; James E. Dean, treasurer; Miles Scofield, Alexander Bartow, Jacob G. Van Wyck, Milton A. Fowler and Richard H. Brinckerhoff. All of these men are buried here, and their family surnames are still familiar to us here in Fishkill, more than a century later. In all, 30 charter subscribers would answer Mr. Van Steenbergh’s original call to establish the Fishkill Rural Cemetery.
The cemetery officials paid 50 dollars to G.E. Harney, an architect from Cold Spring, to map the grounds, along with plans for a gateway and gardener’s cottage. The services of B.F. Hathaway, a landscape engineer of Stamford, Connectidut, were secured, and under the direction of Joseph Schofield, soon began the work of “arranging and beautifying the grounds, constructing avenues and walks, and doing surface grading.” Special days were designated for plot sales, and the response was strong enough that, by summer, the cemetery’s financial success of the cemetery was virtually assured.
A dedication ceremony was held on October 17, 1866. Newspapers described “a throng of people attending,” with hundreds visiting the grounds hours before the ceremony began. So many people had gathered by noon, that word was sent to Glenham that the band was needed! The musicians led a procession up Main Street to the raised platform, which was set near “the fountain circle.” (one of two fountains that no longer exist – one once located near the vault and another on an island in the middle of the pond.) According to newspaper reports, “the band knew only two pieces of music suitable for such an occasion but it did its best with them.” It was estimated that 3,000 people attended that opening ceremony.
Dr. White presided over the dedication service, and Dr. Kip of the historic Dutch Reformed Church, which, of course, is currently celebrating its 300th anniversary, offered the invocation. Dutchess County Judge the Honorable Allard Anthony, a native of Glenham, presented the keynote address. In it, he said, “In the preparation of this rural cemetery, we return to the mode which nature prompts.” A later historian wrote of his speech here that day: “Even to read it is thrilling, but on that beautiful October afternoon, delivered by the author whose oratorical powers were preeminent, it produced a profound impression and was vividly remembered by all hearers as long as they lived. It was a song of hope, of triumph, of victory.”
The initial price of plots ranged from 40 to 65 cents per square foot depending upon location. An 1866 promotional booklet proudly boasted that the cemetery was free from debt, and that more than $25,000 in funds had been amassed – no small sum in 1866. Incidentally, at a time when America was undergoing the Industrial Revolution, one of the primary selling points was that no “gasses or coal” were present nearby to potentially “begrime memorials.”
The first interments were removals from other burial grounds. During the earliest years of the cemetery, many plots were sold to people from New York City and Brooklyn who had local family connections. The first structure, completed in 1866, was the receiving vault. It initially held the remains of deceased plot owners while the cemetery grounds and roads were being formally prepared. The vault, which can retain as many as 20 remains, is still used for holding purposes during winter. A tunnel connects it to the DuBois Chapel, and train tracks were once used to transport caskets between the chapel and vault when winter burials were impossible.
Soon after the vault was constructed, a Carpenter Gothic entrance lodge was finished. Sadly, it was subsequently torn down. In 1879, the board authorized the construction of an arched stone bridge to replace the original wooden, more-rustic one that had become unstable.
It would take nearly 20 years before a suitable chapel was built. Our beautiful DuBois Chapel was erected in 1889 and was the gift of Dr. Abram Dubois, a native of Fishkill but a resident of New York City. (Dubois married a Brinckerhoff descendant, and it was he who also suggested that the early Brinckerhoff gravestones be placed inside the Dutch Reformed Church in order to prevent their further decay.) He donated $2,000 for the construction of our chapel. (When it was completely restored more than a century later in a four-year effort funded by friends of the cemetery, the cost exceeded $150,000.)
From an 1888 article in the Fishkill Journal, we learn that the outside chapel walls were constructed of blue dolomite stone, quarried here on the site. The trim is of Ohio sandstone. The windows, doors and arches denote the Gothic style of architecture, as do the clergyman’s chair and lectern. It contains beautiful stained-glass windows, two added during the restoration, and is all presented in honor or memory of local citizens.
The beautiful bell was donated by James A. Van Nostrand in 1877. The bell originally hung in the gatehouse; it was cast at the Meneely Bell Foundry in Troy and weighs 500 pounds. It was described as “a beautiful and fine-toned bell to be hung in the tower at the entrance, to be tolled on the approach of funerals, thus supplying a want long felt by this Association.” The bell and its tower were also recently restored through the generosity of friends of the cemetery.
Van Nostrand and Dubois became two of our cemetery’s most generous benefactors, as DuBois also purchased a 10-acre field adjacent to the cemetery along the road north of the entrance and deeded it to the cemetery. Several years later, his son and daughter purchased and deeded to the cemetery an equal tract of land to the south. Other land was purchased over time and we now have a total of 142 acres of property.
As the new century turned, the cemetery board of trustees reported that $44,000 had been invested in the cemetery and its grounds, which is the equivalent of more than $1.1 million in today’s currency. It is a privilege for the current board of trustees to share that we continue to invest in our beautiful rural cemetery by adding modern-day amenities, such as the mausoleum and columbarium, and the cemetery expansion that we expect to launch later this year. We are proud to continue the vision of this cemetery’s founders to maintain a beautiful, rural resting place for our community’s loved ones.
While it is important to appreciate the early history of our cemetery and the story of its grounds and its evolution as a community institution, it is more important to realize that the true purpose of our cemetery: to care for the dead with dignity and to afford respect and a peaceful final resting place to those who have been entrusted to our care by their loved ones. During these 150 years of service to Fishkill-area families, there have been slightly more than 20,000 interments on our grounds. It is our privilege to Rediscover our history; to Remember those who are buried here; and to Reflect on their contributions to our community.