Transforming Dorchester North Burying Ground

Transforming Dorchester North Burying Ground

It is All Hallow?s Eve this week and in honor of the true meaning of the occasion, guest blogger Kelly Thomas, Director of the Boston Parks and Recreation Department?s Historic Burying Grounds Initiative, updates us on the extraordinary preservation projects her program has been undertaking to restore and maintain Dorchester?s oldest burying place, in Upham?s Corner. 

The Dorchester North Burying Ground is Dorchester?s earliest remaining landmark. It is the burial place of some of Dorchester?s most prominent founding citizens. It is also one of seven seventeenth-century burying grounds in Boston. First laid out in 1633, it is the final resting place of two colonial governors William Stoughton, who was also Chief Justice during the Salem witch trials of 1692; and William Tailer. It also contains the graves of John Foster; the first printer in Boston; minister Richard Mather; 40 unknown Revolutionary War soldiers; and three African-American slaves.

Since 2000 three major preservation projects have taken place in this site. The first of these projects was the renovation of the Wood family mausoleum in the rear of the site. This project took place in 2001-2003. This structure was built in the late 19th century. This is the only mausoleum in any of the historic burying grounds. This beautiful granite and slate structure had fallen into serious disrepair by the 1970s. Roof slates and granite blocks had fallen off the mausoleum, the elaborate bronze strap hinges on the thick slate door had been stolen and plants were growing all over the small building. Eventually the structure was covered with chicken wire to prevent anyone from being harmed by falling stone pieces. A $46,000 grant received from the Massachusetts Historical Commission enabled us to repair this structure. The total cost of the repairs was $102,855.

The next major project was the conservation and resetting of headstones and the stabilization of one mound tomb, which took place in 2002-2004. We used two different types of contractors to accomplish this project: one who was specialized in art conservation and the other who was specialized in masonry. The conservation project primarily addressed the older slate headstones. The two primary problems destroying the gravestones were breakage into pieces and vertical cleaving of the slate. The gravestone resetting project dealt with both the older stones which may have simply fallen over and the more modern (19th century) headstones which were frequently mounted with iron pins onto one or more bases. A larger mound tomb with unstable walls and roof was also repaired. This project received two grants: one for $62,500 from the Massachusetts Department of Environment Management and one for $45,000 from the Massachusetts Historical Commission. In total the project cost $255,255.

The most recent preservation project was the repair and stabilization of a row of above-ground tombs along the eastern wall of the site. This project took place in 2011-2012. The entrances to the tombs face into the site and the ends of the tombs abut the perimeter wall. Although the tombs looked solid, numerous trees had grown up on top of the tombs. Some of these trees were pushing against the wall behind the tombs and had caused it to crack and to lean towards the houses behind it. In order to stabilize this structure, all of the trees had to be removed. Once all of the tree roots were gone the contractor was able to stabilize the tombs so there was no pressure on the rear wall and the tombs were once more structurally sound. The total cost for this project was $107,356.

There is still much to do in Dorchester North Burying Ground. Many of the headstones that were not included in the earlier conservation and resetting project still need to have work done. Many of the mound tombs could also use a little repair work. In the 19th century local horticulture specialist Samuel Downer turned this previously barren burying ground into a landscaped arboretum, with over 400 shade and specimen trees! We would like to work towards restoring that Victorian landscape.