Bill Hosley, Connecticut's madly brilliant historian, takes off quickly, urgently, through Hartford's Old North Cemetery, a place of forlorn but enduring beauty.
Wadsworth, Watkinson, Bushnell, Ellsworth, Olmsted and even Nathan Hale's girlfriend, "the handsomest girl in Connecticut," all lie here. So do Revolutionary and Civil War veterans, governors and congressmen. There are African-Americans and Hartford's early Jewish residents, Catholics and all those righteous Protestants who started it all.
I'm trying to catch up with Hosley, as he almost jogs around the cemetery, while telling me why this is Hartford's greatest metaphor, a sacred park of towering trees and broken gravestones.
"It's a metaphor for how we neglect things. The neglect is palpable and then there is all this amazing stuff,'' Hosley says, pausing, Indiana Jones-like. "It's also a positive metaphor. All of every culture or group that ever had an impact on the city is here."
There's some good news on the neglect. The city is in the midst of a $1.2 million project to fix up the 200-year-old graveyard, on Main Street just north of downtown. It will make a place that has endured decades of disregard more presentable, though there's nowhere near enough money to repair the rows of broken, vandalized and aging tombstones.
"The city of Hartford feels very strongly about its cemeteries,'' Tony Matta, acting architect for the city, told me when we spoke. "We are beginning a series of capital improvement projects."
There's a long way to go. This is no multimillion-dollar iQuilt project. It's not a hockey arena or a fanciful plan to bring the Park River back to Bushnell Park. It's just an old burial ground that tells us all about ourselves. Anyone can visit, for free, and feel something about Hartford.
One recent afternoon I convinced Hosley to take me on a tour after he posted a jiggly online video of a walk through the Old North Cemetery. He arrived on his red motor scooter, from Enfield.
"These were city makers. These were people who had a vision for the industrial age and how to build America,'' Hosley says shortly after we meet up. "One of Hartford's most important claims to fame is that it wrestled very effectively with this tension between capitalism and industrialism and religion."
"This [was] a Puritan community and it sort of stayed Puritan longer than most places. There were people that took moral issues really, really seriously. They wrote about it. They proselytized. They taught the nation what to think about it."
Hosley moves on to the Colt monument, which once marked the grave of Sam Colt until his wife had his remains moved to the more elegant Cedar Hill Cemetery in the South End. (That graveyard even has its own website.)
"That's the earliest use of the rampant colt,'' Hosley says before he reaches down to point out the carved signature of James Batterson, a monument maker and also the founder of the Travelers Insurance Co. We pass Harriet Beecher Stowe's sister Mary and Nathaniel Terry, a Hartford mayor and congressman.
A hundred yards from the grave of Lt. Col. Lewis Ledyard Weld, a white Hartford native who led an African-American regiment (and who died of a bad cold in the Civil War), we come to the rows of simple stone markers for the dozens of "colored" infantrymen buried here, perhaps one of the largest collections in the Northeast. There should be a sign, a marker of some sort, to explain the profound significance of these black men who fought for the Union. Sadly, there's nothing.
We hustle past David Watkinson, Erasmus Pease and Calvin Day to the cemetery's most famous inhabitant, Frederick Law Olmsted. His remains rest in a family crypt with a monument that, while substantial, offers no explanation of the famous landscape and park designer's contribution to history and the creation of the National Park Service.
"This wasn't just somebody who designed Central Park and gave birth to the landscape architecture profession. He was a profound visionary,'' Hosley says.
A cemetery is a place of interwoven stories, where dim memories can be intimate and close, if only briefly. Sure, it would be great if the grounds could be properly restored, or at least the tombstones repaired. But in a city with a projected $50 million deficit, there are more urgent needs to fill.
The Old North Cemetery, a lonely outpost, is still worth a visit if you long to make a deeper connection to Hartford's past.
"This is I how you learn about a place, in the graveyards,'' Hosley assures me after our tour. "Graveyards are never closed."
Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant.
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