Press-Republican

October 15, 2012

No right-of-way to historical cemetery

Westport seeks right-of-way to historic Old Burying Ground

By KIM SMITH DEDAM
Press-Republican

---- — WESTPORT — The Old Burying Ground is partially hidden in the center of town, just a few dozen yards off Main Street.

It’s in the center of Old Arsenal Road’s loop, a berm of land on the ridge overlooking Lake Champlain.

The old cemetery dates to years before Westport was chartered in 1815 and separated from Elizabethtown.

The 26 or so known souls laid to rest in the quiet earth might have called the settlement by its earliest name, Bessboro. 

The first burial in the wooded grove was in 1810, according to a gravestone survey of the site in done 1948.

The cemetery was abandoned sometime in the mid-to-late-nineteenth century; the last known burial was in 1881. 

The historic graveyard was unkempt and abandoned when Caroline Halstead Royce published “The History of Bessboro” in 1904. 

For decades, the town, it’s council, historians and others have tried to establish a right-of-way to reach the squarish half-acre or so.

Deeds show how adjoining properties were divided and sold, closing in the site in centuries of growth.

Stories the cemetery kept in silence might tell how Lake Champlain wilderness grew from pioneer homesteads into orderly village streets.

And now Westport is moving to reclaim its Old Burying Ground.

‘TOWN TREASURE’

Resident Sue Frisbie is working carefully to sort and cipher, collect facts and find resources.

Her husband, Rick Frisbie, and their children have ancestors buried there — one stone is marked “Jabez Frisbie Who died March 16, 1844. In the 42nd year of his age.”

His infant child lies nearby, her short life remembered as: “Elizabeth daugh. of Jabez & Eliza A. Frisbie, died Jan. 23, 1828 Æ 6 months.”

Mrs. Frisbie sees the Old Burying Ground as a town treasure.

“Years ago, the cemetery was cleaned. But the gravestones were piled up on top of each other,” she said.

“We’ve been working for three or four years now to establish a right-of-way, and we’re close.”

Westport’s Old Burying Ground Committee is looking to gain access, which would then allow town personnel to begin the process of finding the graves, clearing debris and resetting tombstones.

“We’re trying to make it happen,” Mrs. Frisbie said, seeming hopeful.

“I haven’t been able to find out when the cemetery was abandoned,” she said. “I think it was originally called the Cole Cemetery. I have found that, often, in the early days, graves weren’t marked.”

NO FORMAL RECORD

Town Supervisor Dan Connell said they haven’t uncovered a deeded right-of-way to the completely landlocked parcel.

“In (state) law, when a cemetery is abandoned, the town has to take over. Back whenever it got abandoned, probably no formal action was taken,” he said.

“At least we’ve found no formal record of any action.” 

Retired Town Historian Betty White also tried several times in the course of her 10-year tenure to find a right-of-way solution.

She did locate the cemetery survey done in 1948 by Grace Smith, which will prove critical as the Old Burying Ground is reclaimed.

“In the last few months, there has been some activity,” White said in a recent interview.

“They are seeking permission from one landowner. I know that they are going to try to do some improvement on it.”

COMMERCIAL GROWTH

How time and a community might overgrow an old graveyard is evident in history’s chronicle here.

Most of the tombstones listed in the 1948 survey are dated in the first half of the 19th century.

Royce’s history describes immense commercial growth in Westport that began with an armory built not far from the cemetery in 1861. 

The Arsenal gave its name to the road around the graveyard, but it never held guns. 

It was used for town meetings and as Floral Hall for 15 years when the Essex County Fairgrounds neighbored the graveyard in 1865.

Lake Champlain Ore & Iro Co. built an iron smelting operation below the cemetery in 1868.

‘ACCURATELY THIS TIME’

Cordoned off by changing land use and property changing hands, the sleepy site was largely overlooked and all but forgotten.

Gravestones were knocked off their stone bases. Others, broken, are leaned against trees or laid flat on the ground.

Specialists can sometimes tell where a headstone came from by its base, Mrs. Frisbie said.

And once a right-of-way is gained, the committee will need expertise to reclaim the site.

“The town is going to do this accurately this time and cost-effectively,” she said.

“The committee is researching how to identify the graves. 

“Step one. Step two. Step three. It’s been fascinating.”

Email Kim Smith Dedam: 

kdedam@pressrepublican.com