The SEPTA train I take to Philadelphia passes an old cemetery near the University of Penn with many obelisks, mourning statues, and mausoleums, just the type of cemetery I love to explore. I could see on a map it was called the Woodlands Cemetery, but it was a long walk from the University City train stop. The long walk there and back again would leave me little energy to explore, so for years it remained just a thought.
But the thought changed to a possibility when I found several trolleys stopped just across the street from the main entrance as they emerged, zombie-like, from underground to fan out into the suburbs. My first attempt got me there on the one day of the year they closed for tree-trimming (see 8/25/2013 posting). From the locked gate I could hear the mocking laughter of the dead.
“The Woodlands” was an old term that came up several times in my research on Bartram’s Garden (see 8/24/2012 posting), but seemingly unrelated to anything cemetery-ish. Finally, I found the explanation in Wikipedia. Bear with me; there is a lot of background to the story.
The land was purchased in 1735 by the Philadelphia lawyer Andrew Hamilton (No relation to Alexander, but known to be so cleaver he was the origin of the term “Philadelphia lawyer.”) and passed on to his son, also named Andrew, and then on to his son William. They referred to the undeveloped parcel as “The Woodlands,” which it was back then, at least until William built the Woodlands Mansion, a Georgian-style stone home with a large portico. He was a botanist who collected and exchanged numerous native plants with his friends and neighbors, including the Bartram family at nearby Bartram’s Garden. (So far, nothing to do with a cemetery.) By the time of William’s death in 1813, the mansion had been expanded several times and the land stretched from the Schuylkill River all the way north to Market Street and west to 42nd Street.
William’s heirs sold off most of the land at an attractive price as the area became a fashionable West Philadelphia neighborhood. In 1840, the Woodlands Cemetery Company (here comes the cemetery part) purchased the remaining core of the estate to preserve the mansion, carriage house, and greenhouse, together with the magnificent mature trees and plantings. It was ideal land for a newly popular “rural cemetery.”
These rural, or “garden,” cemeteries were cemeteries as we know them today. They were offered as a spacious alternative to the crowded and unhygienic city burial grounds. An early advertisement stressed their wholesome atmosphere where “the decaying bodies of the dead may securely moulder into kindred dust, with an abundant vegetation and free winds to absorb and dissipate all noxious effluvia.”
I never realized I would end up as noxious effluvia, but I guess we all do no matter what our accomplishments or how good-looking we once were.
The Woodlands Cemetery was a rival of Laurel Hill Cemetery, founded a few years earlier on Kelly (East River) Drive, and the two competed for celebrities, even moving bodies from other cemeteries to bolster their prestige.
The Woodlands Cemetery did well. They have many Drexels and Biddles, Joseph Campbell, the founder of Campbell’s Soup, artist Thomas Eakins, William Bucknell, eponym of Bucknell University, and Colonel Scott, who approved the name “Lansdowne” and who is the eponym of Lansdowne’s Scottdale Road (see 6/22/2007 posting, Naming Lansdowne). They still have openings if you yearn to eternally lie among Philadelphia’s famous.
The old mansion is the centerpiece of the cemetery. Not only is the cemetery open to the public, it is designated as “The Woodlands National Recreation Trail” by the National Park Service.
A National Recreational Trail in a cemetery? Really? Must be some cemetery!
My failure to get through the gates was only a temporary setback. Watch for a posting on my next attempt that should be successful.