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Thursday, Jan. 28, 2010 04:49 pm

A pictorial history of the ‘city of the dead’

New book marks 150 years for Oak Ridge Cemetery, the nation’s second most-visited

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Oak Ridge was among the first cemeteries that were designed to look like parks. In the 1800s families would often travel there on Sundays to enjoy the scenery.
PHOTO COURTESY OF THE SANGAMON VALLEY COLLECTION AT LINCOLN LIBRARY

One hundred fifty years ago this year, Springfield’s Oak Ridge Cemetery was dedicated by former mayor James Conkling as a “city of the dead.” A new book by former city historian Edward Russo and current city historian Curtis Mann outlines and illustrates the history of our famous graveyard, which is the nation’s most visited cemetery next to Arlington National Cemetery in Washington, D. C.

 Their book, Oak Ridge Cemetery (Arcadia Publishing, 2009) is a pictorial, featuring dozens of photos of the cemetery from its early days to the present and uses short captions to tell its story.

 That story began in 1855 when the cemetery opened. At that time, life spans were shorter than they are now and child mortality was common. A family with 10 children might only see five live to adulthood. (Consider Abraham Lincoln’s family, which saw only one of four children live past the teen years.) Our ancestors developed a new type of cemetery to help them deal with frequent deaths.

 First, for sanitary reasons, they moved cemeteries away from cities. Second, they made their cemeteries like parks instead of austere, tombstone-laden lots. These lovely, pastoral settings helped soften the emotional sting of visiting departed loved ones and attending frequent burials. The new cemeteries were called rural landscape cemeteries and Oak Ridge was a prime and early example, according to the book.

 “Springfield is commonly thought to be, and often is, laggard when it comes to new trends,” says Russo. “Oak Ridge Cemetery is a significant exception.” Springfield was one of the leaders in developing a rural landscape cemetery.

 The city hired respected landscape writer William Saunders, who also laid out the Soldiers’ National Cemetery at Gettysburg, Pa., to take Oak Ridge’s wild and woolly few acres and turn them into a beautiful, naturalistic, park-like cemetery. Oak Ridge now spans 365 acres.

 Although Russo says one of the greatest challenges in creating the book was the dearth of early photos of Oak Ridge, the photos are plentiful enough to give us an idea of how untamed the land was compared to the manicured cemetery we know today. According to the authors, a biographer of one the most influential past presidents of the cemetery, Dr. Henry Wohlgemuth, says Oak Ridge was initially “a rough and forbidding harbor for wild animals.”

 Russo, who’s had a lifelong interest in the cemetery, says Wohlgemuth was instrumental in keeping the park-like design of the cemetery and chronicling its early history.

 Oak Ridge is best known as the resting place of Abraham Lincoln; his tomb is an integral and fascinating part of the cemetery’s story. It has been rebuilt twice: first in 1899 and again in 1928. Those laborious reconstructions are illustrated in the book through interesting photos, one showing the disinterring of the Lincolns’ bodies, which were buried in secret locations for safekeeping during the process.

 Lincoln and Oak Ridge are so intertwined that sometimes the former overshadows the latter. One thing Russo wants the book to impress upon readers is that the cemetery “predates the burial of Lincoln and has its own history apart from the Lincoln monument.”

 The book does a good job of that, and of highlighting some of the other interesting “residents” of this “city of the dead.” As Russo and Mann write: “Oak Ridge hosts a president, Revolutionary War veteran, Illinois governors, statesmen, scoundrels, pioneers, infants, industrialists, teachers, poets, thieves and labor leaders.” One of those was former Illinois Gov. John R. Tanner, whose unique domed, granite mausoleum is a conspicuous site after entering the cemetery on Monument Avenue.

 While a pictorial book about Oak Ridge gives readers an opportunity they wouldn’t have otherwise to see little-viewed photos of the cemetery and the sometimes secretive parts of its story, like the temporary burials of the Lincolns’ bodies, the downside is it doesn’t always provide enough text to tell all of the story for more curious readers. Nonetheless, it’s a quick, easy read with plenty of interesting photos and enough facts to familiarize readers with some of the fascinating people, besides the Lincolns, who “reside” at Oak Ridge.

 And it helps us appreciate the care that has gone into planning and caring for this nationally-important cemetery. Both Oak Ridge and the book were possible, “only because of earlier historians who cared about the cemetery’s history as much as I do and collected and preserved it,” Russo says. “These include John Carrol Power, Dr. Wohlgemuth, Dr. Floyd Barringer and many others, and especially all those unnamed photographers whose photos tell us what we know today.”

Contact Tara McAndrew at tmcand22@aol.com.

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