Old Methodist Cemetery in Peterborough

COPYRIGHT (c) 2018 Michael Stephenson

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Burying Ground on Hilliard Street is now an Unsightly Ruin.


Stones lie broken and lovers scribble names on monuments.

Perhaps in this neglected spot is laid

Some heart once pregnant with celestial fire

Hands, that the rod of Empire might have sway’d

Or waked in estascy the living lyre.


A forgotten city of the dead is to be found within the city limits of Peterborough, surrounded by houses, passed by the railroad and within the sight of clanging trolley cars. Before the eyes of those who lie there the doors of the forest opened on the wild of the country which they conquered and made fit for the whizzing wheels of ponderous machinery that supports the city---------- -----the city that forgets.---

The din of factory and workshop reaches the lonely hillside strewn with stones, and into its heart men are drilling for the sand that goes to make the needs of modern life---plebian pipe and massive monumental vaults----- menacing the last narrow holdings of the bold pioneers-who-opened-the-wonders of a new world and rolled back the forest to make a fit habitation for their grandchildren-who forget.

Life, delightful life, spins merrily past; the perennial stream of youth flows on. The old cemetery wistfully bids it cast back a loving thought into the past, a little gift for the old laborers who worked so diligently in the forgotten hours till the weary failing hands laid down the tools with which they had subdued the wilderness and soon lay silent in the dust of the hillside.

And-now-the-cemetery-lies-neglected, a dishonor to the dead, a reproach on the past and a disgrace to the living generation. It was opened during the time of the disputes-about-church-lands, and its maintenance vested in a board of trustees of George Street Methodist church, now probably the largest and most influential congregation in the city. The burying place was on the “back road” on the northern outskirts of the town, and some bodies from the Central cemetery, closed by order of the council, were removed to it. The armoires and the Collegiate now stand where the Central cemetery was located.


Of the twelve members on the original board appointed to manage the cemetery, two are interred within its bounds, Joseph Stalker and Walter Sheridan. The latter was described as “a man much respected for his large knowledge of town and county affairs” and he was so highly esteemed by his church that the congregation erected the most pretentious monument in the cemetery over his grave-a monument composed of wood and stone that time and abuse have disintegrated. Mr. Sheridan was a public figure in his day and enjoyed the distinction of being the first clerk of the united counties of Peterborough and Victoria in 1850, when his yearly salary was 100 pounds. He held that office until the separation of the counties in 1858, when he became the first clerk of the county of Peterborough. He was also a member for several years of the school board and held the position of secretary of the board charged with the administration of the cemetery where he lies. He came to Canada from Ireland where he was born in County Carlow in 1796, and was laid to rest beside his wife, Martha, in December 1875.

A few paces away from this big monument is the grave of Rev. John S. Marsden, a Wesleyan missionary who died in 1845 in the prime of his manhood. Of him nothing is known and no record appears in Methodist church history in Peterborough. His tombstone is fallen from its pedestal and lies askew on the grave of the man who must have been one of the first ministers of the gospel to brave the hardships of pioneering in the district.

John Cobb, who died on November 27, 1842, eighteen years after the solitude of the town site was disturbed by the first immigration, is buried here. Was he artisan or clerk, soldier or baker? No one knows. To-day his weathered tombstone lies shattered on his rude couch. A few paces away is the last resting place of Thomas Bell, a native of Donegal, Ireland, who immigrated to Peterborough in 1830 and died 26 years later. In his lot, which has been robbed of its surrounding chain, are buried many of his family.

Eighty-four graves bear decipherable stones, and as many more have shattered stones, or monuments fallen face down, or are unmarked. There is no fence around the cemetery, and the whole area is littered with broken crockery, old tins, cast-out utensils, weeds, briars rank undergrowth and garbage. Boys have carried away headstones for use as bases for their ball diamonds and their elders have removed others to make rustic seats. Iron fences that were erected by loving hands to guard the sacred soil where beloved ones lay have been ruthlessly torn from their foundations and wantonly cast aside. A joker whose sense of humor savors of blasphemy, has turned a tombstone upside down so that the pointing hand with its legend “Gone Home” points downward instead of heavenward. And mooning couples, making a rendezvous of the city of the dead, have scribbled their names in intwinded hearts on the stones that bear the deep-cut records of parents’ love and anguish.

In 1890 the cemetery was notorious as the meeting place of the evil characters of the neighborhood. It was even then neglected and had been closed as a burying place under an order of the town council. In 1888 an effort had been made to lease it to Nichills Hospital, which it adjoins, as a park for patients. A nominal rental of $1 a year was asked, but evidently the hospital authorities did not relish the task of repairing the ranges that had been done and maintaining the cemetery in respectability, and the contract was not at that time consummated. In 1891 a meeting of the plot holders enquired into their rights, some who had looked forward to sleeping there with their families objected to its closing and others wished it kept in decency. James Stevenson, then the only surviving member of the original board, made an explanation of the circumstance, and the question was referred to the trustee board of George street church.


D. W. Dumbie, then an attorney and now retired police magistrate of the city, scathingly denounced the bad characters who ruthlessly desecrated the place of the dead with their vile carousal “Blackguards were playing cards over the graves of their grandfathers” he declared. The hospital patients were annoyed by the noise of the vagrants who sat on the tombstones to conduct their nightly travels, and someone had started a in the center of the lot.

In the thirty-three years that have elapsed since that meeting nothing has been done to repair the devastation except kindly ministration of nature who has thrust up around the desecrated graves and mutilated stones a bounteous growth of shrubs and weeds that cover the damage a contemptuous generations wrought. Years ago the Indians buried their dead and left their graves untended because they were driven away by advancing civilization but in the Hilliard street cemetery the graves of pioneers neglected by superior race, forgotten by those who reap the fruits of their toil. The Indians who plied their canoes in the Seebee river in 1825 and the menial aborigines who have harnessed the Otonabee river in 1925 altogether or much less that nothing before the invincible march of death. And young men who had no part in the glories of conquests, of other races play cards on tombstones of their grandfathers








The spirit of the age in which they lived is reflected by some of the epitaphs on the earlier pioneer graves. George Coles inscribes above his wife Jane “Let me die the death of the righteous and let my last end be like his” The daughter of Josiah S. and Betsy Huntoon, who died sixty years ago, was called by her surrounding parents “Little Birdie” and on her tombstone they wrote;

“This lovely bud so young and fair Call’d off by early death

Just came to show how sweet a flower

In paradise could bloom.

“Gone to your father : and “There is rest in Heaven” are common expressions of the sentiments with which these pioneers recorded the great adventure and “Suffer the little children to come to Me” is an oft-met phrase.

A particular brazen desecration and one of the most pathetic is indicated by a stone on the outskirts of the cemetery. Joseph and MaryAnn Sawdye erected the monument over the graves of their two children, aged eight years and one year respectively, and on it they wrote:

“These lovely buds, how sweet they were

Called to early doom

But now at rest in his breast

In Paradise to bloom”

And this tombstone erected by sorrowing parents, is now split in two and while one part is used to prop up a seat the other has been set against a tree many yards away and used as a target for air rifle shooting. Where the bodies of the children lie no one knows and apparently there is not one to care.

Throughout the cemetery are fallen stones half buried with moss and leaves that unexpectedly stub the wandering foot, and gaping holes appear here and there where thoughtful relatives removed bodies from the profaned place two decades ago to re-inter them in Little Lake cemetery, now one of the prettiest in the province. Other oblong holes, six inches to a foot deep, show where the earth fell in on crumbling caskets-dust to dust.

Eighty-two years ago there died the first man whose body lies in the forgotten cemetery, and 82 years hence the people who now neglect that resting place will be with those who sleep beneath the weeds and tumbled stones. Their children and their children’s grandchildren-how will they respect and treat the graves in the now beautiful Little Lake cemetery?

To-day the sun flares red behind newly leafed elms and maples and bathes the old cemetery in a benignant glow that shades the harshness of the ugliness, and in a few days more the broken stones and sunken mounds will be completely hidden in foliage and the forgotten dead will slumber through another summer.

And so they rest, these pioneers of a new land, while the clocks tick out days and years, and in the evening the bright home lights twinkle all around their uncared for sepulchres and the streets are thronged with alert, forgetful, great-great children, while overhead, above all the stir and murmur of life and peacefulness of death, hang in the dark sky the unchanging stars.

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