Cemetery of the Week #12: Elmwood Cemetery

Vista in Elmwood Cemetery

Elmwood Cemetery
1200 Elmwood Avenue
Detroit, Michigan 48207
Telephone: (313) 567-3453
Established: 1846
Size: 86 acres
Number of interments: 51,000
Open: 8 to 4 daily October 1 until April 30. 7 to 7 daily May 1 until September 30.

Full of splendid well-preserved Victorian sculpture, Elmwood Cemetery is the oldest continually used non-religious cemetery in Detroit. Part of the Eastside Cemeteries Historic District, it abuts the Catholic Mt. Elliott Cemetery and the Jewish Lafayette Street Cemetery. It’s not far from the Renaissance Center in downtown Detroit and the Ambassador Bridge into Canada.

The cemetery’s hilly terrain is much like what the French explorer Cadillac would have seen in 1701 when he founded a settlement at the straits of Lake Huron, which he called Detroit. During the French and Indian War, Chief Pontiac’s troops defeated the British at Parents Creek, which flows through the modern graveyard. On July 31, 1763, British blood stained the water so much that the creek became known at Bloody Run. The State of Michigan designated it as a State Historic Site in 1975.

When the war was over, the land became farmland on the edge of the village of Hamtramck. An original parcel of 42 acres was purchased by six prominent Detroiters to form a rural cemetery modeled after Mount Auburn in Massachusetts. In 1890, Frederick Law Olmsted (designer of Central Park) was hired to re-design the graveyard. His plans included the roads that swoop over and around the rolling hills. He also planted the groves of trees where squirrels, pheasants, and other wildlife now live.

The cemetery holds 6 Michigan governors, 11 U.S. senators, 28 Detroit mayors, as well as inventors, explorers, artists, abolitionists and former slaves. Among the notables lie Detroit’s legendary first Black mayor Tuskegee Airman Coleman Young, Hiram Walker (founder of Canadian Club whiskey), the Michigan Territory’s first governor Lewis Cass, and guitarist Fred “Sonic” Smith of the MC5. The graveyard’s management has done an exemplary job of mixing newer burials amongst the historic gravesites, continuing the cemetery’s long tradition of integration. Michigan’s first African American school teacher is buried there, along with the state’s first Black lawyer, legislator, newspaper owners, radio station owner, and more. In fact, the cemetery offers Black History tours and partners with local schools to give the kids a chance to work in the graveyard on gardening and restoration projects.

The military is represented from the Revolutionary War through the Persian Gulf, including more than 30 generals. The State of Michigan purchased a lot for veterans of the Civil War, which includes 15 members of the 102nd U.S. Colored Troops regiment. There’s also a large, lovely plot that serves firemen.

Since the graveyard is right downtown, I am not sure how safe it is to wander alone, although I did so and was fine. (The only creepy thing that happened was that people jumped in their vehicles and drove away whenever I wandered too close to their graveside vigils. I am not an intimidating woman.) You might be best off to visit with one of the tours offered by the cemetery over the summer for $5 a person. The first one is scheduled for May 4, 2011.

Useful Links:

Elmwood Cemetery’s website

Photos of some of the unusual monuments at Elmwood

Schedule of Tours of Elmwood Cemetery

Tales from the Crypts from the Detroit News

The historic plaque text

GPS information from CemeteryRegistry.us

Notes from my trip to Elmwood.

Books I’ve reviewed that reference Elmwood Cemetery:

Elmwood Endures

Boneyards: Detroit Under Ground