Massachusetts

The Cemetery That Was a 19th Century Tourist Attraction

mount-auburn-19th-century-tourist-attraction

19th-century-tourist-attraction

In 1846, 16-year-old Emily Dickinson made a rare foray outside of her Amherst, Mass., home to visit the biggest tourist attraction on the East Coast: Mount Auburn Cemetery.

Two years later, an estimated 60,000 people would visit the famous pleasure ground where the dead were buried. It was a staggering figure for the day. During the 19th century, Mount Auburn Cemetery ranked with Niagara Falls and Mount Vernon as a popular travel destination. And that was even before many of its famous dead were buried in it.

Mount Auburn Cemetery would later inspire one of the most famous parks in the world.

19th Century Tourist Attraction

Mount Auburn Cemetery was originally known (appropriately enough) as Stone’s Farm, 170 rolling acres between Watertown and Cambridge, Mass.

Built in 1831, it was designed by Henry Alexander Scammell Dearborn, son of Secretary of War Henry Dearborn and named for Dearborn’s friend Alexander Scammell. He had help from Jacob Bigelow, a physician who thought it unhealthy to bury people under churches, and Alexander Wadsworth, cousin of the poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, who would later be buried there.

Dearborn, a lawyer and horticulturist, designed Mount Auburn as an artful wilderness with winding avenues and paths and a tower on top of Mount Auburn for a panoramic view of Boston. It was the first rural cemetery in America, an arboretum and an experimental garden.

It was a time when public parts weren’t part of the American landscape. Mount Auburn Cemetery quickly became a 19th century tourist attraction. Dearborn intended it that way. The cemetery and garden, he wrote, 'will present one of the most instructive, magnificent and pleasant promenades in our country.'

Model Park

The rich came by carriage. The working classes came by streetcar. A slew of guidebooks, literature and personal travelers’ accounts spread Mount Auburn’s fame as a pleasure ground. (Today an app is being developed.)

Landscape designer Andrew Jackson Downing observed the hordes of visitors at Mount Auburn and noticed people came to Boston solely to see the cemetery. He sensed the pent-up demand for public places where people could relax and socialize outdoors.

”The idea took the public mind by storm,” he wrote. Downing recommended Mount Auburn as a model for more public parks. He thought a nation that called itself a republic should encourage people of all social classes to mingle in public places.

“The true policy of republics is to foster the taste of great public libraries, sculpture and picture galleries, parks and gardens,” he wrote.

Downing died in 1852 in a steamboat accident on his 37th birthday. But he had paved the way for his partner, Calvin Vaux, and a young Frederick Law Olmsted to design New York’s Central Park, Hartford’s Bushnell Park and Springfield’s Elm Park.

Today, tourists still visit Mount Auburn Cemetery to walk winding paths in a picturesque landscape and to seek out the graves of the dead. The famous people buried there include people you’d expect, like Nathaniel Bowditch, Robert Gould Shaw and Julia Ward Howe. Some of its inhabitants you wouldn’t expect: Bernard Malamud, Curt Gowdy and Joyce Chen.

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