Tombs at Eastport cemetery rank as historical treasures

20 Jul 2014 6:41 PM | Debi Curry (Administrator)

Photo courtesy of Susan Esposito, Eastport, ME

Hillside East Cemetery, located in the northern section of High Street, holds a lot of Eastport's heritage, from sailors and their families to British and American soldiers and sailors, businessmen, common men and women. Reading the headstones and enjoying the view can be very interesting and relaxing. The oldest gravestone dates from 1800 and is believed to have been transplanted from Robbinston. The cemetery has been expanded several times and was once a park. There are three tombs above the ground and used throughout most of the 19th century.  

Our story today is reprinted by permission from an article by J. Terry Holt published in the 12 Oct 2001 Quoddy Tides tells us more about these historical treasures:

The west brick wall of the Masonic tomb in the Hillside Cemetery in Eastport is a little shabby now. On the corner, several layers of bricks have separated from the brickwork. The main door has dents, dings and patches. The cupola is tarnished and dingy, obviously in need of repair. But once upon a time…

Cannons boomed from the revenue cutter Swiftsure, under the direction of Capt. Uriah Coolridge. Her crew was paying last respects to the late Dr. Samuel Ayer, the surveyor of the Port of Passamaquoddy. Friends gathered in prayer. Then the procession formed behind the horse-drawn hearse, followed by the fine carriage with the widow and children. Behind them came the customhouse officers, the physicians and friends who trod slowly up the hill to the graveyard. The procession led to the Freemason’s tomb, where the Masons laid their fraternal brother to rest. The tomb had been built only four years earlier. It still shone with newness. The bricks were painted to give the appearance of stonework along the broad western face. The year was 1832.

In 1819 the town of Eastport, Massachusetts (Maine not being a state yet) began the process of acquiring a new “burying ground.” The new cemetery was haphazard at best. There were no established lots or paths. In 1828 the Masons attempted to establish some order by building a tomb or “sepulchre” for their Masonic brothers, their families or visitors of their order. It was a grand work for the time. First a sub-level had to be excavated. Then brickwork for the various rooms had to be lain. Then earth was put over the tomb. The main entry room had an arched brick ceiling.

In 1829 a visitor wrote: “Other doors open to the several vaults, which are capable of containing about four hundred coffins. Some twenty or thirty bodies, I was told, had already been deposited there.” He went on to say, “This is the first and only one of the kind that has come to my knowledge, built in the United States for this express object. And it reflects much honor on the liberality, generosity and affection of the Masonic Fraternity here, toward their deceased brethren, and others.”

The number of coffins that could fit in the tomb probably would be less than 400. Still, people of that era were shorter in stature, and the coffins were made of pine and smaller than today’s coffins. The old coffins would have been set in racks perhaps six or more coffins high and 14 or more wide. They would have fitted on slides of some type.

The tomb was intended to be the permanent resting place for some of the occupants, but temporary for others. In 1836 the selectmen were for the first time authorized to locate, lay out and sell lots to citizens of the town. Friends or family could now obtain burial places for their loved ones and have them moved to a new site. With family lots being established, some of the interred were removed from the tomb and buried in family lots. During the 1850’s more land was apparently purchased for the cemetery. The selectmen appear to have been determined to remove some of those interred haphazardly and to put in many of the lanes that exist today. These lanes were about five feet wide to accommodate horse-drawn hearses and carriages. What is known as the “town tomb” today may have been used to temporarily hold the former occupants of the lanes.

The town tomb appears to have been modeled after the Masonic tomb, with its Masonic-style cupola above the entrance. At what point it was built or turned over to private individuals is unknown. This tomb has been known by several names, among them the Shackford tomb. In 1859 the selectmen began to toy with the idea of purchasing this tomb, known then as the Hayden and Kilby tomb, but it would be more than 30 years before the town acquired it.

A third tomb, now removed, stood about 50 feet west of the two older tombs. This tomb stood entirely above ground and was built on a ledge. The location is marked with an urn today. It is shown on a 1927 map of the cemetery, which called it the Bucknam, Prince and Weston tomb.

The exact reasons why the tombs’ occupants were removed can only be conjectured today. The possibility of deterioration of the pine boxes, deterioration of the racks, and health risks are among the likely reasons for removing those permanently interred in the tombs. In 1900 the last remains were transferred out of the Shackford tomb, which was being rebuilt by the city for the sum of $535 in that year. At that point it became known as the town tomb and was used as a receiving or public tomb for winter use. The practice of using the tombs expressly for wintering over, then, is only 100 years old in Eastport.

The Freemason’s tomb, 173 year old and a little beat up today, has had presidential appointees interred within its walls. Sea captains, militia captains and generals and Revenue Marine captains have rested within its walls. No other town in eastern Maine ever build a tomb to hold so many caskets, had tourists visit its cemeteries and tombs as early as 1829, or built civic structures as early as 1828. Eastport’s town tomb and Freemason’s tomb are perhaps unique to this part of New England. A treasure does not have to be made of gold. The Eastport tombs are historical and cultural treasures.

WPA Cemetery Plans, Hillside Cemetery (1941)

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