Portland History Remembered at Eastern Cemetery on Munjoy Hill

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Bural Places of the Captains of the Enterprise and the Boxer and One Crew Member are at Eastern Cemetery, 224 Congress Street.   (Photo by Pete Weigel, tour conductor).

The Congress Street Entrance to the Eastern Cemetery on Munjoy Hill.

The Oldest Grave in the Cemetery is That of Mary Geeen, dated 1717.

The Rev. Thomas Smith, Third Pastor of the Hisoric First Parish Church on Congress Street is Buroed in This Tomb.  The Tall Pine Tree Behind it Served as a Landmark for Ships’  Captains Entering Portland Harbor.

Pete Weigel, Tour Guide for Eastern Cemetery as Well as Evergreen Cemetery.  This is the Tomb of Bartlett Adams , Portland’s First Stonecutter.

“The first 200 years of Portland’s history is right here in this cemetery,” said Pete Weigel, who took this blogger on a spontaneous and abbreviated tour of Eastern Cemetery this afternoon where he  has conducted tours for the past twelve years.  “This was a community cemetery that was never affiliated with a church.  Everyone buried here knew each other,” he said. “They were neighbors and they went to school together.”  Eastern Cemetery is located at 224 Congress Street on the east end of Portland.

A burial space that sets this cemetery apart from others in Portland are the “Captains Tables.”   These are the burial spaces that “commerate the only battle out to sea in Maine waters during the War of 1812,” according to Weigel.  Captain Blythe was the Commander of the British ship the Boxer and Captain Burrows was the Commander of the American ship the Enterprise.  They met in battle near Monheagan Island.  The battle was fierce – so fierce that they destroyoed each  other.  Both died either during the Batttle or shortly thereafter.   Captain Lemuel Moody of the nearby Observatory, with his powerful telescope, could see the smoke on the horizon from the battle.

The battle between the Boxer and the Enterprise lasted less than 45 minutes  Finally, the smoke died.  The ships were headed into Portland Harbor which meant that the American Captain had won. But the ships were so destroyed, rescue ships had to be sent out to tow them into Portland Harbor.  Both men were well known in Portland.  So, it was decided to honor them both by burying  them here, side by side,  at Eastern Cemetery said Wiegel.  The ceremony for the two young captains, in their late 20s, was the biggest event in Portland up to that point.  “This is the most famous grave site at Eastern Cemetery,” he said.

Seven thousand (7,000) people are buried at Eastern Cemetery.  And fewer than 4,000 are at marked graves.  Early on many people buried their loves ones without markets said Weigel.  They often used a tree or a rock or brick to mark their burial sites.  That was between 1600 and 1700.  Life was hard back then and people just wanted to get on with life as best they could.  Sometimes wooden markers were used, but they did not last very long.  Stone markers were expensive and importantly there were no local stone cutters in Portland until about 1800.  People had to order cut stones from Boston and have them shipped to Portland.

But in 1800 Bartlett Adams moved from Boston to Portland.  He became the first stonecutter in the Portland area.  His stone cutting shop was located at Federal and Exchange Streets in the Old Port of Portland.  It is where the resturant The Corner Room is located.

Between 1795 and 1840 family tombs were sold to the wealthier families in the Portland area.  A total of 95 tombs were sold.  Some were built to hold up to 20 – 30 famly members.  There is no access to them now.  “We are the least intrusive as possible,” said Wiegel.

Rev. Thomas Smith, was the third pastor of the First Parish church on Congress Street in Portland.  He was the pastor there for 68 years.  He died in 1795 while still serving as the Pastor.  He lived in what is now nearby the Jewish Synogue.  During his lifetime he owned the front part of the cemetery.  On his deathbed, he sold it to the city.  The city wanted that property to be able to expand the cemetery.  For many years, the city could not expand the cemetery because it was privately owned – by Rev. Smith.  Rev. Smith had four slaves that are known of,  although at different times during his life.   He was the most powerful man in Portland as well as wealthy.  Residents of Portland had to pay him a “poll tax” which made very wealthy.  The pine tree standing behind the tomb  served as a landmark for ships’ captains entering Portland Harbor.  They knew they were on course when they saw the original pine tree.  That was before the Observatory was constructed by Captain Moody. (See above left photo).

Weigel, who is a retired special education teacher at Deering High School, became a volunteer at Eastern Cemetery and Evergreen Cemetery twelve years ago.  He took the Porltnad History Docent’s course initiated by retired Air Force Colonel Bill Hall, a Peaks Island resident.  Weigel said he wanted to volunteer and preferred to be outside during the summer months.

Tours of Eastern Cemetery are given every day at 4:00 pm until October 16, 2022.  The cost is $10.00.  Reservations can be made on-line at Even Brite or walk-ins with  $10.00 cash are welcome.

Please visit spiritsalive.org for more information.