An email recently arrived from some shipwreck researcher friends of mine who asked about Grove Cemetery here in Belfast. They wanted me to go over and find a particular gravestone of someone from their research. No problem!

I actually kind of enjoy poking around old cemeteries trying to find a particular grave site. Through the years, I have dragged my kids through them many times. “Gee, Dad, another cemetery?!”

It is very interesting reading the different inscriptions, calculating ages and lining them up with historic events, or noting families and their connections. Each grave marker tells its own story in its inscription, its shape, the material it is made of, and its location relative to others.

My New Jersey shipwreck friends wanted me to take a photo of a gravestone of someone who had been lost at sea in a shipwreck. It was an interesting experience, wandering around the grounds trying to figure out the rhyme and order to the cemetery.

Many of the graves were linked to maritime history. Wondering about this, I knew the person to ask was Megan Pinette, trustee of the Belfast Cemetery. She is also president of the Belfast Historical Society and has been giving tours of the cemetery for the last 25 years. She was great in providing information about the cemetery.

Belfast’s first cemetery dated back to its early colonial days and was on the east side of the Passagassawakeag River. Early on in Belfast history, 10 acres were set aside for both town meeting house and graveyard, which were used until the end of the 18th century.

The next cemetery the town used was located on High Street, near where the Baptist Church now stands. By 1790, people were being buried there rather than across the river. This site became the main burial ground for the town of Belfast for the next 40 years.

By the 1830s, Belfast was developing dramatically, growing by virtue of the maritime trades of shipbuilding and commerce. Its expanding population needed a new burial area. In 1831, the town purchased 5 acres at the far outskirts of town, way up the hill on Main Street past where the road forked to Lincolnville (now Lincolnville Avenue) and Belmont (now Belmont Avenue). It was called Grove Cemetery, which saw its first burial in 1837.

During that time, the High Street graveyard was gradually closed. Apparently, some of its oldest gravestones were moved to the new cemetery. What I find interesting is that the reference mentioned gravestones but not caskets or bodies. But maybe they meant that, too?

Over the years, Grove Cemetery expanded. In 1865, two additional pieces of land increased the size by 3 acres. New sections opened up in 1889 with 13 acres, 5 acres in 1924 and another 5 in 1946.

What had started along Main Street, progressively expanded farther back from the road, parts of it stretching to the Route 1 bypass. The latest section opened in 1975. Today, Grove Cemetery contains about 50 acres and has 9,000 stones within its walls, but only about 8,000 handwritten burial records.

Grove Cemetery Chapel is a small building that houses a few pews and a piano. Also on the grounds is the 1907 winter house, a receiving vault built to hold bodies until spring for burial when the ground was not frozen.

You can see the “old” section of the cemetery, what it is officially called, outlined by towering maple trees. Within it are many family plots, large crypts and a whole bunch of statues, some quite poignant.

The gravestone my friends were interested in was in the “old” section, so my wife and I explored around the markers. A subtle competition developed as to which of us might find it first. We had the name and a note that the stone we sought actually had three names on it.

Lucky me, I came across it on my third sweep down one side of the “old” section. The names were three of the sons of Jonathan and Eunice Durham, whom I found were also buried right beside them.

Three names on a gravestone? What did that mean? We discovered by the inscriptions that all three had died overseas. Two were lost at sea and one had died in Cuba. The marker probably represents an empty grave. Someone once told me that a large percentage of Maine graves between the years 1820 and 1870 were actually empty, as they were mariners who had been lost at sea.

Lost at sea could mean your entire ship and crew disappeared, maybe a catastrophic shipwreck. Or individually, like an unfortunate fatal fall from the rigging onto the deck or into the water. They might have died from injury or illness or as a result of criminal action. Most times, if a body was recovered, it was committed to the sea or buried in some foreign graveyard. A few were shipped back; most were not.

James M. Durham was only 21 years old when lost at sea in September 1842. John S. was just a year older when he died in Cuba in 1846. And William F. was 23 years old when he was lost at sea in September 1854.

A grave marker right next to this one showed a Capt. George A. Durham, who died in 1849 at the age of 29. If he was indeed another brother, then Jonathan and Eunice lost four of their children in a 12-year span, all of whom were involved in the maritime trades. Jonathan died in 1865 and his wife Eunice died 22 years later.

Image of Percy Sanborn taken by newsman Douglas Brown, courtesy of Belfast Museum and Historical Society, and his grave marker in Grove Cemetery, photo by Charles H. Lagerbom.

 

 

This foray into Grove Cemetery got me thinking about all its other maritime connections, such as the grave of Percy A. Sanborn. One of Belfast’s more famous men during his time, Sanborn was a maritime artist who dabbled in both watercolor and oils, specializing in painting the U.S.S. Constitution.

Born in 1849, Sanborn was also known for painting horses, cats and dogs. It is said he charged $5 for his work. In 1929, when he was almost 80 years old, he was struck by a car while crossing a Belfast street and died of his injuries.

Swing by the Belfast Museum and Historical Society, located on the corner of Market and Church streets across from the new District Court building. Sanborn’s paintings and life story are there on display.

Belfast house of Capt. George D. Mahoney on the corner of Salmond Street and Northport Avenue, courtesy of Penobscot Marine Museum, and Mahoney’s grave marker in Belfast’s Grove Cemetery, photo by Charles H. Lagerbom.

Another grave at Grove with a maritime connection belongs to Capt. George Dickey Mahoney. When he died in 1931, the local newspaper reported he was one of the last of the Belfast sea captains.

Born in Northport in 1849, his family moved to Belfast when he was quite young. His father was a captain, so George became one, too. At the age of 25, he took command of local schooner M.W. Drew. It was 165 tons and had been built in Belfast in 1870.

He commanded other Belfast schooners, including the Annie L. McKeen, Lois V. Chaples and Fannie A. Gorham. Mahoney had a gold watch, presented to him for helping rescue the crew and passengers of the S.S. General Barnes, a steamship of the Savannah Line in 1878.

The Annie L. McKeen, built in 1872 by Carter & Co., wrecked with a cargo of piling on Oct. 28, 1891, near Downing’s Cove, Nova Scotia. The 230-ton schooner Lois V. Chaples sank in Nantucket Sound, although all five aboard survived.

In 1881, while aboard M.W. Drew from Jacksonville, Florida, to New London, Connecticut, the schooner encountered a gale and had to be abandoned. All crew were taken off by the steamer Seminole.

On March 14, 1886, aboard Fannie A. Gorham, Mahoney was instrumental in helping rescue passengers from the 7,000-ton Cunard liner SS Oregon. It had collided with an unknown schooner and began to sink near New York.

Currier and Ives’ Sinking of the Steamship Oregon of the Cunard Line off the coast of Long Island, March 14, 1886, and Rescue by the steamship Fulda of the North German Lloyds Line, Pilot Boat Phantom and Schooner Fannie A. Gorham. Public Domain

Nearly 1,700 passengers and crew were saved, many by Mahoney and other ships that arrived to assist. Apparently, Mahoney did not want to be interviewed about this event upon his return.

Still, his efforts earned him international recognition; it was said several hundred Oregon passengers claimed they would have been lost without Mahoney’s assistance. Many presented him with gifts, including the British government, which awarded him a solid gold medal, the size of a $20 gold piece. There is even a Currier & Ives lithograph of Mahoney and his schooner coming to the rescue of the Oregon.

The Fannie A. Gorham was reported lost in the Bahamas in 1895 and has since been memorialized in a Bluejacket ship model, built for the grandson of the commanding captain when it was lost at sea with all hands.

In 1892, George Mahoney built a house on the corner of Salmond Street and Northport Avenue in Belfast. His wife, Ida A. Wilson, accompanied him on many of his voyages, and is buried beside him in Grove Cemetery. Still lots more to tell….

Charles Lagerbom teaches AP U.S. History at Belfast Area High School and lives in Northport. He is author of “Whaling in Maine” and “Maine to Cape Horn,” available through Historypress.com.