Home » Issues » Western Cemetery

Photograph by Eli Pousson, 2015 February 12.

Western Cemetery

Overview

Established in December 1849, Western Cemetery is a historic cemetery administered by Beechfield United Methodist Church. In late May 2014, a retaining wall on the southern end of the Western Cemetery collapsed following a severe thunder storm. WJZ and WBAL both reported on the collapse at the time. The collapse dropped a flood of soil and debris down hill and blocked the Gwynns Falls Trail. Continued erosion at the site is dumping sediment into the Gwynns Falls with every storm.

The Parks & People Foundation and the Gwynns Falls Trail Council secured partial funding from the Maryland Department of Natural Resource to stabilize the wall and eliminate the sediment pollution. Unfortunately, Baltimore City Department of Recreation and Parks and the Beechfield United Methodist Church have been unable to determine clear responsibility for the property boundaries and the required repairs to the retaining wall.

Location

3001 Edmondson Avenue, Baltimore, MD 21223

Our Approach

In February 2015, Baltimore Heritage visited the site with Parks & People staff to document the ongoing issue following the 2014 collapse. Baltimore Heritage prepared a report on the history of the cemetery and provided Park & People with resources related to cemetery conservation and funding.

We encourage Baltimore City and Beechfield United Methodist Church to continue their efforts to resolve the disputed property boundaries and stabilize the damaged wall. More broadly, the administrators of Western Cemetery should evaluate the cemetery’s existing conditions and their management policies to ensure the careful stewardship of this important historic landscape moving forward.

History

As early as 1846, the Sun published a detailed description of the planned cemetery located at the far end of West Baltimore Street:

“This is a new and finely located “place for the dead,” situated between the Frederick (Baltimore Street) and Franklin roads, at the distance of about a mile from the city… The land is high, and free from stone, with a descent—gradual, but not abrupt—admirably adapted to the draining off of water. About two thirds of the land is cleared—the balance is covered with beautiful trees, mostly young. A large public Mausoleum is in the process of erection in a central part of the Cemetery, on the top of a knoll, commanding a view of the entire grounds.”

Three years later, in December 1849, the Maryland Assembly passed “An Act to Establish the Western Cemetery” allowing the Trustees of the Fayette Street Methodist Episcopal Church to open a “public” or nondenominational 55-acre cemetery west of the city in Baltimore County. When Edmondson Avenue was improved as the major east-west route across the Gwynns Falls, the main entrance for the cemetery shifted from West Baltimore Street to its current location at 3001 Edmondson Avenue.

Early burials at the cemetery included both city and county residents from a range of backgrounds. In 1858, the Sun reported on the burial of William Fairbank, a Baltimore County resident who worked as a conductor on the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad between 1830 and 1850 and as the keeper of the bridge on the Baltimore and Washington Turnpike. In the fall of 1861, a number of Union soldiers stationed in Baltimore, likely including soldiers recovering from injuries taken at the Battle of Bull Run (or First Manassas) in July 1861, died from typhoid fever and were interred at the Western Cemetery.

In 1915, Baltimore City acquired a portion of the cemetery property for the construction of Ellicott Driveway. This required the closure of the “the railroad crossing at the Cemetery lane entrance to Western Cemetery” and an agreement between Baltimore City, the Pennsylvania Railroad Company, and the officers of the cemetery company.

The cemetery continued to serve as a popular place of internment for military veterans and police officers during the 20th century. In July 1926, the Sun reported on a huge crowd of “several thousand persons” who attended the burial of Patrolman Webster E. Schumann, noting, “A full firing squad of eight men from Camp Meade fired three volleys into the air and a bugler sounded ‘taps’ as the services for the war veteran ended.”

Between the late 1800s and 1920s, the neighborhoods around the cemetery (now known as Greater Rosemont) had grown into a densely built collection of rowhouses developed along the streetcar lines that connected West Baltimore to downtown and other parts of the city. In the 1950s and 1960s, Greater Rosemont transitioned from a largely segregated white area to a largely African American area. Dr. Ed Orser quotes a former Edmondson Village resident, Ann Morgan, who recalled how some people saw Western Cemetery as a barrier to racial transition, commenting:

“People had foolish ideas; they said they’d never move opposite Western Cemetery, because black people didn’t like to live opposite the cemetery. You know, people had all those dumb ideas.”

After World War II, the city began planning for the East-West Expressway and, by the 1960s, had identified a route that cut through Western Cemetery. By 1969, family members of those interred at the cemetery had joined advocates for the Gwynns Falls/Leakin Park, and residents of east and west Baltimore in fighting against the proposed highway. Fortunately, Mayor Thomas D’Alesandro responded and encouraged state highway designers to consider a new route for the Rosemont section of the East-West Expressway to bypass Western Cemetery.

Between 1976 and 1977, a number of graves were transferred from the cemetery of St John’s Evangelical Lutheran Church to the St. John’s Ground section of the park near the original West Baltimore Street entrance.

Read more at Explore Baltimore Heritage