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Home | Looking Back with Aurore Eaton

Aurore Eaton's Looking Back: A new garden cemetery for Manchester

May 06. 2013 7:31PM

The City of Manchester began as a small settlement in the colonial era, called Derryfield. The town changed its name to Manchester in 1810, seeking to emulate the industrial city of Manchester, England - but seeming at the time to have little prospect to move in that direction.

The small population was scattered over a large area, and the modest center of town was located on what is now Mammoth Road.

But all of that was to change.

In 1831, a stock corporation was founded and capitalized by wealthy families from the Boston area. This was the Amoskeag Manufacturing Company, which would transform Manchester into an industrial giant, and into the largest-scaled planned city in New England.

In the 1830s, the company bought up 15,000 acres of land on the east side of the Merrimack and began developing a major textile producing operation on the banks of the river. Through ambitious and visionary planning, the company set the wheels in motion for a city to spring up around the millyard. Beginning in 1838, the company laid out streets on a grid system, and began selling off over 14,000 acres of land. The population grew rapidly, and the center of activity shifted from the hamlet on Mammoth road to the "New Village," the bustling business district on Elm Street near the mills.

The original town cemetery on Mammoth Road was too far from the new center of town, and too small to accommodate the expanding population. The Amoskeag Manufacturing Company's engineers had the foresight to set aside land for a new municipal cemetery as part of the city's master plan. This was a 20-acre stretch of wooded terrain a short distance from Elm Street. In its center was a picturesque valley that had been carved by the pristine Mile Brook. On its west side was a hill where a person could enjoy unobstructed views up the Merrimack River and toward the horizon where the two Mount Uncanoonucs loomed.

In 1840, the company sold this acreage to the town for $2,400. A citizen's committee was elected to oversee the building of the new cemetery. The burial ground they created was very different from the usual type of New England cemetery that came before it. Those old cemeteries were utilitarian in nature. Simple rows of austere headstones marked the graves, and the atmosphere was sober and grim. The cemetery managers were inspired by the movement to create romantic landscaped cemeteries - also called "rural" or "garden" cemeteries. This new type of graveyard was meant to be a place of beauty and contemplation for the living, and not just a resting place for the dead. Here visitors could enjoy the beauty of nature, as well as the artistry and symbolism of the gravestones and mausoleums. They could stroll or take a carriage ride along meandering paths, and stop for a picnic on the lawn or in a gazebo.

The first such cemetery built in America was Mount Auburn Cemetery in Cambridge and Watertown, Massachusetts. Created by leaders in the Massachusetts Horticultural Society, the cemetery opened in 1831 to immediate acclaim. It became the inspiration for the earliest garden cemeteries on the continent, including Manchester's scenic Valley Cemetery. This cemetery was dedicated on July 5, 1841, by a procession and religious service attended by 4,000 people, including children from all the local Sunday schools.

In the decades that followed, Manchester became a magnet for people from all over New England, and eventually from many different countries. They came here to get a fresh start in life and to seek their fortunes. They found work in the factories and in construction. They started businesses and became firemen, policemen and judges. They were involved in local and state politics. Many of these citizens volunteered on committees that worked to build the infrastructure needed for a city to function, including creating sewer and water systems from scratch. They also founded hospitals, churches and aid societies. They worked to develop public schools and the public library, and they fostered the development of the arts.

Many of these early settlers are buried in the Valley Cemetery. This series will tell the stories of some these people - both famous and unknown.

Next week: The cemetery develops through time.

Aurore Eaton is executive director of Manchester Historic Association; email her at

History Manchester

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