Trinity Church Burial Ground

City of Watertown, Jefferson County, New York

Village of Watertown 1830 map

The oldest burial-place in the City of Watertown, wherein the first residents of the fledgling village were laid to rest, was known as the "Old Burial Ground." Later, when Trinity Church was built on an adjacent lot, it became known as the "Trinity Church Graveyard" or the "Trinity Church Yard." After Trinity Church was torn down, the old cemetery was eventually squeezed out of existence by City Hall. Today, all vestiges of this historic cemetery on the east side of Court Street have vanished. To understand its demise, we need to look back on the history of this once hallowed ground.

The location of the burial ground was evidently established soon after the village was settled, but references to it are few. Fitch’s Directory of the Village of Watertown (1840) and Solon Massey’s Links In the Chain (1850), indicate that the first burial in the cemetery was of Israel Thornton. However in an 1891 draft letter by Wooster Sherman addressed to The Watertown Daily Times, Wooster states that the first burial was that of his mother's brother, William Thornton.

“In Houghs history of the original settlers of Watertown he mentions two brothers named Thorton (without giving them first names), they were Waterman and William and brothers of my mother: Waterman was the father of Roselle Thornton, a mason, who recently died in Juhelville. William Thornton’s death was the first that occurred in the little hamlet and was caused by his cutting and felling of a tree on the present site of the Black River Institute.” Wooster Sherman letter dated 1891 (Jefferson County Historical Society)

Further research indicates William’s death occurred about 1804-5. After he failed to return from the woods one summer day, where he had gone for timber, the village residents fanned out to search for him. After several hours, a signal gun rang out, announcing to all that he had been found. Everyone rushed to the sound of the shot, near the present-day intersection of Park and State Streets, and upon arriving, gazed upon William's lifeless body, crushed beneath the tree he had felled. The villagers brought his body back to Mrs. Thornton at the family home. From there his remains were laid to rest in the Trinity Churchyard.

Everts (1878:172) states:

The oldest burial-place in the City of Watertown, New York is the Trinity church yard, the remains, many of whom have since been exhumed, and re-interred in Brookside. The monument of Phineas Sherman, deceased in 1813, and his wife, who died in 1847, still remains in the old burial-place.

In another reference, cited by Hough (1854:269), Mr. and Mrs. Samuel Whittlesey, in 1815, were being led from their home on Court Street to the court house for arraignment on the charge of theft. Passing the Trinity Church Yard, Mrs. Whittlesey fainted at the sight of her son's grave. Once revived, she reportedly sprang up and bolted from her captors to the river and leaped in, at a place known thereafter as "Whittlesey Point," near the present-day Veteran's Memorial Walk. Her body was later found near the Massey Street bridge and she became the next recorded burial in the cemetery.

The first documentary evidence of the Old Burial Ground is from a deed dated February 12, 1819, in which Henry Coffeen donated the land, which was described as a burial ground, to the Village of Watertown to be used as a public burial ground. The deed stipulated that if the land ever ceased to be used for that purpose, it was to be given back to Coffeen or his heirs. This stipulation laid the groundwork for a future decade of litigation, during which the city would have to legally battle to retain ownership.

The small cemetery apparently filled up quickly. A resolution of the Village Council in 1825 established a "new" village burial ground on outer Arsenal Street next to the existing Catholic burial ground. While this did not halt burials in the "old" burial ground, fewer and fewer residents were being interred there. In fact, some families began moving their dearly departed so that they could be with them in the "new" Arsenal Street cemetery, and later in Brookside Cemetery.

Burials continued in the "old" burial ground well into the 1840s. According to the Watertown Herald, from the edition of Sept. 25, 1897, " ... the five graves of the Jonathan Cowan family are all intact, the headstones erect and all in a line." Jonathan Cowan died in 1840 and due to his impoverished state was buried by his friends in Evans Mills Cemetery. As we saw according to Everts (1878: 172), one of the last has to be that of Mrs. Phineas Sherman, who died in 1847. There are no reported burials after 1847.

The location of the old burial ground is variously documented by early Watertown maps. On an early map of Watertown dated 1804, the cemetery is shown on the west side of Court Street, where Stream, Inc. is now located. On all later maps, however, beginning in 1830, the cemetery is located on the east side of Court Street. As early as 1811, urban sprawl began to engulf the cemetery. Several house lots, offices and shops fronted the cemetery by that time. The first Trinity Church structure was built fronting the cemetery on Court Street in 1833. After being destroyed by fire on May 13, 1849, it was rebuilt in 1850. By that time, the cemetery was entirely surrounded by urban growth.

Although by the mid-19th century the burial ground was known commonly as the "Trinity Church Yard," the village remained its owner and steward. During a September 4, 1859 Village Council meeting, leaders approved the erection of a monument to Phineas Sherman by his sons George C. and Wooster Sherman. According to the minutes of that meeting the original Sherman monument was destroyed during the rebuilding of Trinity Church after the 1849 fire. Although the new monument was approved, the council required that it be set back 50 feet from the edge of Court Street.

Trinity Church circa 1860This circa 1860 photo clearly shows the cemetery in the rear of the rebuilt Trinity Church. The white obelisk visible in the right rear of the church is believed to be the replacement Sherman family monument erected by George C. and Wooster Sherman. Today the Sherman monument is located in Lot 8 Section Z at Brookside Cemetery, which was purchased by Frederick M. Boyer as trustee.

Click on the image to see a larger view.

(Photo courtesy of the Jefferson County Historical Society, Watertown, NY)

As late as 1863, the village was still maintaining the Trinity Grave Yard. During the April 23rd meeting, the council approved repairs to the fence surrounding the burial ground. The receiving vault in the rear of the cemetery was built by the city in 1873. It was an impressive stone structure built at a cost of over $4,000 (Everts 1878: 172).

The last service in Trinity Church was held Easter Sunday 1890. Later that year, the church property was sold to Diefendorf & Fuess. In the meantime, the city acquired land next to the church on the north side and built the new City Hall from 1895-1897. Over the next decade the graveyard soon became neglected. Fences were broken, stones were vandalized and the area became an eyesore.

Trinity Church circa 1875This undated photo shows the city vault in the rear of the Trinity Church. As the church steeple was removed in the same year that the city vault was built (1873) and the church was razed between 1890 and 1891, the timeframe of this photo is rather narrow. The white obelisk that was apparent in the 1860 era photo is no longer visible. Also not visible in this photo are the suspected grave markers that were located between the rear of the church and the obelisk.

Click on the image to see a larger view.

(Photo courtesy of the Jefferson County Historical Society, Watertown, NY)

The Watertown Herald reported on September 25, 1897:

 A visit to that cemetery during the last spring showed that some of the city employees had deliberately broken off all these Cowan headstones even with the ground and had then broken the large stones into small pieces and thrown them over the fence. Such has been the result of a public appeal to the humanity of the public, and the Grumbler can only regret that such an appeal was ever made, for it seems too bad to believe that our people are indifferent to so flagrant a piece of vandalism. I doubt if another such an instance can be found in the whole state of New York. The city authorities have shown themselves indifferent to the wishes of our people in this matter, all the more flagrant because the city has not legal title whatever to this old burial ground which its officials have ruthlessly entered upon and desecrated.

Attorney W. H. Gilman undertook the task, found one of the heirs of Henry Coffeen, who deeded the lot in 1819, and began legal proceedings. No obstacles were thrown in his way by the city officials, who were anxious to get title at the least expense, and the lot was sold in partition sale. It had been understood all along that the city would be in the premises, thus perfecting its title.

The lawsuit languished in court for the next six years as the City took measures to secure the deed. The litigation came to a head in 1904, when it was discovered through an abstract survey that a portion of City Hall, all of what was then King Street, and a portion of the privately-owned Diefendorf and Fuess block, were actually part of the original cemetery deeded to the city, and thus subject to the same stipulation as the existing burial ground. That is, if successful, the Coffeens could demand the return of not only city, but several privately-owned parcels (Watertown Herald 8/6/1904)

In a compromise, the City agreed to sell the property at auction and award the proceeds to the Coffeen family. But when the day of the auction arrived, the two aldermen present at the sale had not been given authority to bid, and the property was sold to James A. Ward for $1,594. The north wall of the City Hall, about 8 inches of it, was now privately- owned. In a blackmail attempt, Ward asked for $20,000 from the City to purchase the lot, lest he order them to vacate the premises (Watertown Herald 8/6/1904).

As luck would have it, although the City had long since leveled the few remaining graves and had been using the grounds for storage, the fact remained that there were still burials in the cemetery. Faced with the prospect of caring for the cemetery or having it removed, Mr. Ward relinquished the deed in consideration for his expenses. In 1905, the decendents of Phineas Sherman contracted Brookside Cemetery for the removal of the Sherman monument and the bodies of Phineas and Emma Sherman and reinterrment in Brookside Cemetery. (The Watertown Re-Union 11/11/1905). Today the Sherman family and obelisk are located in Lot 8 Section Z at Brookside Cemetery.

After 1905, the only remaining symbol of the old burying ground was the vault. It too was demolished in 1966, closing the last chapter of the city's first burial ground:

The city hall lot is up for litigation. The city's title is not good. It was given as a burial ground and when it ceased to be used as such was to revert to the heirs of Henry Coffeen, the original owner. The city took possession, leveled down the graves and is using it for storing tile, the steam roller, the street sweeper, log chains, wagons used by the city and also for a cartman's stand.
The old cut stone vault at the rear of the former Court Street City Hall will be demolished shortly in connection with urban renewal development. Much of the cut stone, including the cross, and some of the City Hall foundation stone, will be moved by Benvenuto Brothers, the razing contractor, to Cape Vincent, where a vault will be built in the new section of Riverside (Watertown Daily Times 10/25/1966).

The Watertown City Vault - undated
Undated photo of the Watertown City Vault