ebook  History of Watertown, Wisconsin


Watertown’s First Cemetery

Established 1845


The old cemetery on Richards' hill, fronting on Western Avenue and the first one ever established in Watertown, was the subject of considerable controversy in the late 1800s, owing to a request that ownership be relinquished by the city council.  This was done but later on was rescinded, and the cemetery, which had been vacated by an act of the legislature eight years earlier, was to remain in possession of the city.



The cemetery was established in 1845 by Silas W. Newcomb when he had the 2.84 acres surveyed and platted.


Newcomb land sold to John Richards


First owner of the 140 acre parcel was Silas W. Newcomb who acquired the land in 1838 from the United States government [Newcomb was one of only three homes on Octagon Hill in the early 1870's].  In 1846 he sold the land to John Richards, builder of the Octagon House.  The land was surveyed for individual lots in 1870.


It measured 360 feet north and south and 264 feet east and west.  It included all of the ground now occupied by the east half of the present day Northwestern College library-science building, all of the preparatory dormitory, and the two houses numbered 503 and 505 Tower Road.  The north wall of the dormitory almost exactly marks the north boundary of the cemetery, and the two residences just mentioned stand at the eastern edge of the cemetery.


This first cemetery was just west of the city water tower.  Most industries in the early days had their own water towers and wells (e.g., G. B. Lewis).



Click above image so to enlarge

Richards land sold to Northwestern College

   Richards’ estate


Some early historians believed that this property belonged to the Richards' estate.  This is highly likely because the adjacent five and one-half acres to the west were owned by John Richards.  This land was sold in the mid 1860s to Northwestern College (then Northwestern University) for $687.50.  This original plot of ground is the site of the bulk of the present day buildings.


Watertown Cemetery established


Since the cemetery didn't have an official name, it was simply known as the Watertown Cemetery.  Burials continued to be made in the cemetery as late as the 1870s.  The 264 lots filled up quickly, due to an epidemic of the cholera. Lots measured 9 x 24 feet and sold for one dollar each.  John Richards purchased about twenty lots.  Records show only one burial from the Richards' family.  No doubt it was one of their three daughters who died in infancy.  One Negro who died of the cholera was known to be buried there.


As early as 1891, Northwestern College made it known they were interested in obtaining this abandoned cemetery in order to round out its property.  This proved to be a difficult matter that was strung out over a half century.  Former Northwestern College President, E. E. Kowalke, in his Centennial Story (1965) describes the deserted cemetery as:


 "... an interesting jungle of locust trees, lilacs, prickly ash, ordinary day lilies, weeds, tall grass sheltering such wild flowers as violets and crane's bill, together with some quite vigorous poison ivy along the fence that separate the cemetery from college property."


Students had a fascination for the old cemetery despite its unsightly appearance.  One student even eulogized the cemetery in an ode of twenty-four stanzas.



Map and aerial view obtained from  Location of cemetery superimposed by author.


Letter from Dr. J. M. O’Connell




An effort is being made by the city authorities to locate the owners of lots in the old cemetery east of the Northwestern University, with a view of satisfying their interests and cleaning up the property, which has become, in its dilapidated and neglected condition, considerable of an eye-sore to that section of the city.  The deed of the land has been resurrected, which gives the names of some forty members of the association, but the names are those of old-timers concerning whom little is now known.  Perhaps most of them have long since passed to the other world.  Buried in the cemetery are remains of many of the first settlers of this vicinity.   WR





When former students of this institution reflect on the days of hard mental labor spent at the alma mater, a spark of joy will naturally kindle in their hearts when recollection brings back to memory hours of sport and pastime enjoyed either on the campus or at some other spot endeared to them for some particular charm. 


A place that had by no means a small attraction for our students was the old pioneer cemetery — or call it what you will — situated directly east of the college, on the western slope of a large hill between the city and Rock river.


But although its charms are not fled, it is not haunted by us as of old; someone found it more profitable to raise poultry and garden vegetables, so the little strip of ground that once answered the purpose of a path has been enclosed by a fence.


In former years there were many of us who with a book as their companion went to some secluded spot of the old burial grounds and read tales of a hero or heroine in the shade of some tree that had grown up on the grave of a pioneer and patriot of our infant state of Wisconsin.  The cemetery had then, as it is now, gone to ruin; yet upon our entering the grounds now the desolation appears all the more marked since we do not frequent the place as much as formerly.


Viewing the place from a distance, one will hardly be able to recognize in it a resting place for the dead.  The few remaining tombstones, which, to judge from the fragments scattered about, must have been quite numerous in former days, are almost invariably hidden among lilac bushes and other shrubs overrunning the grounds.  The larger trees, as elms, acacias, poplars, hawthornes, and bitternut trees, growing in clusters or singly, impress us as if nature had its own course and the hand of man had never made an attempt to destroy the sacred beauties.


This is only an illusion of distance.  To any one entering the condition of the graveyard affords nothing more than a striking example of the negligence of our American people who have neither time nor money for anything else than that which serves their personal well-being. 


The flowers and shrubs that once decorated the final resting place of a beloved one are growing wild throughout the grounds.  The tombstones erected half a century ago to the memory of a parent, brother, or child are shattered to pieces by the rude hand of some unscrupulous intruder.  Only a few are still extant, the largest of which is in the northeastern corner of the square, and even this is partly demolished.


On passing through the grounds one will notice that not all have been willing to let the graves of their beloved ones be forgotten; many have removed the ashes to some other cemetery; the partly open graves still bear testimony thereof.  On the western side a lot has even been enclosed by a fence, which of course does not prevent its being overrun by weeds, and one is at a loss to say where a body lies.


Of late the cemetery has been vacated and prospects for the future are that it will be turned into a public park.  Of course, the change from a sacred burial ground to a sporting place is not a very hard thing for the conscience of our Americans to brook; there are in fact few problems of this nature which their genius is not able to solve.


H. A. F., '01.                                    Northwestern University, The Black & Red, 03 14 1902








Complaint is being made by the aggrieved parties, that the flowers and decorations upon the graves in the cemeteries in this city are being stolen and carried away by vandals destitute of every sense of honesty and decency.  It hardly seems possible, that there are people in Watertown so lost to an emotion of shame as to enter a cemetery and ghoul-like steal from graves the flowers placed by sorrowing relatives upon the resting place of their departed loved ones.  Such parties ought to be apprehended and an example made of them, that the practice may be discontinued.


“O heaven, that such companions

thou ’tdst unfold

And put in every honest

Hand a whip

To lash the rascals naked

Through the world.”   WDT


Watertown Gazette, 09 10 1909


Dr. J. M. O’Connell, formerly of the town of Emmet, writes as follows to the editor:


Editor Gazette — Enclosed please find Chicago exchange for annual subscription to The Gazette.  During my recent visit to Watertown at the Homecoming festivities I met many old-time friends and many others whom I greatly desired to meet I failed to see.  Watertown’s general appearance pleased me; even after the flags and bunting were removed it showed its true substantial worth.  Homes as beautiful as architecture could devise, streets as substantial as the best paved in St. Louis and lawns second to none from the landscape artist’s point of view.


In one of the oldest cemeteries of your city I was much dismayed with its appearance, weeds and grass effacing many of the tombstones of our departed ones. 


On the whole an air of hope and success seems to pervade everything at and around the old town.


Very respectfully,


Dr. J. M. O’Connell


The cemetery alluded to above has since been put in shape, a cemetery association organized, and work on it planned that will make it one of the best kept in the state.  [Editor Gazette]



12 28       The first cemetery laid out in what is now the city of Watertown was located on Western Avenue, adjoining Northwestern College, in 1840.  The remains of some of the early day settlers are still lying there, but the most of them were removed to Oak Hill cemetery.  In 1850 an association was formed and a cemetery located in the West Road, a short distance west of the North Western railroad.  The organizers of this were John Richards, L. A. Friebert, Andrew Peterson and Daniel Jones.  This continued as a burial place until 1864 when the present Oak Hill cemetery was laid out.  Of these organizers none now remain.  Daniel Jones was for many years president of the Wisconsin National Bank.  A. L. Friebert was a merchant and Andrew Petersen was also a merchant, conducting a store where Raue’s paint store now is located.  He afterwards served as consul to Denmark. 



The cemetery provided a bit of seclusion from college authorities.  While there may have been some profitable studying being undertaken, other activities such as card playing and catching a smoke on the sly may have outweighed the time spent on academic affairs.  Ultimately, in 1929, seven parties who had distant relatives still buried there brought a court suit against the college in order to block their obtaining the property.  In testimony, the card playing became gambling, and the headstones were supposedly used for baseball bases.  One witness even testified that one professor had his basement lined with marble slabs stolen from the cemetery.  One thing was certain as an outcome of the trial–the college had no claim to ownership of the old cemetery.


By the 1940s most of the cemetery headstones were not readable.


Punched in on your first cemetery.  I remember there as one at Northwestern College right ahead of the water tower.  That was the only water tower that I remember.  The cemetery was not kept up and there was an old fence around it.  Most of the industries in the early times had their own water towers.  G.B. Lewis had one, and the time I was working there, they still used water from their own well instead of city water.  The tower was gone .but the well was still used.  I remember walking by the cemetery by Northwestern, and most of the headstones were not readable.  Just thought I would reminisce to you about it.  [Anon]



Eventually, in 1947, when the college was ready to build the present library building, the city fathers knew that the abandoned property would be put to a good use and the eyesore of the deserted cemetery would be removed.  Only one request was made; in the event that additional graves beyond the five known graves were found, that they too, would be removed to Oak Hill Cemetery.  Seventeen such graves were found, and the remains were carefully placed in separate small boxes and removed to Oak Hill Cemetery.





Portion of this chapter derived from Quam, Sy, John Richards: The Hill and The Mill, GJ Graphics (Watertown, WI), 1984 pp 22-23.


Compiled by Ken Riedl




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History of Watertown, Wisconsin