Posted by: jevcat | May 31, 2010

Memorials (My Staten Island – Snug Harbor Cemetery)

Memorial Day is a sort of odd holiday.  It honors our war dead, which is solemn and sad, yet it’s a day of celebration, too, of them and their sacrifice and what it has bought us.  By extension, it also celebrates those who serve in the armed forces now, and so it’s high-spirited, too.

The sort of in-between mood is similar to that of one of my Beloved’s and my recent Staten Island adventures.  Staten Island is sometimes called “The Forgotten Borough” – and that’s a pretty accurate assessment – but there are places here that are forgotten even by most of us who are residents. 

Sailor’s Snug Harbor was a home for “decrepit sailors” that has been turned into a cultural center, with botanical garden, museums, “Secret Garden” for children, and the only Chinese Scholar’s Garden in this country, not to mention a scattering of charming Victorian houses and what I’ve been told is the largest collection of Greek revival buildings in this country.  It’s a straight shot along Richmond Terrace, only a couple of miles from the ferry, and the S40 bus goes right by. 

It’s lovely, much of it is free, and it is not exactly forgotten.  But we had been told there was a Snug Harbor Cemetery, where the sailors had been buried, and, search as we might, we’d never been able to find it.  Internet digging finally turned up the answer:  the Snug Harbor property had originally been larger, some of it had been sold, and the cemetery is no longer part of Snug Harbor, but part of a separate park nearby. 

A couple of weeks ago, having dropped our car off to be fixed, we started walking in the direction of home (though without the intention of walking the full five miles!).  Snug Harbor lies at about the half-way point and, having fortified ourselves with a stop at a Dunkin Donuts along the way, when we reached Snug Harbor, we decided to have a look for the missing cemetery.  We walked from Richmond Terrace along the western border of Snug Harbor Cultural Center, along Snug Harbor Road to Kissel Avenue, then left along its southern border, Henderson Avenue, where a right turn on Brentwood Avenue brought us to Allison Park, with a pretty pond with a jet of water fountaining out of it. 

It was a warmish and overcast weekday, and we were almost the only ones in the park.  We followed a path that started by the water and continued into woods, and fairly soon found an old red brick wall to our left.  We figured this must be the cemetery, but could there was no gate and we could not see in so continued until there was a fallen tree next to the wall.  Standing on it, we looked over an enclosed grassy area, although we saw no gravestones.  Eventually, we decided we would not find a way in and retraced our steps to where we had entered the park.

Being stubborn, I insisted on walking the other way around the border of the park and there, on a residential street, right next to a house’s driveway, we found an open gate to the cemetery, and its own little world.  Here there were some stones, though not many.  We walked up a hill to where we could see more graves, proceeding carefully, as the grass hid depressions that may have been from unmarked graves.

There was no one else in the enclosed area, and it was quiet and still.  Toward the top, there was a circle of shorter grass where it was particularly hushed.  One of the stones here had been spray-painted hot pink at some time, and traces of the paint lingered.  There were some empty beer cans and bottles in places, and around the circle three of the trees were dead, broken and black limbs still reaching up.  I’m not superstitious – the church I grew up in was surrounded by a cemetery, and we kids used to play tag using tombs as base – but when my Beloved asked, “Do you feel it?” I said “Yes” – there was an “off” feeling here:  not scary, not threatening, just somehow wrong, and different from the rest of the park.  Quietly he said, “We can honor them.”

Having discovered as an adult that he was part Native American, my Beloved has studied Native religion and now that came to the fore.  As we stood side by side on the slope, silent,  he removed from his pack one of the organic American Spirit cigarettes he’d just bought.  He broke open the cigarette, took out the tobacco and, much as holy water or incense might have been used, he scattered it as we faced each of the four directions in turn, in memory of the men of the sea buried here.  The air was absolutely still, but as we did this, tiny white petals began to drift softly down from trees all around us – something we both noticed and talked about afterward.  It felt a benediction, and the heaviness seemed to lift.

We continued on through the graveyard, though there were not many more stones, and down the other side of the slope.  There, we discovered some other people and a break in the wall where we might have slipped through, had we continued our original path.  We walked back though Snug Harbor Cultural Center to Richmond Terrace and took the bus home.  It was a strange experience, and, although we want to visit Allison Park again and explore further the path through woods and along a stream, I doubt that it will ever again have quite the same feel as that first time.


  1. It’s so cool that you two discovered a secret cemetry and found a good way to honor the dead there. Thanks for sharing this encouraging story.

  2. This is a wonderful story. Thank you for sharing it.
    I always visit the cemetery in Marlborough CT where many of my ancestors are buried. Having done my genealogy I now feel, when I go there, a strong connection to the graves and the names of the people resting there. I once heard it said that as long as someone remembers your name, you are not fully “gone” or “dead”. Sometimes I wonder…..

  3. Thank you for an amazing journey to a part of Staten Island that’s been hidden to most of us.

  4. You should go sometime when you’re out here, David. It feels like a place outside of time — or at least, it did the day we were there.

  5. Thank you for posting the story of your journey to Sailors Snug Harbor Cemetery in the past. Thanks for sharing your experience there and honoring the Sailors that are interred at the Cemetery. I recently discovered that my 3xGreat Grandfather resided at Sailors Snug Harbor for almost 30yrs. and died there at age 91 in the mid-1890s. He is interred in the cemetery. He was born in Denmark and immigrated to New York City in the late 1830s. He worked as a sailor on merchant schooners into to his 60s when he was injured. Sadly, due to past vandalism, many of the remaining the headstones were removed and stored. The Sailors Snug Harbor records are at SUNY Maritime College. I live far away from the NYC area, but plan to visit the Cultural Center and Cemetery in the future to honor my ancestor. Thanks for honoring him and the other sailors interred at the cemetery.

    • I’m sorry I had not seen this earlier. Thank you so much for your kind words. It took us rather a bit of looking to find the old cemetery, since it is sort of hidden away and not connected to the main Snug Harbor anymore, but we were glad we did. The vandalism was plain, and very sad, but it is still a special place. I hope that you are able to come and see it.

  6. I just ran across your blog. I have a 2nd great grand uncle buried at Snug. I just recently found this out and I am so intrigued by your story. It’s painful to hear of vandalism. I have read that some of the tombstones are in storage. Would you happen to know where?

    • Unfortunately, no, I don’t know, and we have not been back to the cemetery park since then. I keep meaning to go back, but, maybe because the first visit was so spooky, I have not — not sure if I’m afraid or I just don’t want to spoil the specialness of the first visit with an ordinary second one.

  7. Hi! jevcat, I’d like to visit this cemetery sometime, What street did you find the gate to enter? Prospect? Thanks for y our reply

    • We went in at Brentwood and Prospect but gave up (too soon, I think) looking for a break in the wall. The gate we found when we walked out and around the other way was, I’m pretty sure, on Prospect, but it was almost hard to tell it wasn’t just a part of someone’s yard.

  8. Hi, I was very moved by your story my cousin and I have been reasearching our family history and I just found out my great grandfather is buried at snug harbor he died in 1904 I wonder if there is a headstone. From what I found out it was a home for retired mariners I guess they lived there and were taken care of. I called the trustees office and gave them the date he passed away they told me they saved all the files of the people that were there and he would send me the file. I hope I get some better information. Thstory.

    • Thanks. I’m glad you were touched. It is an odd and special place. I’ve wanted to go back, but somehow never have, although I have been to the Snug Harbor Cultural Center. It really is a wonderful place (both parts), and I hope they send you the information and that you get a chance to visit it one day.

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