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What is Oakdale Cemetery?

Ben Steelman

Wilmington’s historic “garden” cemetery at the north end of 15th Street was chartered in 1852, as local civic leaders grew concerned about the crowding at the St. James churchyard and other burial grounds located within the city. Today, the park-like complex covers some 165 acres. The cemetery office is located at 520 N. 15th St., Wilmington [Map this].

A group of businessmen acquired the first 65 acres in 1852, on the east side of Burnt Mill Creek, well beyond the city limits, which then extended as far as Eighth Street. A non-profit Oakdale Cemetery Co. — which still administers the property — was chartered by the state General Assembly, and the first lots were sold at public auction on Dec. 5, 1854, with a minimum bid of $50 per lot. (As of 2009, adult grave spaces in the cemetery ranged from $1,500 to $3,000, including perpetual care fees.)

The cemetery was conceived as part of the “Rural Cemetery” movement in 19th century America, following the model of Mount Auburn Cemetery in Cambridge, Mass., with winding paths, large shade trees, flowers and shrubs, intended to serve as much as a park for the living as a resting place for the dead. Surveyor Louis C. Turner laid out a maze of curving pathways for sections A through H, skillfully using the site’s naturally hilly terrain. Oakdale’s first superintendent, Charles Quigley, seems to have done considerable landscaping, sinking pathways into the hillsides to create more intriguing vistas.

The first burial was on Feb. 5, 1855 — by a sad irony, the body of 6-year-old Annie DeRosset, daughter of Dr. Armand J. DeRosset III, the president of the Oakdale Cemetery Co. On March 6, 1855, the Hebrew Cemetery section of the cemetery was formally dedicated; the date is preserved on the delicate, arched metalwork gate that can still be seen.

Between 1856 and 1859, some 80 graves were relocated to Oakdale from St. James and from surrounding plantation burial grounds; some reburials continued as late as 1923. Thus, a number of the grave monuments in the cemetery bear death dates well before Oakdale’s founding. such as the marker for Duncan Cameron, who died on Nov. 27, 1790. Cameron’s tombstone, carved with Masonic symbols, were discovered buried in a vacant Fourth Street lot in November 1909; it and the bones found beneath it were reinterred at Oakdale.

During the Civil War, hundreds of victims of the yellow fever epidemic of 1862 were interred in the cemetery’s “public grounds,” i.e., the area not set aside for family plots. This area, largely bare of any monuments, can still be seen, covered in yellow daffodils as a result of Boy Scout and school projects.

In 1867, the company gave land to the Ladies Memorial Association, a forerunner of the United Daughters of the Confederacy, on which to place a monument to the Confederate dead. On May 10, 1872, a granite monument was unveiled, bearing a bronze, full-length statue of a Confederate soldier and medallions with the bas relief portraits of Robert E. Lee and Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson. The remains of 367 unknown Confederate soldiers are buried nearby.

During the Victorian age, the cemetery was the object of regular visits and Sunday excursions; a lodge and a number of gazebos or summer houses (no longer standing) were erected on the grounds.

Today, Oakdale is often used by joggers and hikers, although bicycles are barred from the cemetery. A map with a self-guided tour of the grounds is available from the cemetery’s Web site or from the cemetery office, which is open on weekdays.

Later additions brought Oakdale’s size to more than 100 acres by the end of World War II. The Annex Extension and Memorial Garden of 1950 expanded it to 128 acres; these newer areas follow the grid pattern of the modern “lawn” cemetery and only flat bronze plaques are permitted as grave markers. The newer “Live Oak” section sits off North 15th Street behind the cemetery office.

The grounds preserve some of the original live oaks dating from Oakdale’s founding, and since 1860, the cemetery has been extensively planted with dogwoods, azaleas and camellias, in dozens, perhaps hundreds of varieties, some of them antique. More exotic plantings, such as mountain laurel or the snowball plant, can be found in various plots. Architectural historian Tony Wrenn hailed Oakdale as “one of the state’s best gardens.”

Others value Oakdale as a sculpture garden with a large variety of statuary, striking mausoleums and stone monuments.

Oakdale’s trees support an unusual number of bird species, and birders’ walks through the grounds are periodically organized.

Among the notable individuals buried at Oakdale: Edward B. Dudley, North Carolina’s first governor elected by popular vote; Henry Bacon, architect of the Lincoln Memorial in Washington; Rose O’Neale Greenhow, the famed Confederate spy, who drowned off Cape Fear while trying to elude the Union blockade; Pembroke Jones, the wealthy rice planter and Gilded Age society figure reputed to be the origin of the phrase “keeping up with the Joneses”; John Newland Maffitt, the Confederate raider captain and blockade runner; a number of Confederate generals, including Maj. Gen. W.H.C. Whiting, who commanded the Cape Fear defenses; Arthur Bluethenthal, killed in action in World War I while serving with the Lafayette Flying Corps in France; and newscaster and Wilmington native David Brinkley, who is buried in his family’s plot.

Several of the gravestones tell unusual stories. In 1880, friends erected a marker at the grave of William Ellerbrock, a German immigrant and volunteer firefighter who died while battling a disastrous warehouse fire on the Wilmington waterfront. Ellerbrock’s beloved dog, “Boss,” died in the same fire, while trying to drag its master — who had been trapped under a fallen beam — to safety. The two were buried together in Lot No. 12 of the cemetery’s Section D. The front of the tombstone honors Ellerbrock; the back shows a relief of a sleeping dog with the epitaph “Faithful Unto Death.”

Also notable is the tombstone of Nancy Martin, a simple cross bearing the nickname “Nance.” Martin died at sea in 1857, and her body was supposedly buried in a cask of rum — the same cask in which it had been preserved during the ocean voyage.

The Friends of Oakdale Cemetery were founded in 2005 as a non-profit support and preservation group for the cemetery. The group conducts periodic tours and other events.

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