9th September 2015
Mount Washington Cemetery
When asked to visit a specific location that might make one uncomfortable and to write a paper about it, the place that popped into my mind was none other than Mount Washington Cemetery. It is easy to see what the uncomfortable part about this location is. Its sprawling three-hundred-eighty-two acres (one mile east to west and one and a half miles north to south) is home to over sixty-thousand non-breathing residents. It is also surrounded by what is considered in the Independence area to be a more dilapidated part of town.
Before I launch into my visit there with my family, I need to give you a brief history of the area. The cemetery was founded and established in 1900, however, it was actually the location of an amusement park and fairground in the late 1800s, known then as Washington Park. From 1887-1892, many visitors came from the city to enjoy a day of picnics, concessions, rides, concerts, fine dining, and operas to name a few. A twenty acre lake, Swan Lake also existed on the grounds, on the banks of which visitors could either enjoy their family picnics or experience fine-dining at the lakeside restaurant (Forever Enterprises). The area has always been so beautiful that a reporter for the Kansas City Star in 1888 once said “Washington Park was the most picturesque spot between the Allegheny Mountains and the Rockies.” (Olinskey and Debra ) Although the amusement park would annually receive around 40,000 visitors, it was forced to close as the popularity of the new Fairmount Park grew. In 1900, the property was purchased by the Mount Washington Cemetery Association, a group of Kansas City’s prominent citizens.
Prior to 1900, a castle known as ‘Webb Castle’ (although small, was still considered a castle) sat up on the hill across from the cemetery’s main entrance, which belonged to Watt Webb, which was used for his family’s country home. The view of the castle overlooking Swan Lake and the surrounding area caught the attention of a German postcard company and the scenery was often put onto postcards. After the park became a cemetery, Swan Lake was filled in and the castle became abandoned. There is, however, still a pond where the lake used to be. Years later the castle was completely torn down after several years of being used as a haunted house (Dupontcastle.com).
On Saturday, my husband, Joshua, agreed to visit the cemetery with me. Our kids ended up tagging along as well. The way we look at it, it’s just a cemetery, we felt relatively safe. In the spirit of the land’s past, we decided to have our very own picnic there that day. None of us had ever enjoyed a meal on hallowed ground before, but what the heck, why not? We stopped at Hy-Vee and grabbed some sub sandwiches, fresh-baked lemon bars, and a half gallon of chocolate milk to share, and set out toward the cemetery.
We entered through the gates to Mount Washington Cemetery, and I couldn’t help but imagine what it was like for the daily visitors of Washington Park to enter through the same entrance and then to exit out the back way after a day of family fun. We drove up and over the hills trying to decide where to have our picnic. It felt kind of creepy and weird if we were to sit and eat right beside where someone is buried. We made our way further up the hill and found the mausoleum for William Rockhill Neilson and his wife. We found a small parking area to the side and decided to dine there. We looked up at the notable man’s mausoleum and at first thought it was a chapel area and marveled at design work. We parked our car and sat there and ate and talked. One great advantage of my husband and kids accompanying me on this research assignment was that we were also able to use the quiet and solitude to talk and bond for a bit. With work, school, and other responsibilities constantly going on, it was nice just to spend time together and talk. We were able to catch up on what each other’s feelings were about things that were happening in our lives and our plans and hopes for the future.
While we were having our picnic, there was one strange moment where Josh stopped, told us to be silent as he strained to listen to something. After a moment, I asked him what was up and he said “That was weird, I thought I heard something up behind the chapel. It might have been just an animal as this is a wooded area.” So we went back to eating. We also kept hearing this bird every now and then make a bird call that sounded similar of that to a little kid wailing. Even though we knew it was a bird, it was still kind of eerie. The fact that it seemed like we were the only people on the cemetery grounds that day also added to the spooky factor.
After the picnic, we got out and walked up to the chapel and learned of who was buried there by the sign in front of it. There were many steps that we had to climb till we got to the doors. Josh kept giving the kids gummy bears as we climb to keep them from wanting to run off. I was not happy, however, when I looked on a wall of the chapel only to find some graffiti. Seriously, why do people feel they must deface things, especially beautiful historic works of architecture? (I really have always hated people that feel they must vandalize things with graffiti). When we got up to the doors, I found carvings of faces high up in the corners. I whipped my phone out to get a picture and as I stretched up to get the picture just right, I nearly lost my balance and came tumbling down the stairs!
We continued on to look at other areas, only walking as far away from the car as we felt comfortable, for fear of someone coming along and breaking into it. In the past, we had heard about people from the surrounding area using the cemetery as a meeting place for drug deals, or worse, so we definitely still felt the need to use caution. As we explored the graveyard, we came upon several forested areas that would make perfect hiding spots for homeless people or someone hiding.
We noticed one wooded area where if you stood on the edge and peered down you would see a rapidly running creek area that you wouldn’t know was there if you hadn’t taken the time to look. For some strange reason, I was thinking about how difficult it must be for witches to hang out around here, for supposedly they can’t cross running water (I read plenty of fictional fantasy). I also couldn’t help but think that this cemetery had much in common with the cemetery in Neil Gaiman’s ‘The Graveyard Book’, about a little boy whose family is murdered and who is raised to adulthood by ghosts and a vampire in a graveyard.
We walked among many mausoleums of people who were once among Kansas City’s most powerful, notable, and wealthy. Some, but not all, of the notables include James Bridger (a western frontiersman, first white man to view the Great Salt Lake and Yellowstone Park), William Rockhill Neilson (founder of the Kansas City Star and by whose tomb we picnicked), Alfred Hemingway (Uncle to Ernest Hemingway), and Dr. Katherine Richardson, and her sister, Dr. Alice Graham (both founders of Children’s Mercy Hospital).
We must have walked over a mile that day, as we wound our way around the many steeps hills, working to keep our balance. The only downside to having the kids there with us was that we kept having to get on to them for walking over the flat headstones. That’s kids for you though. We also at one point came across many deer, trying to get some photos up close and to amuse the kids, I would try to see how close I could get to them before the deer would scamper off back into the woods.
We came upon more mausoleums of prominent people and was dismayed to see that many of the tombs had wooden ply boards for doors as a result of vandals trying to break in to them, to do only God knows what. One of the crypts was engraved with the name ‘France’, and it was one of the bigger mausoleums. I think the creepiest thing I found that day at Mount Washington Cemetery was the stone sculpture right in front of this mausoleum. It was a sculpture of a woman and two children and all three of them looked like they were glaring holes into me. I got freaked out being in front of the statues and I moved off to the side, however, it still looked like their sinister glares were following me. They seemed like the sort of statues that got up and walked around when nobody was looking.
We noted more vandalism up on one hill where whole huge headstones appeared to be thrown or toppled over from their foundations. It seemed like somebody at some point just tried driving right over them. We also noticed in certain areas many cracked, decaying and almost buried headstones of what seemed like less known people. I guess even when dead, the more well- to- do residents get better treatment.
My husband, the science nerd that he is, got lucky that day and found a huge rock with dozens of fossils from a certain type of spiral worm-like creature, which just made his day. We were studying this fossil when a guy pulled up in a truck, got out and started walking toward us. Since we had thought to move our car as we went through the cemetery, it was nearby, so I told the kids to go get in while we dealt with this guy who seemed to be coming right for us. He was of Spanish/Mexican origin and he started speaking to us rapidly in Spanish, and we did not understand what he wanted. He gave up on our Spanish speaking skills and just said “Closed. We are closed.” We were surprised as it was only six o’clock in August and usually most cemeteries close at dusk as the sun is setting. He was nice enough to guide us up to the front gate and opened it for us to leave.
We really wanted to explore the area a bit more in depth, however, we ran out of time that day. I was able to get many good pictures taken of interesting carvings and architecture. This place was interesting to me because of the fact that it is the biggest cemetery I’ve ever seen (although I’m sure bigger ones exist elsewhere), and in spite of it being right in the middle of a metropolitan area, it feels like it’s a widely isolated area out in the middle of the forest. It’s also one of those places that also manage to be creepy and quite lovely all at the same time.
- com. Webb Castle. 2 November 2009. Web. 20 August 2015. <http://www.dupontcastle.com/castles/webb.htm>.
- Forever Enterprises. com. n.d. Digital Doorway Network. 20 August 2015. <http://enterthelaughter.com/mount-washington-forever/History-Notable-Persons.html>.
- Olinskey , John M. and Topi Debra . Kansas City’s Fairmont Park. 2005. Kansas City Web Links . web. 20 August 2015. <http://oldfairmountpark.com/1887.html>.