The story of Bellefontaine Cemetery begins in the early 19th Century when an international movement began to transform burial practice in America. Up until that time, the dead had been buried in churchyards, on family property, or in small vacant lots. As cities flourished, however, the land set aside for the dead grew increasingly valuable. When developers claimed these urban graveyards for the growth of cities, those interred there had to be moved elsewhere.
The rural cemetery movement sought to establish, cities of the dead in park-like settings outside the urban centers, where those who had died could truly rest in peace. A rural setting allowed visitors to reflect and remember in dignified, natural surroundings, far from the distractions of the city.
The first of the rural cemeteries, Père-Lachaise Cemetery, was founded in Paris in 1804. America’s first garden or landscaped cemetery was Mount Auburn Cemetery in Cambridge, Massachusetts, founded in 1831. While the Parisians favored lavishness and ornamentation in their architectural designs, in the United States, the rural cemeteries emphasized the beauty of the landscape itself.
A mere 18 years after the founding of Mount Auburn, William McPherson, a St. Louis banker and lawyer who had also served as mayor of the city, brought together a group of the city’s preeminent citizens – regardless of their religious affiliations – to establish the first rural cemetery west of the Mississippi.
Although St. Louis had a population of only 100,000 in 1849, it was experiencing exponential growth – in 20 years the population would increase by 250 percent. Thus St. Louis was becoming one of the nation’s preeminent urban centers – before the Transcontinental Railroads, before the Eads Bridge – and these men, with the welfare of the city at heart, recognized need the for a fine rural cemetery. Most of the existing graveyards were too small to accommodate the booming population, but lacked the space or funds to expand. The cemeteries located along Jefferson Avenue would soon have to be abandoned, as they were directly in the path of the city’s westward growth. Equally troubling was the impermanence and impersonality of these old burial places, often poorly maintained and mostly forgotten, overwhelmed by the noise and bustle of city life.
The group purchased 138 acres north of the city, including the Hempstead family farm and graveyard. With graves dating back to 1816 it is the oldest lot in the cemetery. On the 7th of March, 1849, the founders adopted a constitution and incorporated as the “Rural Cemetery Association,” receiving a charter from the State of Missouri. At the next meeting of the Association, however, they decided to replace “Rural” with “Bellefontaine,” the name of the old military road that bordered the cemetery property and led to the former Fort Bellefontaine. Bellefontaine Cemetery became the 14th of the great rural cemeteries built in the United States.
The first interment at Bellefontaine took place on April 27, 1850. The May dedication ceremonies received extensive coverage in the city newspapers. In his dedicatory address, classical scholar Rev. Truman Marcellus Post called Bellefontaine “the shadow, the counterpart” of the city. There would be 108 interments in that year, half of which were removals from other cemeteries.
Bellefontaine’s founders hoped that the cemetery would become a major civic and historical institution – a “community classroom.” Visitors walking through the cemetery – especially newly arrived Irish and German immigrants – were meant to be inspired by the examples of notable St. Louisans, bolstering a sense of community and civic identity for their adopted home. The cemetery’s embrace of immigrants, its openness to all races and religions, and later, its accessibility by streetcar for middle and lower class patrons made Bellefontaine an inclusive institution for the times.
Timing of the cemetery’s establishment was fortuitous, for in June of 1850 the worst cholera epidemic in the city’s history hit St. Louis, moving up the river from New Orleans. By the early part of July, it had so alarmed the community that everyone who was financially able to do so, except the mayor, fled from St. Louis with their families. Before the middle of August, more than ten percent of the city’s total population had perished.
When the cholera epidemic had abated, James Yeatman, a trustee of the cemetery, traveled east in search of a highly qualified landscape designer for Bellefontaine. He engaged Almerin Hotchkiss, then working on the design and construction of Green-Wood Cemetery in Brooklyn, New York. Hotchkiss spent the next 46 years of his life improving the property as superintendent of Bellefontaine Cemetery. He was succeeded in that position by his son, Frank. The design boasted fourteen miles of avenues for carriages, and an six-foot highwrought iron picket fence that defined the borders of the property.
By 1886, Bellefontaine had become one of the most active rural cemeteries in the country. The Cemetery Association had acquired an additional 100 acres of land. Tickets were now issued for admission to the grounds, which were open from sunrise to sunset. Over 1,000 interments were taking place each year, and lot sales were steadily increasing. Large family tombs were constructed along the river bluffs on Prospect Avenue, many of them both beautiful and architecturally significant.
To serve its families better, the grounds were now equipped with running water, waiting rooms were constructed in the gatehouses, and three large greenhouses were built to provide fresh flowers and ivy for families to place on loved one’s graves. Planning for the future, the cemetery began to correspond with other large cemeteries across the country on a number of management issues, most importantly, how to accumulate a permanent maintenance fund.
In 1901, the city proposed the construction of two “asphaltum boulevards” that would make the cemetery more easily accessible. As the Post-Dispatch reported, at the time, “the journey to Bellefontaine and Calvary cemeteries from the city [was] long and by unimproved ways. There [were] no pavements. There [was] mud in winter and spring and dust in the summer and fall. Many of the streets [were] barely an improvement upon country roads.” The paper estimated that 600,000 people now visited the two cemeteries each year.
By 1907, increasing numbers of automobiles on the grounds prompted the cemetery to adjust its rules and restrictions, banning, among other thing, “pleasure driving,” and automobiles driven by women or children. In the five years that followed, however, many restrictions on automobile traffic were removed to accommodate changing times.
By the turn of the 20th Century, the cemetery was one of the most visited sites in St. Louis. The increased numbers of visitors and growing commercialization along the cemetery’s riverfront entrance led to construction of the first residence on the grounds. Several more homes would be built for keepers and foremen, though by the 1980s all staff had moved off the grounds.
In 1917, the Belmont Realty Company, formed by the Cemetery Association, initiated investments that would become a major source of funds for the cemetery’s endowment, a solution to the problem of financing perpetual care of the grounds. The coming years saw a host of improvements to the property, including construction of a new office building, the excavation of the two lakes, the resurfacing of roads, and the planting of trees. By 1927, half of lot sales proceeds were also set aside for perpetual care along with funds generated by investments.
Unfortunately, with the onset of the Great Depression, lot sales slowed, and in 1931, cemetery expenses exceeded its income for the first time. The cemetery continued to make improvements to the grounds, including a renovation of the chapel. By 1951, the endowment had reached $4 million. The hardship of these years further impressed upon trustees the importance of endowment, and financial stewardship has remained a core focus of the board.
The first Landmarks Association tour of the grounds took place in 1965, and in 1970, the Wainwright Tomb, designed by Louis Sullivan, was added to the National Register of Historic Places.
By the 1990s, while the cemetery was thriving, much of the city’s population had moved to the west sending many urban neighborhoods, including the community around the cemetery, into a blighted condition. The Cemetery Association began working to cultivate community development, along with partners including Habitat for Humanity, New Sunny Mount Baptist Church and the cemetery’s affiliate, Union West Florissant Development Corporation. These partnerships have yielded hundreds of rebuilt homes, grants to community groups and ongoing planning to bring jobs and services to the neighborhood. Commitment to its community is an important part of Bellefontaine Cemetery’s mission.
Recently, Bellefontaine Cemetery has gone digital with the launch of a website and initiation of a digitization project to preserve archives and burial records, and facilitate genealogical research.
In spite of many changes, though, the cemetery as it is today continues to reflect the original design of Almerin Hotchkiss. While the cemetery’s 138 acres have grown to 314, Bellefontaine’s 14 miles of curved roadways still afford beautiful views of the landscape, including thousands of shrubs and trees and hundreds of works of art, as well as a newly constructed lakeside garden and columbarium and newly restored Hotchkiss Chapel. Bellefontaine has become an outdoor museum, containing fine sculptures and memorial art, providing a splendid catalog of styles and reflecting the changing tastes of our culture.
With 87,000 interments, it is also the final resting place of men and women whose lives have contributed conspicuously to the westward expansion of our country. A visit to their graves gives us a keener appreciation of our national heritage, connecting past, present, and future generations.
Read more about the rich history of Bellefontaine Cemetery in “Movers and Shakers, Scalawags and Suffragettes: Tales from Bellefontaine Cemetery” by Carol Ferring Shepley. You can find more information about this award-winning book here.