The cemetery dates back to the 1600s and is the burial site of soldiers serving in many of this nation's wars, from the Civil War up to World War I. But over the years, it was not treated very kindly.
"They used to have parties in there; there was a rape and murder in there," said Roslyn, a 20-year resident of the Journal Square area. "I've seen people in here with those detectors looking for gold that's rumored to be buried in the cemetery."
But recently, there have been efforts by residents, volunteers, historic preservationists and city officials to permanently shield the cemetery from the vandalism and abuse that has plagued its existence in recent times.
The cemetery was declared a historic site in 1979 by the city and has received the attention of concerned citizens over the years, but has also fallen victim to neglect, a continuous cycle of care and abuse that has earned it the nickname of "The Forgotten Cemetery".Not long forgotten
Speer Cemetery, or Old Speer Cemetery, as it referred to at the present time, dates back to the mid 1600s when a large segment of land was granted to the DeMott family that extended from Bergen Avenue to the Hackensack River. While the Old Dutch Church located on Bergen Avenue acquired much of the DeMott land, the cemetery became the burial plot for the DeMott family for over 150 years.
Then in 1857, Abram Speer, who owned one of the early undertaking businesses in Hudson County and was a nearby resident of the DeMotts' land, bought the DeMott burial plot land and other unused property to create the Speer Cemetery (known at the time he bought it as Bergen Cemetery).
Already utilized as a burial place for DeMott family members, the cemetery became the final resting place for soldiers from Jersey City who served in such conflicts as the Battle of Gettysburg during the Civil War and the Battle of Verdun during World War I.
Many of the names on the gravestones have faded. Among those that appear are Thomas H. Wilson, a veteran of the Civil War from 1864 to 1865 who was laid to rest on August 23, 1894. Another is Catherine Leuning Schriefer (who passed away in 1893), and several members of her family are buried in their family plot.
Many of those buried have been visited over the years by their families, who had open access to their loved ones. In a document that outlined "The Rules and Regulations of the Bergen Cemetery" dated January 1, 1873, Article One stated that "Owners of lots and graves, with their families, shall have free access, at all times, to the ground, observing the rules which are or may be adopted for the regulation of visitors, the violation of which involves a forfeiture of the privilege." At the time, it was $7 to disinter an adult and $4 to disinter a child.
But the free access also posed a problem as the cemetery became the target for vandalism and poor maintenance. A report by the Jersey City Historic District Commission dated June 26, 1974 stated that "through the years the families of those buried in Speer's cemetery did not feel the commitment that past generations had to maintain the graves. Few come to clear the weeds or plant flowers, so the cemetery slowly decayed."
Could have become a parking lot
After a member of the DeMott family charged the maintenance of the cemetery to the New Jersey Title Guarantee and Trust Company, a trust was formed for the upkeep of the site. But as the money dwindled, so did the maintenance efforts. Sporadic efforts were made to save the cemetery from being an eyesore. But by 1969 it was still in dire shape, with many of the headstones knocked over or stolen, debris staining the landscape, and the chain link fence enclosing the property constantly damaged. In the same year, the Jersey City Parking Authority announced that it would the pave over the cemetery, transforming it into a parking lot.
Soon, the Committee to Preserve Historic Speer Cemetery was formed to rescue the cemetery from any paving efforts and to restore to its original state.
In an article from the June 7, 1976 edition of the Jersey Journal, it stated that "the group would primarily like to see the installation of a chain link fence around the cemetery to keep out the vandals who have littered the entire area and have knocked over or broken most of the headstones."
The officials said in the article, "It is our fond hope to have this site as an historic cemetery, insisting on sufficient protection and maintenance of the burial ground."
A few years of restoration work culminated with the rededication of the Speer Cemetery on Memorial Day, 1979. But that was for naught as the cemetery again fell victim to neglect.
Throughout the 1980s and 1990s, more efforts were made to preserve the cemetery, but there was inconsistent upkeep. A movement began in the early 1990s to have it designated as a state historic landmark. One of those who were leading the effort was William LaRosa, the longtime administrator at the Hudson County Office of Cultural and Heritage Affairs.
LaRosa in 1991 made a request of the state to have the Speer Cemetery placed on the New Jersey State as well as Federal Historic Registers, which would qualify it for funds and enable preservation groups to help restore the site.
But in a letter dated June 10, 1991 from the New Jersey Office of New Jersey Heritage, Nancy Zerbe, then Deputy State Historic Preservation Officer, noted that based on documentation about Speer Cemetery provided by LaRosa, "our preliminary review indicates that the Speer Cemetery does not appear to be individually eligible for listing in either the New Jersey or National Registers of Historic Places." The letter did mention that in order for the cemetery to qualify for historic status, "the grave of an individual must belong to a historical figure of outstanding importance in the history of the local area, state or nation," with other criteria.
LaRosa said last week that the work that has to be done to preserve the cemetery is extensive and will require the efforts of many organizations on city, state and federal levels.
The 'Soon To Not Be Forgotten' Cemetery?
"I personally feel that it would be a wonderful place for meditation," said LaRosa, who has been involved in efforts to restore the cemetery for many years. Recently, he consulted with John Gomez of the Jersey City Landmarks Conservancy on forming a plan to transform the cemetery into a passive park with benches, so as not to disturb the landscape, particularly the gravestones. Many of those gravestones are made of limestone with elaborate drawings etched into the stone, but are have been crumbling over the years.
LaRosa also said that cleanup and restoration will entail a massive effort since the cemetery contains some pitfalls that have made cleanup difficult.
"There are a lot of sinkholes; there's a lot of poison ivy," said LaRosa. Another problem is that in order for any restoration work to be done, relatives of those still buried on the cemetery site would have to be contacted through the state Attorney General's Office, which protects the rights of those buried at Speer.
Individuals get involved
But cleanup has been occurring nonetheless through the efforts of Arthur Sutcliffe, a recently retired employee of the Jersey City Incineration Authority (JCIA).
Sutcliffe has a led of group of JCIA workers, local residents and others in cleaning up the cemetery with a recent effort filling two industrial containers with debris, weeds, and dead branches.
"It's a small effort on my part to maintain this cemetery in order to preserve the graves of those veterans who served this country to make it what is today," said Sutcliffe, who himself had been stricken with poison ivy as a result of his work there.
At the May 12 City Council meeting, Ward C Councilman Steve Lipski introduced a resolution authorizing the allotment of $25,000 towards the restoration of historic cemeteries in Jersey City, with at least $9,000 going to the Speer Cemetery for a new gate.
At the present time, there is a temporary orange gate that was put in to plug a gaping hole. There was also talk about having a ceremony this coming Memorial Day on the 25th anniversary of the rededication of the cemetery, but there has been no decision made at the present time.