Mystery Cemetery Cleanup Has People Puzzled In Jamaica

A recent cleanup of a historic cemetery at the intersection of Guy Brewer Boulevard and Liberty Avenue in Jamaica has some residents wondering about who did the job.

The First United Methodist Church of Jamaica, located at 162-10 Highland Avenue, owns the cemetery, which dates back 150 years. It was donated to the church in the mid-1800s by the Leech and Snedeker families, two prominent families living in Jamaica at the time.

The donation didn’t come without a catch, though. Six specific lots in the cemetery were reserved by the families as future burial spots.

Each lot was to be 16 feet east and west and 23 feet north and south. The church was also asked to preserve the walkway in the cemetery.

A 1914 list of inscriptions listed 105 stones with the earliest one dated 1816. The last readable stone standing today is dated 1920 for the Holland family.

More than four decades ago, the last member of the Leech family that still lived in Jamaica gave the church $1,500 to be used as a perpetual care fund for his family’s graves.

However, that didn’t go very far. According to Stanley Cogan, president of the Queens Historical Society and Queens Borough historian, over the years, the cemetery began to be neglected.

Cogan, whose specialty is restoring old Queens family cemeteries, said by the 1930s and 1940s the cemetery had become a mess.

“Throughout the years the headstones were vandalized. It became a hangout for drug addicts. In addition to that, companies in the area started using it as a dumping ground,” he said.

“There have been various efforts made to clean it up by the Parks Department and other organizations in the past, but not a lot of improvement had been made,” Cogan said.

York College surrounds the cemetery, which occupies a small corner of a very large block. According to Cogan, the school had once kept salt mounds on the property, but away from the graves.

Cogan described the recent cleanup as a great job. “They fenced it off for protection and it looks great. It was totally transformed,” he said.

His goal is to have the opportunity to enter the property and photograph and document every headstone for preservation purposes. “I think this is a very important issue and I would like to be a part of it whatever way I can.”

The Parks Department was unable to locate information regarding the cleanup. When contacted, the First United Methodist Church was also unaware of the recent cleanup.

On the neighboring lot, which is attached to the land the cemetery is on, a large sign stands that says York College, Site Number 9 Rehabilitation Project, financed and constructed by the Dormitory Authority State of New York.

Officials at York College were also unaware of the cleanup. “We own the land adjacent to the cemetery. Right now there are no real plans. It is a question of funding,” said Raymond Scott of the Facilities Department at York College.

Claudia Hutton, a spokesperson for the Dormitory Authority, was also unaware of the cleanup.

Susan Walski, who is on the Board of Directors of the Central Queens Historical Association, has taken an active interest in the cemetery for several years. She had proposed having the Central Queens Historical Society take over the cemetery, but that did not go through.

Through her research, Walski had located John Warner Leech, a surviving member of the Leech family living in New Hampshire. But she said he knew very little about the property.

According to Walski, in 1847, Manhattan started the Rural Cemeteries Act, which stopped any new burials in Manhattan. That created commercial cemeteries in Queens.

Jeff Gottlieb, president of the Central Queens Historical Association, said that he was glad about the recent cleanup efforts, but was still concerned about the future of the property.

“Basically, any cemetery that still exists after all these years, should be appreciated by the city and should be kept in a good state to preserve our colonial and post-colonial past,” Gottlieb said.

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