By Emily Manson
The Cataraqui Cemetery is a lovely place for a long meandering stroll or a contemplative rest. It’s filled with beautiful trees, ponds and ravines. Many notable Kingston residents are buried here.
The cemetery was established in 1850, in a time period when rural cemeteries were being founded across North America and were used similarly to public parks as well as to commemorate the dead. It was designed by Frederick Cornell.1
I met with Craig Boals, manager at Cataraqui Cemetery and Funeral Services, who very kindly explained the story of a few parts of the cemetery and some of its occupants. It’s clear that the history of the graves and the property itself is vast and very complex.
Of course, the most famous person buried here is Sir John A. Macdonald. He is surrounded by other lesser-known but equally interesting people. One is Eliza Grimason, a tavern owner who was a close friend of Macdonald and supported him politically.2 Sir Alexander Campbell, a Father of Confederation, is also buried nearby. He worked closely with Macdonald before and after Confederation, and served as dean of Queen’s University’s Faculty of Law.3 He was also the first president of Cataraqui Cemetery’s board of trustees.4
Just across the path from these sites is the burial place of Captain James Sutherland. He established a trophy for junior hockey and named it the Memorial Cup in honour of those who had lost their lives in the First World War. He was also involved in the founding of the Hockey Hall of Fame and in the decision to locate it in Kingston.5
Nearby (though I didn’t manage to find the headstone) is the burial place of James Morton. He was trained by Thomas Molson, son of John Molson, the founder of the renowned brewery. Morton owned a lumberyard in Kingston, was involved in building the section of the Grand Trunk Railway that ran through the city, and owned a successful brewery.6 It was located on the site of the current Tett Centre and the adjacent Regional Headquarters of Correctional Service Canada.7 The Tett Centre website has a fascinating account of the history of Morton’s business on the site: https://www.tettcentre.org/about-us/history
The first and last staff members who lost their lives in the line of duty at Kingston Penitentiary are buried here. Henry Traill (called Harry) was a guard supervising inmates at a quarry outside the penitentiary when he was clubbed over the head by an inmate as part of an escape.8 He died on July 7, 1870, and his grave is located in section D of the cemetery, near Evergreen Path. He was the son of Catharine Parr Traill, the well-known settler and author of The Backwoods of Canada and The Female Emigrant’s Guide. In a letter to her daughter Annie, she wrote of visiting the cemetery: “A lovely spot where sleeps the mortal remains of our beloved Harry – I had begged some sweet violets in bloom from Mrs Ferris and L and I planted them in the turf over him…and then a glorious rainbow came in the east – the brightest and most lovely I ever saw – It spanned the valley below us…It seemed a happy token of Gods [sic] promises to his believing children departed from earth to Heaven.”9
The last staff member to be killed at Kingston Penitentiary was William Wentworth, who was stabbed to death in a washroom on the night shift. No one was ever convicted of his murder. An inmate who had been in the building at the time of Wentworth’s death was arrested in 1993 but was not tried, as the judge determined it had been too long since the murder.1
One person buried in the cemetery seems to have been very well-known in Kingston in her time, but is much less so today. Her name was Harriet Powell, and she had escaped slavery. She was kept by a couple called Davenport, of Mississippi, and they visited Syracuse, New York in 1839. Syracuse was at that time a hub of the abolitionist movement, and many of its residents were very open about their support of runaway slaves.1 Several of them, including employees at the hotel where Powell and the Davenports were staying, helped Powell escape and took her to a safe house. She then travelled from one house to the next on the Underground Railroad, reaching Kingston a few weeks later. She and her husband, Henry Kelly, lived near St. Pauls’ Anglican Church on Queen Street.2 Harriet’s story can be found at http://www.stoneskingston.ca/black-history/harriet-powell-and-henry-kelly-house/, and some interesting documents, including the reward notice that the Davenports published after her escape, can be found at https://library.syr.edu/digital/exhibits/u/undergroundrr/case1.htm.
As well as the hundreds of individual plots, Cataraqui Cemetery contains a number of areas used for the burial of specific groups. There is quite a large military burial plot, which has been active since 1865. It includes military personnel killed in the Crimean War, the two World Wars, and Afghanistan. There is also a memorial to people who have donated their bodies to be used at Queen’s University’s medical school. It is surrounded by stones marking the burial place of the cremated remains of donors from each year, beginning in 1978. There is another stone commemorating those who donated their remains before this time, whose ashes were scattered near the memorial.3
Of course, no matter how picturesque the setting, a cemetery can be a very sad place. However, I find the fact that the living so often visit the dead, not only in mourning but in peaceful contemplation of the beautiful natural world, to be quite uplifting. There is one section that is undeniably tragic: the Range. It was a “potter’s field”, or an area used for the burial of indigent people. Inmates from Kingston Penitentiary were buried here if their families could not be found or did not claim their bodies. Infants, inmates of the Rockwood Asylum, and other people were buried in unmarked graves, with the total number reaching approximately 2000.1 There are a few small markers scattered across the mostly bare grass, including one for inhabitants of an orphans’ home.
The Rideau Trail, which runs from the Kingston waterfront to Ottawa, passes through the cemetery – just follow the orange arrows. There are maps of the site available during office hours, though they don’t indicate specific burial places. Cataraqui Cemetery is a not-for-profit organization that is happy to share the Cemetery as a classroom for students of all ages. Guided cemetery walking or trolley tours are offered. These tours are available by reservation. Donations are gratefully appreciated. If you are a member of a group that would like a tour please contact the cemetery for more information about tours and/or special events.
Address: 927 Purdy’s Mill Rd.
Opening Hours: Dawn to Dusk
1 Conversation with Craig Boals
3 Conversation with Craig Boals
9 Letter from Catharine Parr Traill, May 5 1871, in I Bless You in My Heart: Selected Correspondence of Catharine Parr Traill, ed. Carl Ballstadt, Elizabeth Hopkins, and Michael A. Peterman, p. 192.