By David Mack-Hardiman, Contributor
Surrounded by a thorny thicket of nearly impenetrable foliage, the Niagara County Almshouse Cemetery sits on a remote hill in Lockport, NY. Here lie the remains of approximately 1,400 people who lived and died at the almshouse from 1830 until 1916. As one walks up the path to approach the cemetery, songbirds chatter in the treetops. Densely overgrown bristly shrubs sit to the left of the path while an open grassy field is on the right. The taller treed area on the left indicates the location of the cemetery. Flat rocks are strewn here and there amidst the sumac and vinca vine.
Near the path sits the lone monument in the cemetery, broken in several pieces and detached from its base. The names on the stone are those of Sophia Wilson, wife of S. S. Merritt, their son, Lewis, and Louie Spencer, also known as “Chuck-a Luck.” Records indicate that Mr. Spencer could relate many interesting stories of his slavery days and it was believed that he may have been 115 years old.
To better determine the exact location of the cemetery, People Inc. has enlisted the help of the Anthropology and Earth Sciences Departments of Buffalo State College. James M. Boles, Ed.D., president of People Inc., provided the professors and their students with the history of the almshouse. These experts have begun using ground penetrating radar to provide the locations of the graves. This is a non-intrusive way of determining the cemetery boundaries. After carving out four transects on all sides of the cemetery, the students will conclude their work in early July. A general clean-up of the area will occur after that. A sign will be installed to mark the location and a memorial bench will be placed nearby.
Cemetery records will be transcribed into searchable database so that the public can access information about their ancestors. While some of the residents had detailed information recorded when they died, less was known about some of the others. For example, on May 27, 1867, a person known simply as “Unknown Man” passed away. Just a few months later, a “Foundling Male” died at age four months. A foundling was the term at the time for an abandoned baby. A Clarissa Wilson was said to have been 110 years old and had escaped from slavery with her first husband to Canada. Some of the residents died of disease and were likely segregated in the “Pest House” if there were risks to exposing others to cholera, smallpox or tuberculosis.
As People Inc. proudly begins this fourth institutional cemetery restoration project, the agency will be supported by the Niagara County Department of Grounds, the County Historians, Orleans Monuments, the Niagara County Sheriff’s Department and numerous volunteers.