March 22, 2004
At a Legendary Cemetery, a Rare Look Behind the Gates
group of 25 hard-core New York history buffs gathered early yesterday afternoon on a gusty corner in South Jamaica, Queens, provoking curious glances from passers-by. They were there in anticipation of a rare glimpse of one of the city's most legendary and seldom-seen landmarks: Prospect Cemetery. Established in 1668, it now sits decayed behind locked gates just south of the Long Island Rail Road tracks, unknown to all but a small group of the city's historically minded cognoscenti.
Their leader was Kevin Walsh, a man with unkempt graying hair and blue-tinted wire frame glasses who runs a Web site called Forgotten New York (forgotten-ny.com) and has become a kind of cult figure among those who take local lore seriously. He looks like a cross between an Ivy League history professor and a longshoreman. A 46-year-old Brooklyn-born advertising copywriter, he has organized two or three free tours a year for his fans since 1999.
As the appointed hour approached, Mr. Walsh led the group out of the cold wind and into the cavernous subway station at the corner of Jamaica Avenue and Parsons Boulevard for a brief introductory lecture.
"Jamaica is one of the oldest neighborhoods in Queens," he began, speaking loud enough to be heard over the roar of the E and J trains. "The Dutch left in 1656, and then the English settled here along Beaver Pond Road."
The group included several of Mr. Walsh's most dedicated fans, including some who have set up their own local history sites. At one point, Mr. Walsh pointed them out and acknowledged them: John Leita, who runs a Web site called Long Island Oddities; Jeff Saltzman, who runs a site about street lamps; and Mike Epstein, who runs an old New York photography site.
"We're a real subculture," said Mr. Leita, a heavyset man with unruly black hair and a large beard. "You meet some interesting people."
Emerging from the subway, Mr. Walsh led the group east past the fast-food restaurants of Jamaica Avenue and then south beneath the tracks. They entered a building belonging to York College, which obscures Prospect Cemetery from view for any passers-by.
There they were met by the president of the Prospect Cemetery Association, Cate Ludlam, who led them through the building and into a narrow alley on the far side.
And there it was, in all its melancholy glory: a vast fenced-in field of broken and battered headstones. Even the cemetery's sign, made in 1936, is badly rusted, a relic from another era.
"Welcome to Prospect Cemetery," said Ms. Ludlam, a small, cheerful woman with steel-gray hair, who tries to get grant money to tend the cemetery.
Inside, the group spread out and began wandering the lumpy, overgrown turf. Over the years, vandals have destroyed many headstones, and some of those that remain are illegible. But others can be read clearly, including the oldest standing stone, on the grave of Judith Ludlam, an ancestor of Cate, who died in 1712.
As she wandered among the graves, Ms. Ludlam, who has been in charge of the cemetery for 14 years, made a fresh discovery: a grave she had given up for lost in the thick undergrowth. It belongs to Elias Baylis, a Revolutionary War hero who died after being imprisoned by the British. The writing on his grave says he "was imprisoned in NY Sept. 1776 and was released only in time to breathe his last in the arms of his daughter while crossing Brooklyn Ferry."
Ms. Ludlam also unlocked the door on the cemetery's stone chapel, which she is trying to renovate after 100 years of disuse. It is called the Chapel of the Sisters and was built by another of her ancestors, Nicholas Ludlam, in 1856 after all three of his daughters died young.
Inside, the tourgoers gasped in awe at the rubble and snapped photographs of the chapel's massive round windows, their stained glass long since broken. Below one window a faded inscription could be read: "Weeping may endure for a night, but joy comes in the morning."
It was time to go. Mr. Walsh called out to the group's members, reminding them that they had a date to see the King Mansion, a house in Jamaica that once belonged to the colonial political figure Rufus King.
Mr. Walsh had done it all before, but said he never grew tired of history.
"It all started with lampposts," he said. "When I was a kid, I took rides with my parents, and I always liked the posts. That grew into a love for all those old things around us that rarely get noticed."