Spring Forest Cemetery: A Walk Through Binghamton's Past
For history buffs, there are plenty of ways to find out about our area's past. From roadside markers to books to museums, there is no shortage of information, but if you're really looking for a place where hundreds and even thousands of players in Binghamton's past come together in one spot, just take a walk through Spring Forest Cemetery.
“So, there’s so many stories that people get a real sense of the history and heritage of this community," says historian Gerry Smith.
Giving me a tour of Spring Forest, Smith points out the names on the gravestones: “I tell people, just look through the names, you’ll see a street.” Those names include Collier and Bennett among others.
Before you even get to the big names from Binghamton's founding that were buried here, the cemetery itself is historic landmark. It was founded in 1866.
"It was the first of what they called park-like cemeteries in the region," says Smith.
Large trees line the curving paths. Smith says a creek used to run through the center, coming off of Mount Prospect. It's still there, just underground. A pipe system was built to bury the creek after the flood of 1934.
The massive iron gates at the Mygatt Street entrance were designed by famed architect Isaac Perry. Perry came out of retirement to design the cemetery entrance and his was the first funeral to pass through the finished gates. Perry is buried up the path to the right of the gates, on a hill near Prospect Street.
Just down the hill from Perry's grave is Sherman Phelps. Perry designed the Phelps mansion on Court Street as well as the former inebriate asylum on the city's east side among other buildings.
Another name that helped lay the foundation for the city we know today is Joshua Whitney. Both of them. Joshua Whitney Senior was commissioned as William Bingham's land agent for the area that would become Binghamton.
"On his way down to Philadelphia to sign the contract he contracted yellow fever," says Smith.
Whitney was buried in Philadelphia and his son, Joshua Junior, took his place and helped Bingham develop the town. The younger Whitney had his father's remains brought back to Binghamton and buried in Spring Forest. The original headstone is in place next to a larger, family obelisk that is easier to read.
Our next stop on the tour is a large monument bearing the name of Daniel Dickinson, as in the Town of Dickinson. He was the mayor of Binghamton when it was a village, a state senator, and almost Abraham Lincoln's running mate.
“When Lincoln was running in 1864, he dumped his original vice president and was going to pick Daniel Dickinson who was a democrat, thinking it would solidify the ticket, instead they picked Andrew Johnson, a senator from Tennessee," says Smith.
Dickinson would serve as district attorney for New York City where he died. He was brought back to his hometown for the funeral and burial. Smith says most of the first ward was the lands of the Dickinson estate. Mygatt Street is named for his daughter, Mary. Mygatt was her married name. Lydia Street is named after Dickinson's wife.
Another marker in Binghamton's history is set in a grassy section straight ahead from the main gate off Mygatt Street. This is the mass grave for the remains found during the construction of I-81 in what is now Otsiningo Park. Smith says that area was the poor farm, or Alms House, cemetery. Over 600 people were buried there. Some remains were moved to Spring Forest and some were not.
Up the hill from that marker is a stone monument dedicated to the victims of the 1913 clothing factory fire. Killing 31 people, the fire on Wall Street remains the deadliest single event in Binghamton. The victims were mostly women who worked in the factory making men's overalls. Newspaper reports from that day say the fire had completely consumed the building within 20 minutes.
“The fire started in the basement and the staircase acts as a vacuum and sucks the flames straight up. So a lot of the women were trapped on floors 3 and 4 and couldn’t get out, so they either died in the flames, some of them leapt to their death by trying to jump out of the building," says Smith.
18 women who were too badly burned to be identified are buried in a circle around the monument. Their names are listed on the plaque, pulled from a ledger book that told who was working that day. Smith points out an inconsistency with numbers on the memorial. The plaque says "21 unidentified," but there are 20 names listed and 18 actually buried there. Smith says some of the women were identified after the plaque was made.
The tragedy at the Binghamton factory happened just two years after 146 women died in the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire in New York City. Smith says both events put pressure on lawmakers to pass more workplace safety regulations in the state.
“I take people through and tell the stories and at the end this woman said to me ‘I just got a history lesson didn’t I?’ And I said ‘yes.’ Because this is… cemeteries are pieces of history," says Smith.
Spring Forest is no exception. It's a history of people and events that continue to shape our community.