Vale Cemetery historic marker

I can never resist historic markers like this!

Visiting Vale

While Albany Rural Cemetery is my favorite historic cemetery to visit and the focus of my current writing project, once in a while, I do take a break from exploring there to visit other local cemeteries.  Recently, I took an afternoon to explore Schenectady's Vale Cemetery. 

Like Albany Rural Cemetery, Vale was a part of the movement to close overcrowded graveyards and churchyards from growing urban areas and create landscaped "garden" or "rural" cemeteries.  In many cases, remains and monuments were transferred from those older burial grounds and placed special sections at the new cemeteries or moved by families to their own plots.

Vale was founded in response to what was viewed as unsanitary and unsafe conditions in the Schenectady's old burying grounds, particularly the one at Front and Green Streets in the historic Stockade neighborhood.  There was also concern (as in many other cities) that the city's drinking water was being contaminated tanneries, slaughterhouses, and "ancient grave yards" The new cemetery was laid out off of Nott Terrace and, after the land had been graded and planted with about one thousand trees, it was dedicated on October 21, 1857.  The first burial in the now one-hundred acre cemetery took place less than three weeks later when a four-yeard old boy, Noah Vibbard Von Vorst, was laid to rest.

It's been quite a few years since my last visit to Vale Cemetery and then it had been just a brief drive through a small portion of the grounds.  So there was a feeling of exploring something new and almost completely unfamilar. 

This recent visit was prompted, in part, by several photos in Robert V. Wells' Facing The King of Terrors - Death and Society in an American Community 1750-1990.  The book contained a few photos of colonial-era headstones similar to those in the Church Grounds at Albany Rural (a section of particular interest to me lately).  Those particular stones are in a fenced-in lot just off the main entrance road from State Street, but I did not limit my visit to that section.  Over the next couple of hours, I explored about half of Vale's upper section and then ventured into the lower section, a scenic hollow through which Cowhorn Creek flows and where Vale Cemetery becomes Vale Park and exits out to Nott Street.  This lower section was one I had heard about for years, though usually (and sadly) in connection with vandalism and other problems.  I remembered one particulary ghastly news story from the 1980s in which a vault near the creek was broken open and at least one body desecrated.  Unfortunately, such stories made me apprehensive to visit Vale at all, but now that I've explored it once, I look forward to going back.

Below are some photos from my visit to Vale.  At the end, you'll find some related links.

First Reformed Church Burial Ground

The First Reformed Church Burial Ground - this was originally the reason for my visit.  This section is rather analogous to the Church Grounds at the Albany Rural and contains some of the area's oldest gravestones.  These graves were moved from the Stockade in  1879.  Inside the enclosure are some terrific examples of early gravestone art, including some soul effigies and the popular willow-and-urn motif.

Colonel Cornelius Van Dyke  Susanah Van Dervolge  John Collins 1728  Helen Peters

From left to right:  Colonel Cornelius Van Dyke (with emblems from the Masons and the Sons of the American Revolutions), Susanah Van Dervolge (the winged face or "soul effigy" on this stone was the work of Johanis Zuricher and very similiar to a much more worn stone at the Church Grounds), a stunning winged death's head dated 1728, and a slate stone with a skull-and-crossbones motif dating from 1758)

A variety of old stones at Vale Cemetery

Old headstones in both marble and red sandstone; one shows two urns beneath a willow, another has a single stylized willow tree and ornate finials.

A statue of Faith at Vale Cemetery  An angel and a girl at Vale Cemetery  A flower maiden at Vale Cemetery  A headless statue at Vale Cemetery  A headless maiden with roses at Vale Cemetery 

Some of the statues at Vale. 

From left to right:  The maiden holding an anchor was a popular symbol of Faith in 19th-century cemeteries.  This angel guides a young girl toward Heaven (there is an identical statue at Albany Rural). Like many statues, this one has suffered damage to its nose and arm.  And this one has fared even worse - a second, smaller statue on the right side of the monument is now just a pair of tiny feet.  This headless statue remains strikingly graceful with her little bouquet of roses. 

Vandalism warning at Vale Cemetery

These signs are posted around Vale and video cameras monitor several areas.  Vandalism has, sadly, been a serious threat here.  In one incident, almost seven hundred stones were toppled!

Grave of Clarissa Putnam

The grave of Clarissa Putnam of Tribes Hill, the common-law wife of Sir John Johnson and subject of a 1950 novel by John J. Vrooman (who also wrote a book about the 1690 Schenectady Massacre).  Her epitaph reads:  Here to the dreary grave confined/She sleeps in death's dark gloom/Until the eternal morning wakes/The slumber of the tomb.

Lion - The Dog of Vale Cemetery


This handsome dog sits patiently on the steps of his family's mausoleum.  The story goes that Lion would come every day to his master's burial place and the Cemetery staff would look after him.

Charles Steinmetz at Vale Cemetery

Charles Proteus Steinmetz - but I'll let Carl at Hoxsie explain who he was.

Ruined Hillside Crypt at Vale Cemetery  The Potter Family Crypt at Vale  A ruin crypt at Vale Cemetery

These three vaults are sad examples of the damage done by vandals.  All three of these family burial vaults are located in the Cowhorn Creek section of the Cemetery.  The first two are set along the path leading down into the hollow and the three is located on the opposite side of the stream.  The Revolutionary War memorial below stands just in front of the third vault.

The Revolutionary War Memorial at Vale Cemetery

This white marble monument marks the resting place of fifty-sevens soldiers of the American Revolution who died in Schenectady.  In 1854, their remains were discovered near Lafayette Street in the Stockade and its likely that all or most of them died at the hospital which stood close by.  Some of the skeletons showed evidence of serious wounds, while others were likely victims of smallpox.  Some were apparently members of the Green Mountain Boys.  The remains were eventually reburied here in Vale and this monument erected by the citizens of Schenectady in 1859. 

Monuments along Cowhorn Creek

While the Cowhorn Creek section of Vale has fewer monuments than the upper section, its a quiet and scenic spot.  The flowers on this particular afternoon seemed almost luminous and provided a nice contrast to the solemn gravestones.

The Union College Cemetery

As Vale Cemetery becomes Vale Park, a section is reserved for Union College.

Cowhorn Creek

Cowhorn Creek in Vale Park makes it possible to forget - even if it's just for a moment - that one is in the middle of downtown Schenectady.

A beautiful statue in Vale Cemetery

I took over two hundred photos over the course of my visit; these are just a few of them and I'm sure there's many more wonderful monuments to find (hopefully, I'll use a map next time).  But I'm ending this little photo tour with this picture because this verdigris-stained and wonderfully expressive statue has already become one of my favorites.  It's easy to miss this beauty.  It stands in the upper section, but faces away from the main road.  It's just to the east of the new "green burial" area that's being laid out and worth seeking out.

(Oh, and if Vale looks familiar, you might have seen part of it in "The Place Beyond The Pines" which stars Bradley Cooper and was filmed in Schenectady.)

Published April 2013

 Links and Further Reading:

Vale Cemetery Site

Vale Cemetery on Facebook

Vale Cemetery and Park on Wikipedia

Vale at Find A Grave