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Oakland Cemetery, St. Paul

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Color image of Oakland Cemetery, St. Paul

A panoramic view of St. Paul’s Oakland Cemetery. Photographed by Paul Nelson on April 25, 2014.

Founded in 1853, Oakland is Minnesota’s oldest public cemetery and a gathering place, in death, of people from the full range of St. Paul history, from the city's founders to recent immigrants. It is also a place of beauty.

In 1850, when St. Paul was a muddy frontier hamlet, newspaper editor James Goodhue urged the creation of a public burial ground. Eventually, he reasoned, even the longest-lived local citizens would need an appropriate resting place.

The town at the time had a few church bone yards but no place for the differently churched, the unchurched, paupers, and visitors to be buried.

Spurred by such admonitions and civic pride, some of Minnesota’s early worthies—among them Alexander Ramsey—founded the Oakland Cemetery Association in 1853. They then bought “forty acres of rolling oak grove two miles from the river landing.” Over time, that grove came to be surrounded by city. In the twenty-first century it lies bounded by Magnolia Avenue on the north, Sycamore Street on the south, Sylvan Street on the west, and Jackson Street on the east, in the North End neighborhood. Later purchases expanded it to one hundred acres.

The first burial plots sold for fifteen cents a square foot or $3.15 for the standard seven-by-three unit. The city and county bought a tract each to accommodate the graves of the destitute. The first burials took place in 1853.

War tends to fill cemeteries, and Oakland has been no exception. Andrew Myrick, the Indian trader sometimes blamed for setting off the U.S.-Dakota War of 1862, was buried there, as were many Civil War casualties. One small portion of Oakland has come to be known as “Soldiers’ Rest” for its rows of military headstones. Some 1500 to 2000 veterans are believed to lie in the cemetery, including Civil War Medal of Honor winner Marshall Sherman.

Many of St. Paul’s founders and early magnates have their final resting place in Oakland. They include governors Sibley and Ramsey; pioneer settler Augustus Larpenteur; teacher Harriet Bishop; philanthropist Amherst Wilder; and the merchant families of William Schurmeier, Charles Foote, and William Lindeke. Some of these chose plots on high ground near Oakland’s northwest corner. They now share this space with hundreds of Hmong immigrants.

Apart from a Romanian section along Jackson Street and Russian and Chinese zones along the north border there are no ethnic divisions in Oakland. The headstone of Thomas Lyles, a prominent African American businessman of the nineteenth century, has for its nearest neighbors stones marked Roth, Stein, and Blomberg. German surnames are prominent throughout the cemetery.

In 1873 the cemetery association hired the landscape architect Horace Cleveland to design the grounds. Cleveland, then based in Chicago, is considered one of the great American landscape architects of the nineteenth century. His influence on the Twin Cities has been enduring. In addition to Oakland he designed St. Paul’s St. Anthony Park neighborhood, the University of Minnesota’s main campus, several parks in the Minneapolis system, and its “grand rounds” network of parks, paths, and drives. (He is buried in Lakewood Cemetery, Minneapolis, which he did not design.) At Oakland one can see his handiwork with few later alterations.

Oakland partakes of the “garden” school of cemetery design, which treats the grounds like a formal park. Curving roads take advantage of the rolling, wooded, natural terrain. Like many old cemeteries of this tradition, Oakland offers the visitor a history of memorial marker styles. They range from the now-eroded sandstone of the early, humble burials to the marble and gray granite mausoleums of the wealthy (including 3M founder Archibald Bush) to the portrait-bearing black granite favored by many Hmong families. Its most famous monument is the tribute to fallen firefighters that stands at the southeast point of Soldiers’ Rest.

In the twenty-first century, Oakland remains what it has been since 1853: a public, non-sectarian, nonprofit cemetery open to all.

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© Minnesota Historical Society
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  • Related Resources

Baker, Robert Orr. “Oakland Cemetery: ‘A Safe and Permanent Resting Place.’” Ramsey County History 16, no. 1 (1980): 3–22.

Hill, Patrick M. “Like the Wind…Oakland Cemetery Holds Many Caught Up In the U.S.-Dakota War.” Ramsey County History 47, no. 2 (Summer 2012): 14–21.

Andrews, General C.C., ed. History of St. Paul, Minn. Syracuse, NY: D. Mason, 1890.

The Cultural Landscape Foundation. Oakland Cemetery-MN.
https://tclf.org/landscapes/oakland-cemetery-mn

St. Paul’s Historic Oakland Cemetery. History.
http://oaklandcemeterymn.com/

Related Images

Color image of Oakland Cemetery, St. Paul
Color image of Oakland Cemetery, St. Paul
Color image of Alexander Ramsey monument, 2014.
Color image of Alexander Ramsey monument, 2014.
Color image of Norman Kittson monument, 2014.
Color image of Norman Kittson monument, 2014.
Color image of Thomas Lyles monument, 2014.
Color image of Thomas Lyles monument, 2014.
Image of Soldiers’ Rest plot at Oakland Cemetery, 2014.
Image of Soldiers’ Rest plot at Oakland Cemetery, 2014.
Color image of Firefighter monument, 2014.
Color image of Firefighter monument, 2014.
Color image of George Powers monument, 2014.
Color image of George Powers monument, 2014.
Color image of Hmong graves at Oakland Cemetery, St. Paul
Color image of Hmong graves at Oakland Cemetery, St. Paul
Color image of Chinese community memorial, 2014.
Color image of Chinese community memorial, 2014.
Color image of Clasped hands marker, 2014.
Color image of Clasped hands marker, 2014.
Color image of , 2014.
Color image of , 2014.
Color image of Charles Flandrau monument, 2014.
Color image of Charles Flandrau monument, 2014.

Turning Point

In 1873 landscape architect Horace Cleveland takes on the design of the Oakland grounds.

Chronology

1850

On March 13, James Goodhue, publisher of the Minnesota Pioneer, urges the creation of a public cemetery in St. Paul.

1851

In May, John Owens, publisher of the Minnesotian newspaper, editorializes that it is “an utter disgrace” that St. Paul has no city cemetery.

1852

The Oak Hill Cemetery Association forms, with John G. Riheldaffer, founder of Central Presbyterian Church as its president. The association buys eighty acres at Front and Western Avenues. The site never finds public favor and is soon merged into Oakland.

June 24, 1853

Oakland Cemetery Association is founded, with ex-Territorial Governor Alexander Ramsey as its president. It buys forty acres at forty dollars per acre from Benjamin Hoyt.

1853

Oakland’s first burials are performed.

1864

Old Christ Episcopal Church Cemetery, at the corner of Sylvan and Sycamore Streets, is added to Oakland.

1869

The Oakland Cemetery Association adopts a policy of perpetual care. A fund is maintained using a small percentage of all lot sales. This fund is used to maintain the grounds.

1873

Horace Cleveland is hired to design the grounds.

1875

Jackson Street is extended north from downtown to the southern boundary of the cemetery. The cemetery’s formal gate is moved opposite Jackson Street.

1891

A firefighters' memorial is erected. The first burial is conducted in Soldiers’ Rest.

1892

In December, the cemetery’s first mausoleum is completed for railroad engineer David Shepard.

1904

Zion Cemetery, consisting of five acres at Jackson Street near Magnolia Avenue, is added to Oakland, completing its hundred-acre expanse.

1938

Ongoing beautification results in over 30,000 trees on the cemetery grounds.

1970

Wall and lawn crypts, as well as niches, are added to the cemetery.