Borough history buffs dig up past at Calvary

Borough history buffs dig up past at Calvary
Photo by Joe Anuta
By Joe Anuta

There are about 3 million people buried in Calvary Cemetery, the oldest graveyard in the borough.

“Which means,” Kevin Walsh, of Forgotten New York, said to a group of about 30 people last Saturday, “there are more dead people in Queens than alive.”

Forgotten New York is Walsh’s historical association, which runs tours and puts out articles. He and Richard Melnick, of the Greater Astoria Historical Society, were conducting a tour of the graveyard, one of many explorations of the city’s past they organize together throughout the year.

For the layman, examining the names of everyone buried in Calvary would be about as exciting as flipping though a phone book, but Walsh and Melnick, like shamans in baseball caps, weaved through headstones and obelisks to summon the spirits of a select few New Yorkers.

“Take a right at the second Murphy,” Walsh shouted over his shoulder before ducking into a row of stone slabs.

He soon stopped at a large crypt belonging to Michael Degnon.

Degnon was a key builder of the city’s rail infrastructure. He helped construct Penn Station and the Steinway Tunnel, and also built a rail line that ran from once-industrial Sunnyside down to the East River, according to Walsh.

Degnon’s track was largely paved over, but portions still peek through the asphalt near Skillman Avenue.

“Some cemeteries are non-descript,” Melnick said. “But in one that has 3 million people, you are bound to find a few who are noteworthy.”

Calvary is actually made up of four different sections spanning Long Island City and Woodside and packs in the bodies by sometimes stacking them three deep. Walsh and Melnick were exploring the oldest section Saturday, purchased in 1848 by the trustees of St. Patrick’s Cathedral in Manhattan. To distinguish it from the other three, it is named after St. Calixtus, the patron of cemetery workers.

At one stop along the tour, Melnick recalled firefighter Charles Keegan, who died Sept. 15, 1882, while responding to a blaze at the Locust Hill Oil Refinery across Newtown Creek in Brooklyn. Keegan fell into the creek, according to Melnick, which normally would not have been a problem, but oil had crept out onto the waterway’s surface and ignited, turning it into a river of flames.

Like all of the stops on the tour, Keegan’s story fits into a larger narrative of the city. A history of oil spills and general pollution have led Newtown Creek to be labeled one of the most polluted bodies of water in the country.

That pollution, according to Walsh and some other members of the tour, contributed to acid rain that has fallen on the cemetery.

On Saturday, many of the marble and limestone statues appeared to have been transformed into figures more reminiscent of Father Damien, the patron saint of lepers.

Calvary is also the resting place of mafia boss Joe Masseria.

The infamous head of what is now known as the Genovese crime family was assassinated at a Coney Island restaurant in 1931, according to Walsh. But he will likely enjoy one of the most picturesque panoramas in the city for the rest of eternity.

The group stopped at his mausoleum, which sits at one of the highest points in Calvary and looks out over the Manhattan skyline.

The Archdiocese of New York was lucky it purchased the cemetery when it did, according to Melnick. Regulated by New York’s Department of State, the area has long been protected from developers now eager to capitalize on the western Queens’ proximity to Manhattan.

“People would die for these views,” he said.

Forgotten New York organizes tours year round across the five boroughs. For more info visit forgotten-ny.com.

Reach reporter Joe Anuta by e-mail at januta@cnglocal.com or by phone at 718-260-4566.