Many of the immigrants who settled Woodhaven were members of the Dutch Reformed Church and traveled regularly to their house of worship, via carriage, in East New York, in Brooklyn. Many of the settlers were buried in that very same churchyard.
In the late 1700s, two families – the Wyckoffs and the Snedekers – each donated a plot of land along the borderline of their two farms. The purpose was to create a burial yard that was more convenient to travel to and over the next hundred years or so, over 200 people were buried here in Woodhaven’s historic private cemetery.
Today, the cemetery sits behind All Saints Church at 96th Street and 86th Avenue. After several long periods of neglect and forgetfulness turned the cemetery into a wild jungle, the Woodhaven Cultural and Historical Society launched an effort to clean up and restore the cemetery.
That work gets started next week with the first cleanup of 2018, starting at 9 a.m. on Saturday, April 14. Volunteers for light cleanup are needed and will be treated to a peaceful morning tending to the final resting places of Woodhaven’s earliest residents.
The last known burial in the Wyckoff-Snedeker Family Cemetery was around the turn of the century, nearly 120 years ago. It was a few years after the cemetery closed that the church (St. Matthew’s) was built right next to it.
On the other side of the cemetery was the Napier farm (on 98th Street and Jamaica Avenue, with the property stretching all the way to Park Lane South). The house was a showplace, set back from Jamaica Avenue, fronted by a white picket fence. There was also a large barn and other buildings usually associated with a well-run farm.
Charles Napier was a breeder of thoroughbred horses and they had the run of the large pasture at the rear of the property. During the winter, the Napiers very kindly sent a man with a horse and snowplow through the Brooklyn Manor section of Woodhaven to keep lanes open so the residents could get to St. Matthew’s.
Over time, the city of New York inherited the cemetery, and years of neglect and vandalism followed with many tombstones broken and others lost forever. St. Matthew’s, which had been periodically taking care of the graveyard, purchased the cemetery at an auction for $600 in 1963.
The church did not want to own and be responsible for the long driveway leading to the cemetery from Jamaica Avenue, but they retained the right-of-way for the cemetery path. In the years since, some neighbors have encroached on this driveway and you can no longer access the cemetery from Jamaica Avenue.
In the 1990s, a group of volunteers from the church, the Woodhaven Cultural and Historical Society and the Queens Historical Society met every Saturday for two years. Using a 1919 survey put together by Charles Powell, an engineer for the city’s topographical bureau; Allan Smith, an architect; and Arthur O’Meally, an engineer and a trustee of the Queens Historical Society, worked with the volunteers to re-erect stones in their original location.
Unfortunately, over time, the cemetery once again fell victim to neglect and vandalism and became, yet again, an overgrown eyesore.
St. Matthew’s closed its doors and was deconsecrated in 2011. The community was worried about what would happen to the church and the cemetery, but the church soon reopened under the strong leadership of the Rev. Dr. Norman Whitmire Jr. and the church was renamed All Saints Episcopal Church.
Ever since then the cemetery’s fortunes have changed, with young volunteers from St. Thomas the Apostle Catholic Academy and Boy Scout Troop 139 from Howard Beach, along with volunteers from all over Queens, working together to keep the cemetery respectable.
Walking through the cemetery will not only reveal a lot about Woodhaven’s history, it will also reveal several sad tales of young and tragic death. Many of the tombstones are for children, reinforcing the point that keeping it clean is simply the right thing to do.
Volunteers are needed and very welcome. If you are interested in more information you can email the Woodhaven Cultural and Historical Society at [email protected] or call at 718-805-2002.