by Eileen Olynciw

Heading north on Mohegan Ave Parkway (Route 32) in Quaker Hill take a right onto Lathrop Road after passing the I-95 entrance ramp on the right.  A short way up the hill on the right you’ll find a lovely old family cemetery. A large hanging sign in front announces the Williams and Church Cemetery, 1775-1963.  An old story claims the wall was built by an Indian on another property. According to the story he dismantled it and rebuilt on this site.

 

When there is no owner of lovely property like this, problems arise. There has been no one to regularly cut the grass, pull the weeds, or repair a gravestone when a tree branch falls off during a storm and damages it.  What is to be done when a park-like setting such as this one is allowed to fall into ruin? It is especially difficult when there is no clear owner of the property!

In 2011, during Tropical Storm Irene, a large granite obelisk located in the middle of the cemetery was knocked off its pedestal. A tree snapped and knocked the heavy stone to the ground. The obelisk was a memorial for Edwin Church, a 19th-century whaling captain.  Fortunately, the stone was unbroken, but its massive weight made restoring it to its proper position very difficult. Patrick Crotty, who lives next door to the cemetery and worries about its lack of regular maintenance, often cuts the grass or does other repairs on his own. Pat called Town Historian Bob Nye, and Chair of Waterford’s Historic Properties Commission, John O’Neill, to help organize a group of volunteers to restore the obelisk to its base.

Because of the many gravestones in the area, it was impossible to bring in heavy equipment to raise the obelisk. Undaunted, Pat Crotty, Bob Nye, and John O’Neill organized a group of volunteers to help to raise the obelisk without heavy equipment. “We understood the tradition of the era, and instead of hydraulics, we did it the old-fashioned way, with engineering, manpower, prayers and luck,” said Paul Cushing of Waterford. [2]

Waterford's Forgotten Cemeteries and Burial Sites: Williams and Church Cemetery

Captain Edwin Church

The life experience of Captain Edwin Church, a whaling ship captain who lived in Waterford with his wife and son, illustrates the attraction and danger life on the sea had to so many during the nineteenth century. It was on the three-masted ship, the Allure, that Captain Edwin sailed in 1853, 1856, and 1862 to hunt for whales. His ship had an interesting history in the years before Edwin stepped foot on it.

"Two Years Before the Mast," a memoir published in 1840, tells of a two-year voyage around Cape Horn trading goods in Mexico, around Cape Horn and on to California. The novel by Richard Henry Dana informs its readers of the life of an ordinary sailor and of the strong attraction of life on the sea. In this phenomenal bestseller, the author presents a sense of the beauty and allure that the sea holds for so many. Dana writes:

“The sea was as still as an inland lake; the light trade-wind was gentle... the dark blue sky was studded with the tropical stars; and the sails were spread out, wide and high...seeming to actually touch the stars, and to be out of reach of human hand...if these sails had been sculptured marble they could not have been more motionless...so perfectly were they  distended by the breeze.”[5]

After the voyage and the sensation the book created, the “glamorous”[6] Alert was sold to a merchant of New London, Thomas W. Williams, in 1843. He employed her in the whale trade in the Pacific. The ship was as lucky and prosperous there as she was in the merchant service.[7] Edwin Church became her captain and made two successful voyages in 1853 and 1856. On his third on August 30, 1862, heading for islands in the southern Indian Ocean, he knew he would be gone for years, and he wished his wife and children a wistful good-bye.

Edwin’s wife, Sarah, was the daughter of another whaling ship captain, Samuel Greene, who encountered some harrowing experiences on the high seas. Coming from a sea captain family, she probably understood that each good-bye to her husband could be the last.

Sadly on a  stop on the island of Brava, Cape Verde Captain Church, still a young man, contracted yellow fever. He was buried at sea in September 1868, leaving behind his wife and three children.  

Nearly ten years later, Edwin and Sarah’s young son, also named Edwin, followed his father with a career at sea. He died at the age of 25 when he drowned in the North Sea on New Year’s Eve, December 31, 1877.

One must sadly wonder about the grief poor Sarah endured during her eighty-five years. She and Edwin endured the death of another child, James Edwin, at the age of one year, 2 months, and 17 days, in 1855. Then her husband died at sea in 1868. Then the loss of their second son, Edwin, in 1877. The family was laid to rest in this peaceful cemetery.


It is hoped that the mother and wives of the unfortunate mariners who died at sea found some peace among the beautiful, and quiet grave sites.

“This is quite a project. I’ve done a very similar process with smaller structures, but none of this shape,” remarked John O’Neill. “The shape is what makes it hard to deal with. There’s no good way to hold onto that thing.”

The group carefully got to work and, within a few hours, “the obelisk had been hoisted up by chains and was resting on top of the monument. There was a slight pause before cheers erupted and high-fives were shared.” [3]

“I was holding my breath,” Chris Cushing said, “When you have a ton of granite in the air, I don’t know. I’m just glad it’s up.” Thanks to the ad hoc team, the monument for Captain Church stands tall again.

The remounted stone was that of Edwin Church. Born in Montville in 1827, Captain Church went to sea at an early age.  His choice of occupation was not unusual for New Londoners at that time. When whaling became the major industry of New London, it quickly monopolized the population and directed the way of life of nearly every family. Almost all businesses became partly if not wholly dependent upon it. [4]

Whaling proved to be a lucrative business in the nineteenth century. It made many New England ports like New London quite wealthy, however, whaling was quite a dangerous business both physically and economically. Injuries and death were common on most all voyages. In spite of these many dangers of sailing on whaling ships, the allure of the sea was sometimes more than financial.

Everything about this scene indicates the two families who owned this property spent time and effort to create a beautiful resting place for their departed family members.

Connecticut was still a British colony when the first loved one was laid to rest in 1775. He was George Williams, who left behind a widow and twelve children. [1] Route 32, between New London and Norwich, was still no more than a rugged unpaved roadway. Over the next two hundred years, Williams and Church family members carefully laid their loved ones to rest here. This burial ground is no longer in use: family members have probably died off or moved away sometime in the past 100 years.

Waterford Historical Society (Connecticut) official seal.

Waterford, CT Historical Society

Notes

[1] George Williams (1728 - 1775)”, WikiTree, https://www.wikitree.com/wiki/Williams-27802. Accessed 17 March 2020

[2] J. Hanchel. "The Day," May 23, 2013.

[3] "The Day," May 14, 2013

[4] Robert Owen Decker. "The Whaling City"

[5] Samuel Shapiro “With Dana Before The Mast.” October 1960, Volume 11, Issue 6

[6] Marc Songini, "The Lost Fleet." Houghton Mifflin Co, New York, 2007. p.167.

[7] Samuel Shapiro, “With Dana Before The Mast.” October 1960, Volume 11, Issue 6