‘God’s acre.’ Remembering sacred spot near downtown Macon abandoned in 1891

Tour Rose Hill Cemetery

Two companies are looking to find unmarked burials and map out gravesites at historic Rose Hill Cemetery in Macon.
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Two companies are looking to find unmarked burials and map out gravesites at historic Rose Hill Cemetery in Macon.

People who settled this city once called this small cemetery “God’s acre.”

A Revolutionary War major, Irish immigrants, Confederate soldiers, a governor’s daughter and a slain banker were among those interred there nearly two centuries ago.

Fathers, mothers and children, young and old, were also laid to rest there on the four-acre plot bound by Cherry, Poplar, Sixth and Seventh streets, just over the railroad tracks southeast of downtown.

Burials took place in the old Macon City Cemetery for two decades until 1843, not long after Rose Hill and Oak Ridge cemeteries opened off what is now Riverside Drive.

Thomas Napier, a Revolutionary War major, was one of the city’s frst land owners. He and his wife, Nancy, both died in 1839 and were buried at the old cemetery. Rebecca Pace, daughter of Jared Irwin, a two-term Georgia governor at the turn of the 19th century, was buried there in 1828. Maurice Walsh, an immigrant from Tipperary, Ireland, was buried there in 1840.

The grave of Thomas M. Ellis, a Philadelphia native who is described in The Telegraph as one of the city’s “most industrious and enterprising men,” is among the few markers remaining at the cemetery.

Ellis, 34, was shot in the stomach Oct. 3, 1832, by a man named Henry Byrom. The killing, The Telegraph reported, was a result of Ellis’s “unfortunate connection with the Macon Bank,” which had failed recently.

Ellis was vice president of the Georgia Agricultural Society and one of the first trustees of the First Baptist Church. News of his death, The Telegraph reporter, “has thrown gloom over the whole town.”

The grave of Thomas M. Ellis was rehabilitated by the First Baptist Church of Macon where he was among the first-ever trustees. Ellis was slain in 1832 for his ties to the failed Macon Bank. LAURA CORLEY lcorley@macon.com

Desecration, desertion and development

By 1891, the old city cemetery was “a wilderness, a ruined necropolis, the habitation only of dogs and vermin; the wasteland in the slums of a city,” according to a Telegraph article published that year. “Year after year it has become more dilapidated, and as those who were buried there were more and more forgotten, the cemetery was more and more a scene of desecration and desertion.”

The city had sold the adjoining property to new owners who were eager to develop and considered the cemetery a nuisance. By that time, God’s Acre, once shaded by yew and elm trees, had become an island for the dead in a busy and industrial area of downtown.

The city planned to close the cemetery for good and sell the land.

City council ordained that “its contents shall be removed, the crumbled bones and grinning skills that laugh at living men are to be removed and placed in the new cemetery of Rose Hill,” according to The Telegraph. “By and by residences will be erected, streets cut and paved and in a very few months the spot once moistened with a mourner’s tears will become part of this busy city.”

A restored tombstone in the old Macon City Cemetery, which is now surrounded by industrial businesses. LAURA CORLEY lcorley@macon.com

‘No light work’

An estimated 600-700 bodies had been buried in the old city cemetery when the city began exhuming remains in 1891. The plan was to excavate by digging trenches that were six feet deep and removing bones.

“This will be no light work,” The Telegraph reported. “One force of men will be at work at the old cemetery in the work of exhumation and another at the new, burying the boxes as they arrive.”

The city planned to erect a monument “which will tell the world in years to come the history of that burying ground until, in the course of human events, it too, like the other, shall become absorbed in the rush of men or by the changes of the earth.”

The old cemetery was to become “Founder’s Park,” so that future generations would remember the people who settled this frontier town on the cusp of Native American territory.

The monument never came to fruition.

Later, in 1914, the fire department was, for the first time ever, called out to a cemetery fire.

Apparently sparks from a passing locomotive ignited some trash in the old city cemetery.

“Old tree stumps burned easily and it was necessary for the fireman to cut down several old trees to keep the fire from spreading to buildings nearby,” The Telegraph reported. There was no major damage.

Restorations and improvements to the cemetery, most made in the 1950s and 1960s, have historically been the efforts of private groups such as the Baconsfield Garden Club, Daughters of the American Revolution and churches. The land is still owned by the county.

A restored bit of the old city cemetery in Macon, Georgia. The land was a burial ground for two decades in the early 1800s. LAURA CORLEY lcorley@macon.com

Laura Corley covers education news for The Telegraph, where she advocates for government transparency and writes about issues affecting today’s youth. She grew up in Middle Georgia and graduated from Mercer University’s Center for Collaborative Journalism.