Notes on the Dead

I once spent a Friday afternoon at the Creamery, home of the Skaneateles Historical Society, and it was like Aladdin’s Cave. They kept bringing me new treasures.

The first suggested a solution to this mystery: Out at the end of the jetty, on calm mornings, when the surface of the water is smooth and the rising sun is at just the right angle, the water glows like an emerald and you can see to the lake bottom, down to what looks like the wall of an old shed, an even row of planks, under the water. One friend said, “Oh, that’s the mermaid shack.”

But that Friday, a clue was revealed. In 1901, the Skaneateles Railroad commissioned a steamboat to ply the waters of the lake. “The City of Syracuse” was 112 feet long with room for 600 passengers. Its specialty was moonlight cruises with orchestra and dancing. Around 1917, they decided to decommission the boat in a way that seemed convenient. At the end of the old pier, they sank “The City of Syracuse.” After another three years, people tired of looking at the derelict, and in 1920 they burnt her down to the waterline and let the remains sink to the bottom. And there they lie.

(I later heard a second explanation. The timbers are from the original pier, tossed out into the lake when a new stone jetty was built after 1920. So the steamboat’s remains may be somewhere else, or both explanations could be correct and they lie mingled together.)

And there was more. I had been walking Lake View Cemetery and the historian had sent me a map. But yesterday, they opened the book which holds the notes for each grave.

Absolom Chatham, sec. 2, lot 016, “Accident boiler explosion.”
John Decker, sec. 1, lot 079, “Crushed by trolley car.”
James Gregory, sec. 1, lot 033, “Killed by a bull.”

And so it went, “Accident in mill,” “Fell about 25 feet,” “Accidental poisoning,” “Drowned,” “Body crushed between two cars,” “Prisoner of the Confederate Army,” and “Shot by husband.” A glimpse into the hazards of another age, and some that remain.

There was also the note for Henry Kelso, which read simply, “Colored.” Kelso was once a slave, living near New Orleans during the Civil War. When the Union Army drew near, he fled his master and made his way to the Union encampment, asking to be of service. The General pointed to his staff and said, “Take your pick.” Kelso chose Major (Dr.) Michael Benedict, a native of Skaneateles, saying, “I would like to go with this gentleman.” He accompanied the doctor for the rest of the war. Afterwards, Henry Kelso settled in Syracuse, and remained a close friend of Dr. Benedict and his family.

When Henry was an old man, he was visited by Benedict’s granddaughter, who asked if there was anything she could do for him. He said, “When I die, just bury me at the feet of my beloved master.” And that’s where he lies, in the Benedict family plot (Section 7, 208A), his grave marked by a stone that reads, “H. K.”

Frederick Keebler, on the other hand, resided in three graves after his demise, having been swept into Charles Pardee’s war with the Lake View Cemetery. Pardee, a wealthy businessman with every intention of staying wealthy, owned the Evergreen Cemetery, a for-profit enterprise, and was livid when a not-for-profit cemetery was planned next to his own in 1873.

The new association built a driveway to access its land. Pardee put a fence across it. They tore down the fence. So Pardee buried 11 bodies in the roadway, including two he dug up from his own cemetery – the remains of a child, Thomas Cunan, and Frederick Keebler. The Cunan and Keebler families were outraged, but poor. The Cunan family removed their son’s body, found buried just one foot under the ground in a shattered coffin, to St. Mary’s Cemetery. Fred Keebler’s earthly remains, however, were lost until 1899 when the cemetery put in new water pipes and found Fred in his second resting place, in the center of Central Avenue, and conveyed him to his third, and one would hope final, grave site (Sec. 10, 170).

At the other end of the table where I was reading sat Teddy, a woman who was researching a brother who had died on Iwo Jima. His name was Weeks. The Weeks family has lived and prospered in Skaneateles since at least 1832. I mentioned that I recalled the Weeks name from a history of the Skaneateles Country Club. “Oh, that was Hobie,” Teddy said. “Hobart. He was a great golfer.” And then she told me how she shook Franklin Roosevelt’s hand once when she was a child; he was a friend of her uncle. Before I left, Teddy (short for Theodora) patted me on the arm and gave me two York Peppermint Patties. It was that kind of a day.

— June 25, 2000

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