Kathy Dahl on Wesleyan Cemetery or “Cincinnati People’s Cemetery”

By John Erardi, Cincinnati People Contributor
Videos and photos by Madison Schmidt

During my recent visit to Wesleyan Cemetery in Northside, the fine eye of volunteer historian/docent Kathy Dahl was distracted by a woodchuck darting between the gravestones. It was only natural, given that Dahl formerly worked as a naturalist at Cincinnati Parks’ LaBoiteaux Woods Nature Center.


My own attention had been diverted two months earlier when I talked with Dahl at the commemoration of a headstone for former 1869 Cincinnati Red Stocking third baseman Fred Waterman.

That gravestone dedication is what brought me back to Wesleyan Cemetery Wednesday for a visit with the remarkable Dahl.

I chose today to present Dahl’s profile, in part because of all the “Americana” gracing Wesleyan Cemetery: I wanted to make a light connection with the Fourth of July, but also to provide a little distance from the parades and fireworks that mark the occasion; I wanted to give Dahl some room to weave her historical spell.

I believe it is appropriate to begin this story with the Waterman gravestone, because the Cincinnati Reds are about to begin post- All-Star Break play.

In Waterman’s time, unlike today, ballplayers didn’t get rich from their sport. Waterman died a pauper in 1899, and money had to be raised to bury him.

Waterman was born in 1845, meaning that he would have been prime fighting age by the middle of the Civil War. But I suspect he was able to avoid service the same way most of the other future Red Stockings did -- by buying a substitute or paying a $300 “commutation” fee.

Not so fortunate was William Steinmetz, a 15-year-old who won the Congressional Medal of Honor at Vicksburg, and is buried 90 feet from Waterman in Wesleyan.

Near a fenced border here is a section once identified (at least on an early map) as “the colored grounds.” It contains the gravestones of six African-American Civil War veterans. Those stones were provided by the help of many organizations.

Northside is known for a lot of interesting venues -- I’ve been to most of them – but none are as intriguing to me as Wesleyan Cemetery, which was the area’s first integrated burial ground. It was also the first cemetery in the area to be laid out in a park-like fashion, with narrow, winding paths (for horse and buggies), and it pre-dates Spring Grove Cemetery by a couple of years. The main gate is at the intersection of Colerain Avenue and Hoffner Street.

Between the shady, leaf-filled branches of the maple, locust and sycamore trees, visitors catch metallic glimpses of the cars and trucks whipping by on I-74. Neighborhood dogs bark, police and ambulance sirens wail.

But it is Dahl who helps keep the place alive with her knowledge of its history and headstones. She's a lively mix of anecdotes, observations and insights into what makes Cincinnati tick.

Wesleyan is a Queen City jewel. In 2014 it received the National Network Underground Railroad Freedom listing for the “Escape of the Twenty-Eight” and also for the presence of abolitionist John Van Zandt, who is buried here.

Dahl worked for the Cincinnati Park Board, and was stationed at LaBoiteaux Woods in College Hill. There, she created a program called “Ravine to Freedom.” The Hamilton Avenue “Road to Freedom” website provides the necessary geography and topography, stating that “the eastern ravine of Hamilton Avenue is located in LaBoiteaux Woods and the western ravine is located in Greeno and Tanglewood nature preserves” where historian Ruth Wells said (in an interview in 1966) that “her father and grandfather left food and burlap sacks in the brush piles behind their homes for the escaping slaves.” The slaves had come up the ravine, and hid until nightfall when they would be driven by wagon to the next station. Wells’ father’s and grandfather’s homes were located on the east side of Hamilton Avenue.

The homes “can be seen from the ravine today, with the most famous being Six Acres Bed and Breakfast.”

In 2012, Dahl partnered with award-winning author and historian Betty Ann Smiddy to form the Hamilton Avenue Road to Freedom committee.

As Dahl told me: “Because I grew up in the area (College Hill, and attended McAuley High School), I wanted to learn as much as I could about the abolitionists. I expanded to Northside, College Hill, North College Hill and Mount Healthy. Their historical societies got together and got involved, and so did the Freedom Center. The Ohio Historical Society came down, too.”

When Dahl left the Park Board, “Wesleyan just sort of followed me,” she said.

As most people know, Cincinnati played a leading role both in the abolitionist movement, and as a facilitator of the Underground Railroad that was the system for helping slaves attain their freedom by crossing the Ohio River and eventually making their way to Canada.

Such was the case of the “Escape of the Twenty-Eight” in which Wesleyan Cemetery had a vital part.

In 1853 – 10 years after the cemetery was founded – abolitionist John Fairfield led a group of 28 slaves across the Ohio River near Lawrenceburg.  In Cincinnati, he solicited the help of abolitionist Levi Coffin, and John Hatfield, deacon at the Zion Baptist Church. Hatfield posed the escaped slaves as free blacks and led them in a funeral procession to the “colored grounds” at Wesleyan Cemetery. Instead of visiting there, they proceeded to College Hill, and ultimately to Canada.

Also within Wesleyan’s 24 acres is a monument to abolitionist John Van Zandt, who in the 1840s traveled Reading Road with a wagonload of escaped slaves, was pursued and caught by bounty hunters, and prosecuted under the 1793 Fugitive Slave Law.

His case went before the U.S. Supreme Court, where he was defended by Salmon P. Chase, but lost and was ruined financially, Dahl said.

Van Zandt’s legacy lives on in Wesleyan, and in the famous book, “Uncle Tom’s Cabin,” in which he is the character John Von Trump. It is believed that Van Zandt sheltered Eliza Harris at his house on the way to Canada; Ms. Harris is the “Eliza” in Uncle Tom’s Cabin.

Toward the front of Wesleyan Cemetery is a 10-foot-high obelisk erected in 1954 from the Grand Army of the Republic commemorating the Civil War veterans buried here.

Wesleyan has other notable stones and monuments, including one to Richard Allison, the country’s first surgeon general, who was also the surgeon at Fort Washington, and served under three generals in the Indian Wars.

“When city fathers were building up downtown Cincinnati (in the 19th century),” Dahl said, “they started moving people from cemeteries there. That includes the one at Washington Park and other places; that’s how Richard Allison got here. He was originally buried in the Catherine Street Cemetery.”

A 2015 plaque in the ground in front of the obelisk lists more than a dozen names of Revolutionary War veterans buried here.

The cemetery was created when Timothy Kirby – “you know, Kirby Avenue,” Dahl said – sold his farmland to the Wesleyan Methodists to create the cemetery in 1843.

As I mentioned earlier, Wesleyan was the first integrated cemetery in this area. It accepted “all classes, all religions, all races,” Dahl said.

For that reason, I call Wesleyan “The People’s Cemetery.”

It is one of the greatest gatherings of “Cincinnati People” that I know.