Originally published in the Union College Magazine, Fall 2013
Each year while walking the campus, thousands of visitors see names from Union’s history: Nott, Raymond, Potter, Webster and Jackson to name a few. Little known, however, is that many of the familiar campus names are also on headstones in Schenectady’s Vale Cemetery. The College plot is a record of our history and well worth the four-block walk from campus.
For Union employees, one of the most unusual – and perhaps least discussed – benefits is free burial in the College plot, which sits on a secluded terrace beneath towering pines and oaks. Birdsongs push aside city sounds on the peaceful 3.5-acre site overlooking a small lake in the northwest corner of Vale Cemetery.
The fenced site contains about 200 plots with names from Union history. Three of the College’s Presidents are buried there – Eliphalet Nott (and his third wife, Urania, 1806-1886), Harrison Webster (1841-1906) and Carter Davidson (1906-1965). Other familiar names include Isaac Jackson (1804-1877), professor of mathematics and architect of the campus garden that bears his name; Jonathan Pearson (1813-1887), professor and administrator whose diaries tell us much about 19th century Union history (including the establishment of the College plot); Edward Ellery (1868-1961), professor of chemistry; Tayler Lewis (1802-1877), professor of ancient languages; and Peter Irving Wold (1881-1945), professor of physics from 1920 to 1945, and his wife, Mary (1881-1967).
Pearson’s diary chronicles a small tempest in the mid-19th century over the location of the campus burial grounds. Some, most notably Urania Nott, preferred a site along the Hans Groots Kill about a half mile east of North College. In 1857, when Vale Cemetery was established, most preferred the Vale site. Nott made the final decision in 1863 when sold land to the cemetery and reserved a portion for College use. Pearson, who had already buried a son and a sister in what had become the College plot, described the terrace as “one of the eligible spots on the grounds … [which] will make a handsome plot.”
Robert Wells, the Chauncey H. Winters Professor of History Emeritus, is an authority on changing perceptions of death and the College plot in particular. While researching for his book, Facing the King of Terrors (Cambridge University Press, 2000), he collected stories about a number of campus personalities who rest in the Vale plot. Among them was that of Tayler Lewis, who mourned the death of a 17-year-old daughter by translating Biblical passages into several different languages. Lewis’ son, Charles, also buried in the College plot, chronicled the assassination of Lincoln at Ford’s Theater.