WOODSIDE — An Colonial-era cemetery that houses the remains of a prominent settler family from the 17th century has become an overgrown eyesore, leading volunteers on a mission to clean up the burial ground in the hopes of transforming it into a public space.
Samantha Yeung, who lives in the nearby Boulevard Garden Apartments, said she wondered for years about the Moore-Jackson Cemetery — a weed-filled, fenced-in graveyard that's visible from both 51st and 54th streets between 31st and 32nd avenues.
"[I] walked by it every single day," she said. "This plot of land has always just been overgrown. It looks like an abandoned lot."
After some investigating, she got in touch with the Queens Historical Society, which oversees the half-acre site, and she's now working with the group and other neighborhood volunteers on a "revitalization" of the space with the ultimate goal of turning it into an open space that the community can use.
"This plot of land has always just been overgrown. It looks like an abandoned lot." (Credit: Courtesy Samantha Yeung)
"It's hard for people to envision what the potential of this land could look like," Yeung said. "Our eventual hope is that this becomes a community anchor, where we can bring in schools and educate them on the history. Use it as a public space where people can come."
The Moore-Jackson Cemetery, which was declared a city landmark in 1997, served as a burial grounds for the Moore family, wealthy landowners who settled in the area by way of Massachusetts during the mid-17th century, according to a Landmarks Preservation Commission report on the site.
"The Moore family was probably one of the most significant of the earlier settlers," said Richard Hourahan, a curator with the Queens Historical Society, who noted there are still about a dozen similar family graveyards in the borough, though not all are as old.
The cemetery itself was established in 1733 by Samuel Moore, who owned a farm nearby, when western Queens was known as Newtown. The site was used to bury generations of the family until as late as 1868, Hourahan said.
At the start of the 20th century, most of the Moore descendents had moved away, and the cemetery fell into neglect, according to the LPC's report.
It was tended to over the decades by various volunteers, including WPA workers assigned to weed the lot in 1935 who were surprised to discover a cemetery there, as the site had "become so overgrown that its presence was practically forgotten," the report says.
"That place has been in disrepair since the 1890s," Hourahan said. "That happens a lot to these old family burial grounds."
(Credit: Courtesy Samantha Yeung)
Though the cemetery was once recorded as having as many as 42 headstones, only about 15 still exist today. In 1998, the last surviving heir of the Moore family turned the deed to the cemetery over to the Queens Historical Society, property records show.
The preservation group has owned the site since, taking care of it with the help of volunteers when possible, though the graveyard is prone to invasive plant species that make maintaining it difficult, Hourahan explained.
He said the interest from Yeung and other neighbors in restoring the site is "a dream come true."
"I know it will be done right," he said, adding that the "next phase" after cleanup will be engaging the community in how it would like to see the cemetery used in the future.
"I really want this to be a public space, a green space for the community," he said.
The Queens Historical Society and other volunteers will host community cleanups at the Moore-Jackson Cemetery from 9 a.m. to 12 p.m. on Oct. 14, Oct. 21 and Oct. 28. Those interested in learning more can check the group's Facebook page or sign up to volunteer here.