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Tiny Toll Gate Cemetery is a testament to local history

The story behind an abandoned Hyde Park Avenue graveyard

Have you ever wondered about the abandoned cemetery on Hyde Park Avenue near Walk Hill Road? Few documents record its history, and the cemetery is not claimed by any church. Toll Gate Cemetery has stood witness to many changes in the Forest Hills neighborhood over the past 150 years, but the cemetery itself remains unchanged, a testament to bygone attitudes and forgotten prejudice.

The railroad tracks that mark the terrain around Toll Gate Cemetery are the legacy of a privately owned turnpike, originally gated by a tolling station that charged carts passing into Boston. The area around the toll gate became settled as former land estates were carved up in the early 1800s, initially for philanthropic reasons. However, houses that were meant for destitute workers and poor immigrants were snatched up by eager commuters intent on settling the area made newly accessible due to improved rail transportation.

Forest Hills Cemetery was founded in 1848 to serve the Protestant elite of Boston, as a country park and arboretum cemetery. Meant to emulate country estates that were rapidly being replaced as Boston expanded, Forest Hills dominated the local area, even inspiring a name change of the Toll Gate Station to Forest Hills Station in the 1850s. While Forest Hills Cemetery served the rich and Protestant, Toll Gate Cemetery was founded around 1850 to serve an unwelcome Catholic community.

Of course, times have changed. Today Forest Hills Cemetery welcomes burials from anyone.

"Catholics weren't allowed in city cemeteries back then," remembers local resident Paul Davis, "so the Catholic church purchased land to bury their dead."

Davis' grandfather founded nearby Davis Monuments in 1862 to supply headstones for Forest Hills and surrounding cemeteries. Davis grew up in the 1930s in a house built on Walk Hill Street in 1901. He recalls hearing about the first Catholic church in the region, St. Joseph's Church in Roxbury. The parish mostly consisted of refugees from Ireland, immigrants who came to Boston in droves between 1845 and 1852 to escape the devastating potato famine. Some of these immigrants served in the Civil War, to be later interred in Toll Gate Cemetery. The tiny parcel of land filled up quickly, and was used only from 1850 to 1897, then apparently abandoned.

Details on some graves still document the history of these immigrants, recording county names and Irish roots. Other graves are written in German, testament to the diversity of the Catholic parish. Most are now illegible, the marble worn down by time and the elements. The descendants moved on, some returning to tend graves a century later. Toll Gate has been cleaned up in recent memory, and a civil war memorial was erected in 2000 by the Irish-American Veteran's Association. A semicircle of civil war era graves surround the memorial, and nearby are graves marked "unknown."

The area around Toll Gate has changed dramatically over the years. The Boston Elevated Railway has come and gone, the threat of a proposed I-95 extension was defeated, and Toll Gate Cemetery remains. A significant immigrant population has shaped Jamaica Plain since 1900: after the Irish came Italians, and since the 1960s Latin Americans, all united by their Catholicism and a shared sense of community. Discriminatory attitudes toward Catholics have certainly changed radically in the face of assimilation.

The lack of historical record about Toll Gate Cemetery reveals the exclusionary attitudes of the time, and what little support there was for those of the Catholic faith in mid 19th century Boston. Documentation on the cemetery is sketchy at best, although local historians have published some of their research on-line. It is anyone's guess what will happen to the little cemetery in the future, but for now it lays abandoned, awaiting a future caretaker.

Chris Helms (Editor) September 14, 2010 at 07:47 PM
I've lived in Forest Hills for six years and had no idea this place existed. Thanks, Robin!
Gretchen Grozier January 19, 2011 at 01:51 PM
I don't think this article is entirely accurate. There are many prominent Catholics and Jews buried in Forest Hills Cemetery (starting from its inception) and there were never exclusionary rules on who could be buried there. My understanding was that the Cardinals and Archbishops of the Diocese were the ones who thought that having Catholic only burying places was a better option. Cardinal Cushing wanted a 'separate but equal' structure (BC instead of Harvard, CYO instead of the Boy Scouts). Naturally, there was discrimination against Catholics but it was not the only factor leading to the creation of the Toll Gate and other burial spaces like it.

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