A couple of weeks ago, we learned about cemeteries that go out of business. That’s what happened to New Jersey’s oldest cemetery, the Historic Jersey City and Harsimus Cemetery, founded in 1831. It had been full for many years, and eventually the board members died out, leaving a history of fiscal mismanagement and neglect. Nature has begun to reclaim a large portion of the graveyard long before that. In 2008, Eileen Markenstein led a group of volunteers determined to clean up the cemetery. Then things got weird.
On the floor of a wardrobe in the cottage, Markenstein found a metal canister. Inside was the original map of the cemetery from 1831. They had been clearing away the dense undergrowth plot by plot, lane by lane, but the map showed that the graveyard continued up the hill to the west, where now there was only dense forest.
One day, clearing undergrowth, a volunteer stumbled upon a stone step. Like a modern Cair Paravel from Narnia, the stone staircase led up the hill and ended in an old rusted iron door set into the hillside. Breaking open the old door and stepping inside out of the clear Jersey sunlight, they found an antechamber. It had been undisturbed for over 100 years. Torchlight showed a series of tunnels disappearing into the hillside, snaking left and right.
The week after this discovery, Markenstein went to see her doctor complaining of crushing chest pains. She was rushed to hospital where, for 21 days, she underwent tests but no one could find out what was wrong with her. Finally, a doctor asked her if she’d been anywhere unusual recently. Well, she replied, as it happens I have. No wonder the medical staff struggled to diagnose Markenstein—she was suffering from an ailment more commonly found during the 19th century. Markenstein had pleurisy.
Remarkably, what they found is still there, buried away in the Jersey hillside virtually unknown and undiscovered. I went to explore it for Atlas Obscura.
The underground edifice was a military bunker that was later used to store the deceased when the ground was too frozen to dig graves. Some of them are still there, along with military artifacts dating back to the War of 1812. Read the story of the rise and fall of the the Historic Jersey City and Harsimus Cemetery and the unearthing of its secrets at Atlas Obscura.