NIAGARA FALLS, N.Y. (WIVB) — Oakwood Cemetery in Niagara Falls is the final resting place for several influential families whose contributions to growth and development of the Niagara region are significant.
Names like Porter, Hyde and Schoellkopf, just to name a few.
But the cemetery has some other notables, but for different reasons. And they have their own special section.
“Well, there’s a mystique,” said Ralph Aversa, president of Oakwood Cemetery. “We want to think of it as an educational cemetery.”
Tucked away in this vast landscape is a section dedicated to those individuals who made a name for themselves by challenging the enormous power of Niagara Falls. Some were successful, others were not.
Annie Edson Taylor
Perhaps the cemetery’s most famous resident is Annie Edson Taylor. In 1901, she was the first person to go over the falls in a barrel and survive.
“She wanted to have some money for her old age,” said Judie Glaser, vice president of the Oakwood Heritage Foundation. “She designed the barrel herself. She had engineered it. She hired someone to make it. She oversaw the whole project. I mean this was a smart lady. “
Taylor, in her 60s, survived the plunge, gained notoriety, and signed autographs for “nickels and dimes,” according to Glaser.
But those dreams of big money never materialized. And then Taylor got sick and required hospitalization.
“She was in Niagara Falls Memorial for such a long time that she was unable to pay her rent and the landlord evicted her,” Glaser said. “So now she’s homeless and she ended up sick again and sent to the sanitarium in Lockport, where she passed.”
Next to Taylor’s grave at Oakwood is Carlisle Graham, the first person to make it through the Whirlpool rapids in a barrel and live.
“They befriended each other as we are led to believe,” said Aversa. “He went through the Whirlpool rapids, but she went over the falls, which was far more significant if you think about it. But they are buried next to each other.”
Graham’s first stunt came in July 1886 and lasted about 30 minutes, leaving him ill and dizzy from the ride.
But that did not deter him.
“He would get in his barrel and traverse the lower rapids and around the Whirlpool. And he did this five, six, seven times. None the worse for wear,” Glaser said. “He died in Detroit of asthma at like 57, but wanted to be buried here.”
Another notable buried at Oakwood Cemetery is Maud Willard, a 28-year-old variety actress who had ties to Carlisle Graham.
“She decided with Carlisle they would do a tandem stunt,” Glaser explained.
The year was 1901.
“She would get in his barrel and do what he always did, go around the rapids and so on. “
According to Glaser, Graham would jump in to swim his portion of the tandem stunt when the barrel exited the rapids and was reaching the Whirlpool, and from there, swim to Lewiston.
He made it. She did not.
“Maud, unfortunately, got sucked into the Whirlpool. And for several hours was just going around and around until finally, the counter current spat her out,” Glaser explained. “They took the lid off the barrel. She was all but expired and she died on the spot.”
“The one who survived was her little dog whom she had taken with her. But the little dog, it is said, put its little nose through the only air opening in the barrel. So, the dog survived but Maud did not.“
Willard is buried at Oakwood Cemetery, but not in the daredevil section.
Glaser says when Carlisle Graham died years later, he left instructions for his funeral cortège to pass by Willard’s burial site.
“He was quite a bit older than she, and I’m sure there was a feeling of responsibility or something there.”
Another tragic story involves a modern-day risk-taker by the name of Kirk Jones.
In 2003, Jones survived a plunge over the Horseshoe Falls with no safety device and wearing only the clothes on his back.
At the time, he told reporters, “I reached out and touched the face of God.”
“There’s still speculation. Was that purposeful or accidental? Was it a suicide attempt or a stunt? One way or another he survived that and was quite famous for it,” Glaser recalled.
But once was not enough for Jones, who returned to Niagara Falls in 2017.
This time the stunt involved a large inflatable ball and his pet snake. Tragically, Jones did not survive.
“He was going to get in a large plastic ball with his pet snake, Misty,” Glaser explained. “The ball washed up empty. Kirk washed up expired. And the snake was not to be found.”
Ralph Aversa, Oakwood Cemetery’s president says after Jones died and his body was cremated, no one claimed him.
“Through our graciousness and our board’s approval we donated a cremains grave,” Aversa said. “We also purchased, for a very nominal cost, a stone so he could have a final resting place.”
“That’s one of the stories here at Oakwood.”
Captain Matthew Webb
Another Oakwood story involves a famous English swimmer by the name of Captain Matthew Webb, who is known as the first recorded person to successfully swim the English Channel in 1875 without assistance.
In the years that followed, Webb continued swimming and touring.
Then came Niagara, in July 1883.
“He decided that he would try his luck in the lower rapids,” said Glaser. “His plan had been to, instead of swimming overhand, to swim under the water. He said he would be able to see the rocks and the other obstructions that he would try to avoid.”
But his luck would run out.
As Glaser tells it, “The water just pushed him against those things.”
“He ended up not drowning but being pummeled by the force of the waves to such an extent that his organs were actually damaged.”
In other words, he was crushed.
Francis Abbott “The Hermit of Niagara”
Francis Abbott, the “Hermit of Niagara,” is one of the cemetery’s oldest daredevils. According to the folks at Oakwood, Abbott arrived in town from England in 1829. He’s been described as a world traveler, well-educated and from an affluent family.
“When he came here, he thought he would stay for a little while and then be on his way, “said Judie Glaser, vice president of the Oakwood Heritage Foundation. “But he fell in love with the falls, and he decided to stay.”
Glaser says Abbott’s “claim to fame” was that he would go out in the upper rapids to bathe and swim in an area around Goat Island and Three Sisters Islands.
“Can you imagine?”
She says the stories about Abbott indicate that he was “very reclusive,” but polite when he encountered people.
“He really avoided people. He was not a people person,” Glaser said.
“We don’t know why he chose to live quite such a reclusive life but that seemed to be what made him happy.”
The swift water would eventually cost him his life. According to published writings from the late 1830s, Abbott disappeared in the Niagara River in June 1831.
The story goes, Abbott entered the river below the falls. A ferryman noticed his clothes on the shore and the hermit was nowhere to be found.
“But when the boat came back, they noticed his clothes still on the bank, but he doesn’t seem to be around.”
His body was found several days later.
“He also washed up, Lewiston, Youngstown way,” Glaser added.
There is a lot of history at Oakwood Cemetery, which was established in 1852 on land donated by Lavinia Porter, daughter of Judge Augustus Porter. According to Oakwood’s website, Judge Porter was “one of the acknowledged founders of Niagara Falls, and one of its largest landowners.
Many of the stones and monuments read like a who’s who of prominent, influential pioneers of the Niagara region. And they all tell a story.
But the stories with drawing power are the ones with a perilous connection to water.
“It is a tourist attraction,” said Ralph Aversa, president of Oakwood Cemetery.
“When you walk through, especially a cemetery that’s 170 years old, even if you are not knowledgeable of the area, you can look. And when you look at some of these beautiful monuments, which today would not even be financially able to be replaced, they can tell a story.’
We would like to thank the following organizations for their assistance.
- Oakwood Cemetery
- Maid of the Mist (New York)
- Niagara Falls Public Library (New York)
- Niagara Falls (Ontario) Public Library
- The Buffalo History Museum
- Brock University (Ontario)
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Luke Moretti is an award-winning investigative reporter who has been part of the News 4 team since 2002. See more of his work here.