Atlanta’s History, through Oakland Cemetery

HOFAmbassadorsToday I’d like to start an occasional series, exploring the history of my adopted home town. As an Ambassador for the Historic Oakland Cemetery, this is the perfect place to use as our history Rosetta stone!

Let’s start with the Historic Oakland Cemetery itself. By the mid 1800’s the city of Atlanta outgrew its downtown municipal cemetery. Six acres of farmland on the edge of town were purchased to take its place. Later, in response to increased population brought by the railroad and the need to lay 7,000 Civic War soldiers to rest, additional land was purchases to bring Oakland Cemetery to its present 48 acres.

Located just five blocks east of the State Capital, it is the city’s oldest landmark in continuous use and was placed on the Register of Historic Places in 1976. Atlanta’s most historic cemetery is the permanent home of over 70,000 of its most prosperous citizens as well as its most destitute. Originally called Atlanta or City Cemetery, Oakland was renamed in 1872 because of the many oak trees on the property. The Water Oaks at the entrance to Oakland are what is left of a grand line. At the end of their life cycle, these trees will not be replaced due to their destructive root system. Oakland Cemetery evolved during the Victorian era and is a superb example of the rural garden cemetery, a style highly fashionable at the time. Such burial grounds are rare and are distinguished by magnificent mausoleums, elaborate monuments and a park like settings.

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My plan is to focus on the residents of Oakland, using their lives to tell the history of the ATL. But let’s start with an architectural feature: The Bell Tower. This Romanesque building was built in 1899. The first floor was originally a chapel and an office for the cemetery’s sexton, who lived on the second floor. The basement was used as a vault for storing coffins awaiting burial. Today the sexton’s office and the Visitor Center and Museum Shop are on the first floor. Historic Oakland Foundation’s offices and public meeting space are on the second floor.

In the summer of 1864, on high ground north of where the Bell Tower now stands, was a two-story farmhouse owned by one of the Hurt brothers. It served as headquarters for Confederate commander John B. Hood during the Battle of Atlanta, which was fought to the east of the cemetery on July 22. The Bell Tower was built on the site of a farmhouse owned by James E. Williams, who would later be mayor of Atlanta. Atop the tower is a bell that was formerly used to signal for workers to gather. It’s also said that the bell would ring during each burial. It rang just a few times for a child, a few more for a woman, but over a dozen times for an adult male. This story could be apocryphal, but it’s said that the bell would scare off the devil and that a grown man would need more help with this task than a child.

In 2008, a new master plan was completed to help guide the future of the site, while respecting its heritage. However, on March 14, 2008, Oakland Cemetery was hit by a devastating tornado. Centuries-old trees were toppled, monuments were shattered and roads were completely blocked. Miraculously, the Bell Tower and staff inside were spared. In the days following the storm, volunteers descended upon the cemetery, removing more than 70 dump truck loads of debris from the approximately 150 damaged or destroyed trees.

Since that time, Historic Oakland staff has worked with the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) to secure funding to restore the cemetery and repair the damage, engaging consultants, volunteers, and local, state, and Federal government agencies, to rehabilitate the site. While there is still much to be done, the still-active cemetery has once again opened to visitors as a public park and heritage tourism destination, and welcoming hundreds of school groups every year.

Oakland Cemetery

248 Oakland Avenue SE, on the Edge of Grant Park

Atlanta, GA 30312