“Thousands come here, particularly on Sundays, for a quiet walk among the blended beauties of nature and art where all the associations are conducive to meditative thought.” Edward Elwell, 1876.
At 239 acres, Evergreen Cemetery is Portland’s largest open space, a sanctuary for wildlife and migratory birds, site of the city’s largest urban forest and an outstanding example of nineteenth century rural cemetery design. It is listed on the National Register of Historic Places, and is protected by the City of Portland’s historic preservation ordinance. Evergreen serves the people of Portland today, as it has for over 150 years, as a place where “the blended beauties of art and nature elevate the spirit” above the cares of daily work and life .
“As long ago as 1851, it was felt that the city had outgrown the two narrow graveyards within its limits” Edward Elwell wrote in 1876, referring to Portland’s Eastern and Western Cemeteries. The City purchased 55 acres at “Stevens’ Plain” in 1851 and within a few years Evergreen Cemetery was established. Several additional purchases over the years increased the cemetery to its present size of 239 acres.
Evergreen Cemetery was designed by civil engineer Charles H. Howe and in 1853 the first 200 lots were sold. Like many other Victorian garden cemeteries, Evergreen was listed in guidebooks as a destination, and its ponds became a major attraction to Portlanders and others who rode the trolley to reach it. In his 1876 book, Portland and Vicinity, Edward Elwell described the ponds as “bordered with seats, spanned with rustic bridges, the shore adorned with rustic arches and arbors. On the surface of the ponds float swans and ducks.”
History of Rural Cemeteries
In the 19th century, the Romantic school of philosophers and writers influenced the way many Europeans and American thought about death. Where a person was buried became imbued with symbolic importance. The pain of death could be eased, or at least dulled, in a garden-like burial place.
In 1804, an early example and popular cemetery, Pere Lachaise, was founded outside Paris, France. By 1831, it had become a major tourist attraction. In that same year, Mt. Auburn Cemetery was established in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Its founders envisioned a beautiful “garden of graves” and began what is known as the rural cemetery movement. The environment of Mt. Auburn not only added solemnity to the burial ground, but allowed visitors the opportunity to escape the hectic urban life in a place of natural beauty.
Portland, like other eastern cities, looked to its outlying neighborhoods for additional cemetery space and to Mt. Auburn as a model of cemetery design.
The 1994 Master Plan includes a detailed history of Evergreen Cemetery.