Vale Cemetery is more than just a place to visit the graves of the deceased. It’s a destination for runners and nature lovers, children and history buffs. That distinction helped to earn the cemetery a runner-up award in this year’s American Cemetery Excellence Award competition.
The national competition, hosted by American Cemetery magazine, honors cemeteries that are making a difference to the families they serve and in the communities where they are located.
“I think what probably got us the award is that there are few cemeteries that are a wildlife refuge, a recreation site for runners and joggers, [and have] natural flowers, birds, exotic trees, and it’s in the middle of the city,” said Bernard McEvoy, vice president of the Vale Board of Trustees.
The 100-acre cemetery, which encompasses 15 city blocks, was established in 1857 and can be found on the National Register of Historic Places.
In 1974, 40 of its acres became Vale Park, which features nine cemetery areas including the Union College Faculty Cemetery.
Over the years, many famous people have been buried in Vale Cemetery’s 33,000 grave sites, including noted electrical engineer Charles Steinmetz and Ernst Alexanderson, a pioneer in radio and television development. The inventors of the Monitor Top refrigerator, the electric blanket and radar also are buried there, McEvoy said.
The cemetery has other attractions besides tombstones. It contains two man-made lakes, a ravine, endangered wildflowers, a variety of exotic trees, and wildlife including deer, fish, raccoons and turtles.
“It’s of the rural cemetery movement style,” McEvoy explained. “Rural didn’t mean that it was out in the country. Rural meant that it was a park cemetery rather than a graveyard. It has exotic trees and scenic vistas and lakes.”
Over the years, the cemetery fell into disrepair. Vandals tipped over tombstones and scrawled graffiti on the mausoleums. It became known as a dangerous place frequented by prostitutes and drug dealers.
Six years ago, Vale supporters began a movement to revitalize the cemetery, with assistance from various foundations and organizations. Since then, toppled tombstones have been righted, and deteriorating monuments are being stabilized. Video surveillance has been installed to deter vandals and other criminal activity.
The cemetery now has a development plan that focuses on enhancing community cohesion and ethnic diversity, enhancing community heritage and history, and enhancing community health and fitness.
Vale’s supporters have worked hard to make it a go-to place for those other than mourners. There’s a playground in Vale Park, and children from a nearby day care center use the cemetery’s front lawn as a play area. Fishing derbies are held in the two lakes, and the road winding through the grounds is part of running race routes. Soon, the Mohawk-Hudson Bike-Hike trail will traverse the cemetery.
Roots and Wisdom, a youth agriculture and community service program that grows organic vegetables for local food pantries and to sell within the county, has a garden on the cemetery’s grounds.
Vale has also been a job training site for those interested in learning about landscaping.
On the first Sunday of each month from May until November, tours that highlight the cemetery’s more interesting inhabitants are held.
Much rehabilitation work has also been done in the cemetery. The African American Ancestral Burial Ground, once called the “Old Colored Plot” has been restored, as has the Civil War veterans’ section.
“We’ve done a lot in researching people involved in the Underground Railroad that are buried at Vale,” McEvoy noted.
A current project is to create a green burial area in the cemetery.
“That’s a new trend where people want to leave a small carbon footprint, so they forgo the caskets and the vaults to be buried in a natural setting. We will have a bird sanctuary there and wildflowers in that area,” McEvoy explained.
There’s room for 200 more years of burials at Vale, for all faiths and denominations, he noted, and plot prices are economical.
“We can sell a grave site for like 200 bucks. People come in and expect they’re going to pay $2,000,” he said.
A global positioning satellite survey is also under way at the cemetery. “When you want to find Grandma’s grave site, we’ll give you the coordinates … and you can be within six inches of the actual burial spot by using the GPS,” McEvoy explained.
And there are many more projects in progress, he said. Fallen fences are being put back into place and new cemetery access points are in the works.
“We’re expecting some additional grant money to build some access from neighborhoods like Vale Village down to Vale Park so that the playground can get used down there, and we’d like to build access from the [Schenectady] Museum down into the park,” McEvoy said.
He encourages everyone to come explore this hidden piece of history in the heart of Schenectady.
“It’s not dangerous. There’s plenty of people pushing baby carriages through, kids on their way to school and people riding bicycles,” he said. “It’s very safe and people should come enjoy it.”