There are artifacts of our history around every corner of Kingston, and as you walk down Penny Lane to 1401 Highway 2, you will come across a pioneer cemetery with history waiting to be discovered. Milton Cemetery at 1401 Highway 2 has long been abandoned from its original purpose.
The land once owned by Thomas Milton was established as a cemetery in 1820. In 1876, the land was enlarged by a quarter acre, and a year later a storage vault was constructed on the cemetery grounds.
The vault was built for two reasons. In the winter months, if a person died, they would have to be stored until the ground thawed and a grave could then be dug in the spring. Bodies of the dearly departed would also need protection.
In the late 1800s, grave robbing was a common problem for cemeteries. One of the main culprits of this nighttime crime would be medical students. They needed to provide their own cadavers for study. The crime was so prevalent that a family member would often guard the grave of a recently deceased loved one for over three days after they’d been buried just to prevent a late-night theft.
In 1895, the vault required repairs. A steel plate was installed on the door, which would lead one to conclude that, even with a limestone vault, robbers found a way to break in. The minutes from the cemetery committee meeting in 1895 list the repairs for that year including a steel plate, bolts, nails, and payment to contractors for their repairs to walls, the shingles, and other materials.
Milton Cemetery was divided into three equal parts when it was established: one third would be guaranteed for members of the Church of England; one third to the Church of Scotland; and one third to persons of other churches.
The cost for burial at the time was a mere five shillings per grave. Eternal rest gave you a place
looking out over the St. Lawrence River. This was a family place, with the Milton family alone occupying multiple plots of land.
The last burial took place in 1937 when John MacKenzie of Treasure Island passed away. Once he was laid to rest, the cemetery would be closed for burials, and ultimately forgotten. Until it closed, there was an annual cleanup of the grounds led by the cemetery trustees and some residents of the area.
Once the burials ended, those yearly cleanups would become infrequent and, in many cases, become a decade affair. The only structure on the property, the limestone vault, would be abandoned to weather the seasons alone.
As the decades passed and the 1980s hit, Milton Cemetery would receive a heritage designation under the Ontario Heritage Act. Under the declaration, the vault is given special attention as being a significant feature to the property.
A partial restoration would take place in the 1980s resulting in reconstruction of the walls. When Kingston amalgamated with the surrounding townships in 1998, Milton Cemetery would come under the control of the City of Kingston with a city committee called the Milton Cemetery Board of Management established. As per the original grant from Mr. Milton, the committee is headed by ‘three-heads-of-households in the neighborhood’.
A report to Heritage Kingston in May of 2018 outlined the need to save the vault as its walls had seriously degraded over the last thirty years. The report shows strong support for this measure. Milton Cemetery may be abandoned, but it is not forgotten.
Here in Kingston at 1401 Highway 2 is a part of our heritage. Many prominent pioneer families who settled in the former Pittsburgh Township can be found buried at Milton Cemetery. Grave stones are all that’s left to mark the history of the people who came before us. If you are walking through the area, take a moment to stop and read the inscriptions. Marvel at the precise length of life listed for each grave occupant and think about our past. Read the names emblazoned on the stones, perhaps say them out loud. The people who are buried at Milton Cemetery came before us and blazed a trail for the city that we live in. Let us respect and remember the history of the families and individuals who built our city.
Bill Gowsell was born and raised in Kingston. With an interest in history, food, wine, and all things Disney, Bill has been writing for the last eight years on a variety of topics. During the summers he can be found at the family cottage north of Kingston, or at the bottom of Lake Ontario… scuba diving.