Behind the Gates: The true story behind the haunted reputation of Brunswick’s Forest Park Cemetery

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BRUNSWICK, N.Y. (NEWS10) — A long-abandoned cemetery in Brunswick is slowly being restored, dozens of and headstones toppled by neglect or vandals attracted by supernatural urban legends are now standing again. Forest Park is open for public tours only one day each year.

The 15th Annual Walking Tour took place on a sunny Saturday, October 23. The date has nothing to do with the spooky season of Halloween. October is American Archives Month and Brunswick Town Historian Sharon Zankel wants people to connect to the importance of written records showing the history of Forest Park Cemetery. But she also knows, “There will probably be someone in the crowd here today who will say, I want to tell you I was about 9 when my brother brought me out here on Halloween and that was some kind of rite of passage.”

People gather for Forest Hills Cemetery tour
Around 150 people attended the 15th Annual Walking Tour of Forest Park Cemetery in Brunswick on Saturday, October 23, 2021. Two years ago volunteers were overwhelmed when more than 1,000 people suddenly showed up. It is believed some haunted rumors spread through social media to attract the much larger than usual crowd.

Tracy Broderick, President of The Brunswick Historical Society, grew up hearing the same, “I never really knew of its existence until I was a teenager and then they’re like oh yeah, let’s go to the Forest Park Cemetery it’s supposed to be haunted.”

Rumors of a haunted history may have plagued Forest Park Cemetery for decades, but it was founded in 1897 with a basic human desire, to make money.

“There was a time in the 1800s when there were cemetery syndicates that went out to communities and would pull together a group of businessmen to invest in the creation of a cemetery as a moneymaker,” explains Zankel, “so we had a group of men with no experience as undertakers, park operators, certainly not as cemetery operators, and they thought this would be a good idea.”

They weren’t good businessmen either it turned out. After spending $75,000 on 200 acres of land and $50,000 on an impressive marble and granite receiving tomb, the corporation went bankrupt in 1913. So did the second group that sold all but 22 acres to what would be the Country Club of Troy. Zankel tells NEWS10, “Over time some of the people who had purchased stock, some were prominent families from Troy, the Sage family for example, would say good luck guys, keep the stock, we don’t want our burial plot there.”

Forest Park Cemetery was eventually abandoned. The once beautiful focal point now attracts the wrong kind of attention as nature hid most of it from view. Zankel, who had moved here in 1970, recalls, “I did not know Lydia that there was a cemetery here when I drove by you saw those four granite columns, there was no wrought iron the only thing sticking out between the columns was trees.”

The Town of Brunswick took over the cemetery in 1990, as required by state law for abandoned incorporated cemeteries. Cleaning out the brush made the damage clear. “There are two statues over in Essex plot that back in the 70’s somebody broke the head off, and somebody broke the arms off, and you don’t want to desecrate people’s graves,” says Broderick.

But that’s exactly what was happening because somehow back then, word of mouth spread the story that Life Magazine listed Forest Park Cemetery as one of the top 10 most haunted places in the country. Zankel tried to track down the source, “I went to the Troy Library, and I asked, and they said you don’t know how many people have asked that question and how hard we have researched.”

Headstone covered in algae/lichen
Some people say they have seen the headless statues “bleeding” but this gravestone shows how algae/lichen and a chemical reaction of minerals in the stone have changed the color to red.

That haunted reputation now lives on the internet, attracting some to the one day a year the cemetery is open to the public. Ashley Hale of Troy says, “I’ve seen that video on YouTube from years ago when people came in here at night, and the angel and all the beautiful tombstones, I wanted to check it out for myself. They make it sound really scary, but it’s not it’s actually really beautiful here.”

There is beauty in the park-like setting but there is tragedy in the lives of some of those buried here. Tracy Broderick has researched newspaper archives for the past few years and shares what she found during the tour, “The Tann family didn’t have the best of luck. Lord and Tann used to be a store in downtown Troy, he strangled himself in the cellar and the paperboy found him, and then his grandson had drowned in the river in Troy and newspaper articles said he may have been bullied and pushed into the river.”

She found quite a few articles about a young veteran. “He and his wife were from Watervliet, evidently things weren’t going well, and he stalked her, chased her into the house they were living at. She ran into a closet, and he shot through the door and killed her, and he went out on the porch and killed himself, this happened in the early 1900s. I found that all in the newspapers, which when you put in the name you don’t expect to find all this crazy stuff. He made all the local newspapers.”

But the story of a despondent son who came to his mother’s gravesite, a long-time nurse, had a different ending. “He decided to come here, and he shot himself in the head and there happened to be a doctor who was driving by, which is hard to believe because here’s the stone and there’s the driveway, and he recovered. He lived like another 20 years.”

Damaged Hollister Family monument
Vandals also damaged the head and hands of the statue on the Hollister Family monument but there is another one like it in Troy’s Oakwood Cemetery that remains intact.

The true stories eclipse any of the rumors attached to Forest Park. Zankel notes many of the urban legends are the same ones she heard growing up in Orange County, like the taxi driver whose passenger disappears before he arrives at her destination near the cemetery, only to discover that the young woman had died and is buried in the cemetery. The locations are just changed to match the different communities where they’re told, “A writer came out here to interview someone who had seen a ghost, and he got killed just the short distance he had to drive going back to Troy, and his typewriter started typing the story that night.”

But people keep trying to find the fear factor. Broderick says, “We have many this time of year, we have phone calls at the office that they want to do their paranormal investigations and we say no because that’s not really what it’s about this tour is respectful and we try to stay away from the ghostly and haunted it’s mostly people who are buried here.”

Family with loved ones can arrange a visit at any time. The once-a-year public tour helps fund the restoration of Forest Park, nearly 70 headstones have been reset. Broderick points to one prominent monument, “That stone is one of the first stones that we had repaired when we started this project back in 2017. That’s little Hattie Borst, she was 18-months-old and she died of the croup.”

Steve Silverman from Wynantskill welcomes that news, “Cemeteries are beautiful places and to see the damage that’s been done is very sad and I’m hoping over time they can restore everything the best that they can.”

Forest Hills Cemetery damaged grave
Vandals damaged the head and hands of the statue on the Grall Family monument.

Cemeteries are more than rows of headstones. For anyone who has buried a loved one, they are places to remember their stories, their death a part of our lives that doesn’t need a ghost story intruding on the memories shared.

Rod Klimek, also from Wynantskill, notes as he walks through the cemetery, “It’s just a great piece of history and we should be taking care of our history. These are people’s lives and they’re represented by a small stone, and I don’t see the need to hurt that stone you know. There’s a lot of potential for hauntings anywhere you are, what I see is haunted yeah, bad no.”

If you missed this year’s tour, you’ll have to wait to sign up next October. And if you’re thinking of visiting on Halloween, know that the Rensselaer County Sheriff’s Office and New York State Police will have extra patrols, while neighbors keep an eye out all year round.

Copyright 2021 Nexstar Media Inc. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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