Chapter 5: Early Growth and Events

Early Growth and Events


From the time of its beginning the Lexington Cemetery has pursued a steady pattern of progress and improvement.  Even during the Civil War Superintendent Bell went on with the business of enhancing the cemetery and preparing it for the years after the conflict.  Planning and growth during the war itself are shown by the board's purchase, in July 1863, for instance, of a tract of slightly more than thirteen acres on the Leestown Pike, adjoining the cemetery, from David T. Adams.

Bell, for reasons not known, advertised in the Observer & Reporter of March 19, 1864, that "After this date the Gates of this Cemetery will be closed on Sundays" to all except persons attending funerals.  How long this edict remained in effect is not recorded, but on July 10, 1867, the Observer & Reporter published an editorial against it.  Sunday, it stated, "is the only day that many of our citizens can visit the graves of their departed loved ones.  During the week it is impossible for the working classes to leave their work and visit the Cemetery."  The editor suggested that tickets of admission be given to lot holders so that they, their families and friends might enter the grounds.

On September 1, 1866, Bell gave up his position as superintendent of the cemetery to take charge of the grounds of the new Agricultural and Mechanical College of Kentucky University.  The A. & M. College, just established under the federal land-grant law, was located at the Clay's Ashland estate and the nearby Woodlands; John B. Bowman, regent of the school, had persuaded Bell to accept the post.

Bell remained there only a year.  According to his autobiographical sketch in the John M. Gresham Biographical Cyclopedia of the Commonwealth of Kentucky, "it was my intention to have gone more extensively into the nursery and florist business and to devote my whole time to it, but when it became known to the trustees of the cemetery they made me a proposition to again take charge of the cemetery, and I again became superintendent of it."

During Bell's absence his place was taken by Thomas Sommerville, a veteran of a Georgia regiment and, in Cuba, private secretary to the West Indian Council of the Southern Confederacy.  Upon Bell's return, Sommerville went into the florist and nursery business across the Leestown Pike from the cemetery.  When he died in March 1871, his wife Mary, a native of England, carried on the trade.

In 1880 transportation to the cemetery grounds was enhanced by two horse-drawn omnibuses that operated between Woodland Park and the cemetery, but the service was soon discontinued for want of patronage.  Cabs, however, were available for persons wanting them.  By that year Lexington's population was 16,656, a little more than twice what it had been when the cemetery opened, and the community was ready for the development of utilities.  Telephone and electric-light services were started on a small scale in 1882, and photographs later in this period show a maze of poles and wires as a prominent feature of down town streets.  In late August of 1882 the first mule-drawn streetcar appeared, and by 1890 mule cars were replaced by small electric streetcars.  In 1885 the Lexington Hydraulic and Manufacturing Company completed its reservoir and pumping station, and Lexington had water for home use and fire protection.  The leaders of the community were progressive in their outlook.

The cemetery trustees mad an important purchase in 1884, acquiring from the Sommerville family a few acres on the south side of the Leestown Pike.  This nearby tract contained a rock quarry, and rock and gravel for the roads and lanes of the cemetery now could be obtained more economically from the company's own source than from commercial quarries.

That year George W. Ranck prepared for the Lexington Chamber of Commerce his Guide to Lexington Kentucky, which included a picture of the McMurtry gateway and the following description of the cemetery:

At the west end of Main street, just beyond the crossing of the Kentucky Central Railroad, is the Lexington cemetery, one of the loveliest places of its size and kind in this country, and no stranger should leave the city without paying it a visit.  Nature, art and associations have all combined to make it attractive, and it is adorned with many handsome monuments, statues and beautiful memorials that are well worth inspection.  Here rests "the Sage of Ashland;" John Morgan, the brilliant partisan leader of the South; General John C. Breckinridge, Chief Justice Robertson, Colonel Morrison, General Combs, Francis K. Hunt, Gen. Gordon Granger, Hugh McKee, and many others distinguished in the history of Kentucky and the nation.  Here also are the honored graves of a large number of Federal and Confederate soldiers who "sleep their last sleep, and have fought their last battle."

The cemetery company in August 1887 made the largest purchase of land in its history, 106 acres from Samuel W. Lee, son and heir of John W. Lee.  This tract adjoined the cemetery on the northeast and extended to Georgetown Street, increasing the company's holdings to approximately 180 acres.  The trustees, however, by a deed recorded in November 1890, sold 53 acres of the Lee property to the Forest Hill Land Company.  Part of that tract became the Greenwood Cemetery for blacks, an dthe remainder was subdivided into streets and building lots.


On July 18, 1889, an eighty-five-year-old man who had been a gravedigger at the cemetery since its opening died at his home near the burial ground.  His name was John Doyle, and, as the Lexington Daily Press reported, he had "assisted in placing in their last resting place more persons than any man ever lived in Lexington...He was a good man, faithful in the discharge of his duties."

The old entrance to the cemetery was razed in 1890, and a stone chapel and office structure which forms the main part of the present administrative quarters was built.  This not only provided larger office space but a chapel seating 125 which was used primarily for services for persons brought from out of town.  On at least one occasion, it is said, it was used for a wedding ceremony.  A new gateway, with entrance and exit drives and heavy iron gates, was erected, too, and still in use.

The architect for the new building was Herman L. Rowe, a native of Germany who had come to America when a young man, living in Chicago and also in Louisville before moving to Lexington in 1880.  Here he superintended the construction of the main building on the new state university campus which is still used as the administration building.  He was one of the most prominent local architects of the day.

On March 1, 1891, at about the same time the new building was completed, James Hay Nicol was employed as assistant superintendent to help the aging Bell.  Nicol, like his superior, was a native of Dumfriesshire, Scotland.  He had come to the United States as a youth, living first in Frankfort, where he had relatives, and then in Lexington, where he entered the lumber business.

Bell, who had come to the United States in 1842 at the age of seventeen, took a two-month vacation in the summer of 1895 to visit his native Scotland.  "On visiting my old home," he later wrote, "I found all that was left was the outside, (Pg. 53)the old trees, the grass, the house, but inside all was changed by time an death."

The eminent Judge R. A. Buckner expressed an eloquent tribute to the achievement of this talented Scotsman in 1895 in a public speech:

The cemetery is now a thing of beauty, and under the artistic and beautiful work of its able superintendent, Mr. Bell, it blooms and blossoms as beautiful as the garden of Hesperides...As a park the cemetery is beautiful and of great value. On a warm summer evening you may find its carriage drives and winding pathways crowded with visitors; many of whom come to hold sweet communion with their dead; others to bask in the declining rays of sun, softened as they creep through the green foliage over head, and to enjoy the soft western breezes as they come to them, bearing the rich odors of shrub, grass and flower.

By the time this compliment was paid Nicol had taken over much of the direction of the cemetery. Bell's health was failing, and by 1900 he had lost his sight because of cataracts. He was, however, officially retained as superintendent until his death on July 29, 1905, when Nicol succeeded him.

Nicol's appointment as the next superintendent was a simple choice.  The Lexington Herald of August 5, 1905, stated: "Mr. Nicol possessed all the qualities that Mr. Bell wished for a pupil, and soon learned to carry on the work in a systematic way.  For the last ten years he has done practically all the superintending of the work in the cemetery as Mr. Bell planned it, so that he will have no difficulty in carrying out the landscape plans of Mr. Bell."

By the spring of 1901 the cemetery had become more accessible to visitors when the Lexington Railway Company extended its streetcar tracks out Main Street to the gates of the Lexington and Calvary cemeteries.  The line previously had stopped at Jefferson Street.  The first car to come as far as the Lexington Cemetery (Pg.54) made its run on April 27.

In 1906 the cemetery mad a significant extension westward by the purchase from Mrs. Nannie C. Bradley of a fifty-nine-acre tract.  On Saturday, July 4, 1914, an event occurred which must have given the trustees and Nicol a great deal of satisfaction.  The newly completed West Main Street Viaduct was dedicated, as was the Jefferson Street Viaduct, in exercises held at the cemetery gate.  This "Cemetery Bridge," as it was sometimes called, eliminated the difficulties caused by the railroad crossing and the steep hill; and, as John Wilson Townsend reported in the Lexington Herald of January 3, 1915, it "increased the value of the cemetery property at least a quarter of a million dollars, in the opinion of many."

Townsend, a young Lexington author and historian, also mentioned another change that hade come about.  "Since the automobile and motorcycle came into such general use," he stated, "the beauties of the Lexington Cemetery and its interesting monuments are barred from their paths by the rule which forbids either vehicle to enter the cemetery gates."  He continued:


This fact was brought forcibly home to many citizens of the city a few days ago when the celebration of one hundred years of peace between the United States and Great Britain was observed by the placing of an Oregon wreath on the sarcophagus of Henry Clay.

Many persons were compelled by the law of the cemetery to abandon their motor cars at the main entrance gate and to tramp through the snow to the monument.  It now appears that the time has come when this rule against motor driven vehicles should be "lifted"...

It should be explained that motor vehicles were allowed in processions.  In due course, too, the sense of John Wilson Townsend's criticism resulted in appropriate changes.

The funeral procession of Raymond R. Reese, three months old, on July 5, 1914, was the first to cross the new viaduct, and that of Abraham S. Drake, of Louisville, on June 14, 1916, was the first in which the procession consisted entirely of motor vehicles, according to cemetery records.

Perhaps the most traumatic period in Nicol's career at the cemetery was the epidemic of Spanish influenza in 1918-19, which caused a half-million deaths in the United States.  Nicol later reported that never in the history of the cemetery had it been necessary to dig so many graves, the employees sometimes having to work at night.  During October 1918 there were 102 burials, and in November, 78, three to four times the usual number.  On one day three members of a single family were interred.

Probably the only tragedy in Lexington's history that caused more deaths was the cholera plague of 1833, when approximately 500 persons died within two months.  It was in this epidemic that a vagrant and drunkard, William Solomon, derisively call "King" Solomon, became a hero.  When panic gripped the town and much of the population, including gravediggers, fled, Solomon remained.  Taking his pick and shovel, he went to the old Baptist Cemetery and dug graves and buried the dead brought there in coffins, packing boxes, and blankets.  The fact that he drank whiskey instead of water is said to have protected him from the disease.

When Solomon died in 1854, a large number of persons attended his burial in the Lexington Cemetery, but he lay in an unmarked grave for more than forty years until Bell had a simple stone placed at his grave.  In 1908 John Wilson Townsend led a campaign to purchase a more elaborate monument, which was dedicated on November 18.

Nicol remained as superintendent for nearly thirty-one years, retiring with pay on December 1, (Pg.58) 1936, at the age of seventy-five.  The population of Lexington and Fayette County had increased during his years at the cemetery from approximately 43,000 to 73,000 and the "population" of the cemetery from 10,500 to 28,929.

The Lexington Leader, reporting the retirement of James Hay Nicol, Stated:


Recalling today his early experience at the cemetery, Mr. Nicol commented that the most important change during his administration had been the enlargement in the size of the graves, which had made it possible to put fewer and fewer bodies into one lot.  When he assumed charge of the cemetery, he said, burial boxes were six feet, three inches long and two feet wide,  In recent years, the use of metallic and concrete boxes encasing the coffin itself has made the dimensions as much as eight feet by three feet.

Nevertheless, Nicol estimated that the cemtery's 132 acres would accommodate all burials for the next century.