Erie Street Cemetery: Historical graveyard in the heart of downtown

In the middle of the Gateway District on what is today East 9th Street, sits Cleveland’s oldest cemetery—the 1826 Erie Street Cemetery. It was originally built to relocate the growing city’s community burial ground that sat just south of Public Square, Erie Street Cemetery is the final resting place of some of Cleveland’s earliest settlers, veterans, and icons.

Cleveland Village trustees bought the nine acres from Leonard Case Sr., an early settler and president of Cleveland Village Council at the time. He was also a philanthropist and eventually president of Commercial Bank of Lake Erie.

The cemetery is the final resting place for many of Cleveland’s early settlers and military veterans of the Revolutionary War and Civil War. In fact, 168 veterans—­98 of whom fought in the Civil War, including Camp Taylor commandant Jabez W. Fitch—are buried in Erie Street Cemetery.

Other famous Clevelanders interred at Erie Street include Cleveland’s first permanent settler, Lorenzo Carter;  19th Century activist John Malvin; and Joc-O-Sot, a member of the Mesquakie Tribe in Iowa who came to Cleveland, became an actor with an English theater company, then made his way home to Cleveland in 1884 after falling ill. He died in Cleveland later that year.

Erie Street Cemetery Rededication Ceremony on July 21, 1940Erie Street Cemetery Rededication Ceremony on July 21, 1940Erie Street Cemetery served all religious faiths for the first 20 years after opening, as it was the only private or church cemetery in the city. Even after Willett Street Cemetery, Cleveland’s oldest Jewish cemetery, opened in 1840, followed by Woodland Cemetery in 1853, Erie Street remained the burial ground of choice for many years.

The plot of land on which Erie Street Cemetery was built was so large that in 1836 the village council allowed a gunpowder storage facility and a poorhouse hospital to be built on the land.

The allowance caused the heirs of the original property owners to file an unsuccessful Federal lawsuit against Cleveland that lasted until 1842—claiming the sale of the land was restricted solely to burials.

At the turn of the 20th Century, multiple efforts were made to reclaim the Erie Street land to develop the city and build streets—even reinterring some bodies elsewhere. The Pioneer’s Memorial Association, formed in 1915, successfully protected the cemetery and its occupants. The bridge was subsequently built around the cemetery, and groups like the Works Progress Administration and the Cleveland Grays initially ensured the grounds’ preservation.

There have been ongoing measures to preserve Cleveland's oldest existing cemetery. More than 300 trees and shrubs have been planted, and new monuments and graves have been erected or replaced to honor Cleveland's pioneers.

Although some of the graves remain deteriorated, the 1870 iron fence and sandstone gothic arched entrance protect the Erie Street Cemetery from the modern-day activities and buildings around it, including Progressive Field, Rocket Mortgage Field House, and the entertainment district of East 4th Street.

Cleveland Restoration Society - LogoCleveland Masterworks is sponsored by the Cleveland Restoration Society, celebrating 50 years of preserving Cleveland’s landmarks and cultural heritage. Cleveland Restoration Society preserves houses through the Heritage Home Program. Experience history by taking a journey on Cleveland’s African American Civil Rights Trail.Become a member today!

Karin Connelly Rice
Karin Connelly Rice

About the Author: Karin Connelly Rice

Karin Connelly Rice enjoys telling people's stories, whether it's a promising startup or a life's passion. Over the past 20 years she has reported on the local business community for publications such as Inside Business and Cleveland Magazine. She was editor of the Rocky River/Lakewood edition of In the Neighborhood and was a reporter and photographer for the Amherst News-Times. At Fresh Water she enjoys telling the stories of Clevelanders who are shaping and embracing the business and research climate in Cleveland.