THE HISTORY OF UNION CEMETERY
Today, residents of Kansas City can enjoy the beautiful 27 acre site in Midtown for recreation in a City Park, and also as a place to gain an appreciation of the fascinating history of the city as told through the lives of those buried there. The history of how this came to be is a story in itself.
Union Cemetery, Kansas City’s oldest public cemetery, was established in 1857 at a time when the populations of the towns of Kansas (now Kansas City), and Westport (now a midtown neighborhood) were increasing dramatically as our young nation moved west. A cholera outbreak in 1849 had quickly filled both existing family plots and the first city cemetery at 5th and Oak, established in 1847. City leaders faced a crisis. The search for a suitable piece of land for a new cemetery ended in 1857 when James W. Hunter deeded 49 acres of farmland to the Union Cemetery Association, organized by a special act of the Missouri General Assembly on November 9, 1857. The land was located halfway between the town of Kansas on the Missouri River, and the nearby town of Westport which served as a supply center for the wagon trains moving west. It was intended to be a “union” between the two towns and the location gave the cemetery its name. It was thought that the 49 acres would provide enough burial space for both communities for the foreseeable future.
To date, about 55,000 people have been buried in Union Cemetery, with people of all races and nationalities, rich and poor, entrepreneurs, entertainers, farmers, merchants and soldiers lying side by side in their final resting place. These men and women shaped the history of Kansas City through their life pursuits, and helped to support the western expansion of the United States.
A fire in August of 1889 damaged the Sexton’s Cottage and destroyed burial records. This was a major loss since many of the graves had been identified only with wooden or limestone markers which had been eroded by time and weather. The loss of the burial records left hundreds graves unmarked and undocumented. (The Cottage burned again on Halloween night 1985, but this time the partially restored cemetery records were kept off site, so none were lost. The Cottage was rebuilt by Women in Construction of Kansas City and rededicated in October of 1990.)
By 1910, Union Cemetery was showing increasing signs of deterioration. To raise funds for maintenance, the Cemetery Association sold 18 acres at 27th and Main Streets. It was later discovered that several members of the Association had formed the Evergreen Land Company and had sold the land to themselves, which they later squandered in several land deals. After many years of neglect, Union Cemetery Association deeded the remaining 27 acres to Kansas City, Missouri in 1937, and it has since been maintained by the Kansas City Board of Parks and Recreation.
Realizing the need for restoration after so many years of neglect, the Native Sons of Greater Kansas City adopted Union Cemetery as one of its first community service projects in 1937 and aided in the major restoration of portions of the Cemetery. The present imposing gated entry was funded by the Native Sons in the 1950’s. The wrought iron fence that now encloses the grounds was provided by the city in the 1990’s.
The current Board of the Union Cemetery Historical Society is engaged in fund-raising activities for further restoration of the monuments and infrastructure. Your contribution, no matter how small, will be greatly appreciated as we strive to restore and maintain this gift from the past that we all can enjoy.