Bodies at the Train Stop

March 21st, 2007 by Harrumpher Leave a reply »

Brine graveFreight Train, Elizabeth Cotten’s folk classic of over a century ago, fits right in at the Toll Gate Cemetery. It includes:

When I die, oh bury me deep
Down at the end of old Chestnut Street
So I can hear old Number Nine
As she comes rolling by

Note: For any image here, click on the thumbnail to see a larger version.

The Ann Brine stone above has survived fairly well in this urban artifact of a burial plot. She was one of many Irish natives interred here at a time when Boston-area Catholic bodies were not welcome in many cemeteries.

Her loving brother John paid for a fine stone, one of the last for this cemetery. In the mid- to late-1800s, the eternal slumber families fancied had no Amtrak or MBTA trains shaking the coffins or sputtering diesel exhaust or blowing their horns, as the expression goes, loud enough to wake the dead.

This miniature, mystery burial ground has fascinated me as a neighbor. It is in the oddest triangular corner of Boston, nestled just below Forest Hills Station where the Roslindale and Jamaica Plain neighborhoods bump into each other. In the ill-defined borders of the made-up JP section, various maps and sources say this land is on one or the other.

Trying to discover who owns it, who should be taking care of it, who has begun taking care of it — and who they are — and any details not literally carved into gravestones has been a Boston adventure. This is the first of several posts on the cemetery and that process.

Toll Gate? Where’s Toll Gate?

Aerial of Cemetery

Until a few years ago, an Erector-set-style pedestrian bridge crossed from Hyde Park Avenue to Washington Street just below Ukraine Way. That was kind of a tracer for where Toll Gate Way used to be. As you crossed the train tracks, the cemetery was obvious from above.

Now the bridge is gone and few have occasion to notice the burying ground that sits above the road behind a stone wall and iron fence. It’s not visible from the Western side, Washington Street. If you take a window table at My Big Fat Greek Pizza on Walk Hill Street and look in the right direction, you might be aware of it.

If you think cemeteries around here, there are:

  • Forest Hills — the grand, gorgeous garden cemetery, filled with famous statuary, even more famous bodies, and a preponderance of WASPs.
  • St. Michael — across Walk Hill from Forest Hills Cemetery and extraordinarily different. It is a true necropolis, chockablock with mausolea and tombstones. Large grim patriarchs and matriarchs stand guard still in granite, with a scattering of handsome youths who were then grieved.
  • Mount Hope — down the road a short distance is the rambling expanse of the city cemetery favored by fraternal organizations. It’s art is typified by the gigantic elk for the BPOE.

Back on Hyde Park Avenue, the tiny and tatty Toll Gate is a poor cousin indeed.

If you look for it, the landmark is a abutting auto-repair shop, replete with garish signs. A neighbor’s brother used to own it, when it was drab, grey and grimy. Now, it’s loud, whitewashed and grimy. The other closest marker is Dunkin’ Doughnuts, catercorner across the street. That used to be the beloved Doughboy, open 24 hours and, honest to God, the best place to find a Boston cop very late or very early.

Slide the pin out of the chain securing the iron gate and you enter into an urban Stephen King setting. In contrast to the other three cemeteries around, Toll Gate certainly does not provide eternal care.

Headstones tipped or shattered by vandals or weather are beside intact markers. Future posts wll include images of both types.

Why Toll Gate?

The city claims this is 0.9 acres. It’s less. Then again, its files also report that the Boston Archdiocese owns this, which both Catholic cemeteries groups and Catholic officials deny.

Note: More on the ownership of this land will appear in future posts.

The whole area was called Toll Gate from 1834 when the private Norfolk and Bristol Turnpike put a collection station between Dudley Square and the Dedham Courthouse. The JP Historical Society reports that this is where the turnpike operators weighed carts and wagons to charge their drivers. By 1848, Forest Hills Cemetery opened and the area picked up its name instead.

Genealogist Martin Grealish lectured on the cemetery to his member organization The Irish Ancestral Research Association in 1996. He has researched all identifiable graves there and spoke on “Boston’s Toll Gate Catholic Cemetery: Cemetery Research Through Gravestones, Deeds and Vital Records.”

He said that most burials were in the 1850 through 1870, with the last dated 1900.

Next, shifting bodies…

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8 Responses

  1. adamg says:

    There’s a similar, but better preserved, vest-pocket cemetery on Centre Street in West Roxbury – right between a drug store and a factory.

  2. Hi there…I really appreciate your comments and info about Tollgate Cemetery. Back in 1998 I lived nearby on Blanvon St and ended up wandering around the cemetery snapping photos. I was rather unnerved by alot of the graves that were marked “unknown”. Very creepy. Any other information out there on Tollgate?

  3. Patty Boylan says:

    Growing up in J.P. my entire life, this cemetery has always interested me.
    I was happy to finally see a sign naming the place.
    I remember as a kid seeing one of the shallow graves had been dug up.
    It spooked me and I’ve never forgotton. I’m glad to see somebody is trying to find information on the poor souls that rest there.

  4. MarkB says:

    Do you have any info on Martin Grealish? The link is dead.

  5. Harrumpher says:

    He never responded through his association, his email I got from it or otherwise. I left voice mails at a few guys’ phones with his apparently common name. I’ll see what I can do.

    The Irish-American site,, seems to have revamped and dropped their online archive, leaving just a table of titles and such. They’d like folk to go by the Auburndale, Newton site to read their newsletters for old stuff.

  6. MarkB says:

    Thanks for the response. It’s a shame to have all those names lost.

  7. magmuzzle says:

    look this place up on google maps street view. There is a pink camera flare orb standing on the sidewalk in front of the cemetery. I lived in a haunted house across the street with the glass block window at the basement level.

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