A year or so ago, a friend of mine and I were wandering around his new neighborhood in Brooklyn, and he took me to visit Green-Wood Cemetery. I realize it may seem strange to go to a cemetery for a walk, but Green-Wood is absolutely gorgeous, with hills and winding paths. I read up a bit on the cemetery after that visit and learned that they offer trolley tours. For quite some time, Mike and I talked about going on one, and last weekend, we finally went! (95-degree heat and all. We actually saw tar melting on the edge of the road…)
Green-Wood Cemetery, a National Historic Landmark, was established in 1838 on farmland owned by the Schermerhorn family. It encompasses 478 acres of land, includes 8,000 trees and four ponds, and is the final resting place to more than half a million people, including the largest number of interred soldiers after Arlington National Cemetery in D.C. In the 1860s, Green-Wood was the second most visited tourist destination in the U.S. after Niagara Falls.
At the time, it was considered a “rural” cemetery, and New Yorkers would come over to Brooklyn to relax, have a picnic, and enjoy some fresh air. (The cemetery was apparently the inspiration for the development of Central Park.) Green-Wood is also home to the tallest point in Brooklyn, called Battle Hill, which, at 200 feet above sea level, offers views of the Manhattan skyline and was the site of the Battle of Long Island during the Revolutionary War. Today, Green-Wood is still an active cemetery, with burials every day of the week.
The Cemetery offers three different trolley tours on Wednesdays and Sundays for $20/person, and we did the “Far Side” tour, which takes you all the way to the back of the cemetery. This particular tour lasts two hours, and we spent most of the tour on the trolley itself, with one stop at Battle Hill where we were able to get off to see some headstones and sculptures up close.
Our tour guide was quite the character, but she was entertaining and informative. (Mike Googled her after the tour, and we learned she was a backup singer for the Electric Light Orchestra and is apparently now in a highly coveted Brooklyn wedding band.)
On the tour we saw the graves of composer Leonard Bernstein; William Poole, aka Bill the Butcher of Gangs of New York fame (Martin Scorsese actually paid for his headstone to be added to the plot); Samuel Chester Reid, the designer of the current American flag; Frank Morgan, the actor who played the wizard (and other roles) in the Wizard of Oz; and Henry Chadwick, the “father of baseball”. We also saw the mausoleum of the Steinway family (of Steinway pianos), which is the largest mausoleum in the cemetery.
We had a fantastic time on our tour, and we’ve already decided that we want to go back and do the other two trolley tours at some point. They also do nighttime walking tours that take you into the catacombs! Otherwise, anyone can walk or drive into the cemetery during open hours and wander around as much as you like, and we agreed that we would like to return later this year to enjoy those 8,000 trees in their beautiful fall colors.
I would definitely encourage New Yorkers and visitors alike to take a trip to the cemetery, though perhaps not on a 95-degree day like we did. And as our tour guide said as we were leaving, “It’s better to visit while you can still leave!”
Have you ever been to Green-Wood? Do you know of any other famous New Yorkers who now reside in Green-Wood? Use their burial search tool before you visit to find their plots.
Plan Your Own Visit
Where to Go
- Green-Wood Cemetery: 500 25th Street, Brooklyn, NY 11232 (Main Entrance)
- There are two other entrances, one from Sunset Park and another from Fort Hamilton Parkway.
When to Go
- Historic trolley tours at Green-Wood are offered every Wednesday and Sunday.
- One Saturday a month they also offer their “Dead Distillers Trolley Tour”, which travels through Green-Wood and then over to the Kings County Distillery at the Brooklyn Navy Yard for a whiskey tasting!
- If you’re just interested in visiting the cemetery on your own, though, you can always just walk or drive in during their open hours.
Tips for Visiting
- One of the best ways to see the cemetery is on a trolley tour, but there are lots of other activities and events that you might be interested in! It’s a beautiful place just to go for a stroll, but the history of Green-Wood is fascinating and it’s worth the extra $$$ to take a tour.
- The trolley is “air-conditioned” but not very well. I’d recommend visiting on a day that isn’t overly hot! When it’s peak fall foliage season, the cemetery will be stunning and the trolley will be comfortable.
- Green-Wood is close to 500 acres, so I would highly recommend requesting a map from the gate when you enter. The roads and paths are hilly and meandering, so it would be very easy to get lost!
- While you may drive your car into Green-Wood, you may not enter via motorcycle or bicycle. (Your pup needs to stay at home as well!)
- This is still an active cemetery with burials happening on a regular basis. Please be courteous and respectful of those who may be burying a loved one during your visit.