Crown Hill’s First Winter

As winter sets in, many of us tend to slow down as the weather gets colder and the nights get longer. But the cemetery stays busy with funerals and burials, sometimes made more difficult by the cold and snow. The Cemetery’s first Superintendent, Frederick Chislett, learned that on his very first day on the property, 157 years ago.

Frederick Chislett

Chislett had been hired in October 1863 after his father John Chislett, a Pittsburgh architect who had become something of a cemetery consultant, had assisted Crown Hill’s Incorporators in choosing land that included a tree nursery and large hill owned by Martin Williams, as well as the surrounding farmlands, as the site to be developed into a cemetery away from the heart of town. Frederick’s son, also named John, who was about eight years old when the family arrived here on New Year’s Eve, 1863, recollected that memorable day: “Father and mother and we three little boys landed in Indianapolis on a warm, rainy day, December 31, 1863. We went out to the old Martin Williams log cabin at the south slope of Crown Hill, and the next morning the mercury was twenty-seven degrees below zero. It was the historic cold New Year’s. For a time we really suffered. Though a little child then, I remember it well.”

Early property map of Crown Hill Cemetery

The extreme cold did not last more than a day, but it was not the only difficulty Chislett faced as he began to turn farmland, forests, thickets, and marshes, into a landscaped cemetery with serviceable roads. His son John continues; “Crown Hill was then a wild, secluded place. Father would not open the door after dark to anyone and often had to drive someone away at the point of his revolver. Soldiers from the camps were sometimes very troublesome, and getting things out there in any sort of shape was a pretty hard proposition. To go into the city was one hour’s drive down through the Fall Creek Swamp, around Camp Carrington and into town by way of Indiana Avenue.”

Despite the harsh welcome, Frederick stayed on at Crown Hill until 1899. His son, John, then served as Superintendent until 1910. Perhaps because he remembered his first morning at Crown Hill, John eventually made his way to sunny La Jolla, California in 1931, dying there in 1938. Both are now buried in Section 14 of Crown Hill.

(John Chislett’s comments are taken from The Story of Crown Hill by Anna Nicolas, pp. 16-17, ©1928)

Author: Tom Davis