Mapleton and Washington Cemetery: a brief history

Thanks to the excellent staff and the seemingly endless amount of information available at the Brooklyn Collection, most of my research so far has been easy and straightforward. Unfortunately, as I was during my hunt for details on Harbour Village, I was reminded this week that this wouldn’t always be the case.

Case in point one: figuring out how Mapleton got its name. The earliest mention I found was on a timetable for the Sea Beach Railroad from 1879, the year it opened — more on that later — but I was unable to find any indication as to its derivation.

Sea Beach Palace, a hotel in West Brighton, was the ultimate destination of the Sea Beach Railroad. (From BPL’s Brooklyn Collection)

Case in point two: in a quest for a fun, local angle on the area, I sought more information on the baseball field that once was at 62nd Street and 20th Avenue. Variously called Mapleton Oval, Mapleton Field, and Mapleton Park (which the neighborhood itself was frequently called), it was in use in the late 1910s and the early 1920s, and was the site for matches in the Royal Arcanum League.

Joy, the head librarian at the Brooklyn Collection, suggested I look through some contemporary atlases. Maps from 1912, 1916, and 1921 were consistent: there was nothing of interest marked at that corner. The normal grid held, though, so assuming the games didn’t extend into the street, one foul-pole must have been less than 200 feet away from the plate. She also suggested I search through the later Eagle archives, which also yielded little (although some articles did confirm the location).

Frustrating! But, anyway, back to the Sea Beach Railroad*, which connected Bay Ridge (and the various ferries that came from Manhattan) with Coney Island. The area around Mapleton was sparsely populated — it was a whistle-stop, and all of the dwellings at the time were farmhouses. My guess is that Mapleton was so dubbed by the Sea Beach Railroad to invoke a wild, wooded area, and the name happened to stick. (Maple trees are still plentiful in Brooklyn.)

Map of Brooklyn’s steam roads, 1885-1890. Mapleton is in red. (From Cunningham & de Hart, 1993)

Large-scale development of Mapleton came in the early 1910s. 100′ x 30′ lots were parceled, and buildings – mostly brick – rose from the former farmland. A 1914 New York Times article crowed that Mapleton “has been developed within five years into one of the choicest home communities in that part of Brooklyn”.

1914 photograph of new developments on 65th Street in Mapleton. (Source. Copyright © The New York Times)

A major reason for the development was the strong probability that the Brooklyn Rapid Transit Company — the predecessor to the Brooklyn-Manhattan Transit Corporation (BMT) — would use the old Sea Beach Railroad right-of-way to connect the area to the greater subway-system. That conversion was completed in 1915, and the new line (now known as the BMT Sea Beach Line) was cited as a major catalyst for the rapid growth of the area.

A few fun facts about the BMT Sea Beach Line, today used by the N train: although it connected to the BMT Fourth Avenue Line, it was the first line entirely within Brooklyn, and so could be called Brooklyn’s own. Mayor John Purroy Mitchel snubbed the opening ceremonies in favor of the launch of the U.S.S. Arizona at the Navy Yard. The line is outside, but is sunk, avoiding the inconvenience and the danger of grade-crossings.

Progress on the Sea Beach Line, 1914. Looking west from 20 Av – note the platform at right. (From BPL’s Brooklyn Collection)

Today, Mapleton is considered part of either Borough Park or Bensonhurst. Two reminders of its old name remain: the Mapleton Branch of the Brooklyn Public Library, and P.S. 48, known as The Mapleton School. I’m guessing the name has fallen into disuse – I mean, I doubt there are many wooded areas left. We’ll find out for sure when I visit.

Just to the north of Mapleton is Washington Cemetery. I couldn’t find any sources as to when it opened, but it must have been after the 1847 Rural Cemetery Act, which permitted commercial cemeteries outside city limits. The first mention of it in The Brooklyn Eagle is March 30, 1853, when its president, Robert Criswell, vouches for a woman who had been “attacked” in a previous edition. She had purchased two plots “over a year ago”, which narrows the possible dates even further.

1970s photograph of graves in Washington Cemetery. (From BPL’s Brooklyn Collection)

Washington Cemetery’s use as a Jewish burial-ground dates from at least December 29, 1857, when a “most imposing ceremony” took place to consecrate a section of the graveyard. Today, it’s the borough’s largest Jewish cemetery, containing over 100,000 bodies. And, as I mentioned in my introductory post, it’s sold-out.

The original owner of the cemetery, James Arlington Bennet, was a colorful man, to say the least. According to his son’s obituary, he was proud of his last name having only one ‘t’ (those with two were “Irish or informers”), and fancied himself an inventor. In one instance, he took an Irish immigrant to the top of the cemetery’s office, strapped a pair of wings on him, held a musket to his head, and told him, “Fly or die.” The unfortunate tester broke his neck in the fall.

Bound sources:

A history of the New York City subway system, revised edition by Joseph Cunningham and Leonard de Hart (self-published, 1993).

*For further reading on the Sea Beach Railroad:
- the Brooklyn Eagle has a hilarious article about a confrontation over property-rights during the building of the railroad.
Arrt’s Archives has an impressive collection of memorabilia from the railroad’s early days.

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2 Responses to Mapleton and Washington Cemetery: a brief history

  1. M says:

    I found the article quite informative

  2. Pingback: Haunted Hipsters: Four Ghost Stories of Brooklyn | Bowery Boys History

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