Early in the nineteenth century as the United States began to grow and prosper, attitudes on death and the afterlife began to change as well. The average person was no longer solely consumed with meeting life’s most basic needs, but now enjoyed the time to consider a deeper meaning toward what was promised and to be enjoyed in the next. From newspaper accounts of the day, both the Pierre le Chaise Cemetery in Paris and Mount Auburn Cemetery outside of Boston had become quite well known as paradise-like gardens where one could share eternity with family and friends in a place of perpetual beauty and tranquility. And Macon, seeing itself as no less a cosmopolitan city of the day, would not be outdone. Ultimately, Macon had the need to solicit proposals for the design and location of a new City cemetery and eventually decided on the location and design proposed by prominent local businessman, Simri Rose. Rose first proposed his ideas for the cemetery in a detailed diagram in 1839, which unfortunately no longer exists. While issues of public health were the primary force behind the rural cemetery movement in America, the romantic ideals of the Victorian age seemed to perhaps be the strongest motivational force behind the development of Rose Hill.
Rose Hill was established by the City of Macon in 1840. Located adjacent to the Ocmulgee River on land that had originally been designated as part of the City’s “Commons”. The idea of a community owned common green space was atypical of the day, and very forward thinking of the City founders. As the City grew and faced the development pressures, “The Commons” gradually had become developed and were absorbed into the fabric of the City. The first internment was Mrs. Caroline Wilson of Baldwin County on February 27, 1840.
The following account was published in the Macon Telegraph & Messenger newspaper on October 7, 1881 and provides a vivid description of the Cemetery at its peak:
“Probably the most naturally beautiful of all spots in Georgia, is Rose Hill Cemetery, situated on the west bank of the Ocmulgee River, in the city of Macon. This celebrated burial place was laid out in 1840, … The land hilly, rolling and densely wooded, broken up into beautiful valleys and slopes, and covered in many places by a heavy carpeting of ivy. Art has assisted nature greatly in beautifying the place, the numerous springs have been walled in, and the little branches ornamented with rustic bridges. Costly monuments and the well kept yards are prolific of flowers and choice shrubbery. No stranger has ever visited this spot without receiving impressions of its loveliness, that lingers long after the solemnity of the surroundings have faded from his mind.”
By 1849, five miles of roads and footpaths had been developed. Many “…cut into steep side of he river banks and hills, winding through every place the presents any object of attraction.” Soon after its development, Rose Hill Cemetery proved to be one most popular places in Macon to visit. Newspaper accounts of the day indicate that, “…Rose Hill was thronged with visitors on Sundayafternoons. All Macon spent an hour or so there.”
Access to the Ocmulgee River was one of the primary attractions, “The serpentine paths, which led down to the precipitous riverbank, received the most ardent attention.” Critics of the day remarked that this was one area in which Rose Hill fell short in comparison to Mount Auburn Cemetery, “…However skillfully accomplished, the layout of the drives exhibit little sympathy for the topography.” However, this did not seem to deter visitors (see image of "Lover's Leap below).
Simri Rose described the overall site as, “… covered with towering poplar, giant oaks, beech and sycamore… and thickly wooded by a young and thrifty growth.” He was very proud of the site he had chosen and further remarked, “…there is scarcely a tree, shrub or wild flower, that is known in our country that may not be found within this area of fifty acres.” In addition to being a successful newspaper publisher, Rose was also a nurseryman and was known to have imported exotic plants in keeping with the fashion and taste of the Victorian aesthetic. In the Masonic plot, Rose is said to have planted Oriental Cypress, Balm of Gilead, Norway & Silver Fir, Hemlock, Arborvitae, Cedar, juniper, Olive, Broom and Furze. Additionally, if iron railing was too expensive to be installed around the perimeter of the lot, owners were urged to plant hedges of Cherokee or white microphylla rose. In 1886, elm trees were planned for Central Avenue. However, it is unknown if these trees were ever planted as none exist today.
Three fresh water springs were located on the grounds of Rose Hill. These springs were said to have been of the purest quality and were one of the attractions for many of the visitors to the cemetery. This is worth noting, because, in general most people of the time had real public health concerns and fears regarding toxic gases, disease, etc. that dead bodies were thought to emit. The springs were quite well known and highly thought of at the time and health issues did not seem to be a concern.
“Crystal Spring” is said to have issued from a natural cave in the side of a hill. Simri Rose built a grotto around this spring. He enlarged the cave, paved the floor with smooth stones and depressed the center to serve as a catch basin. To further enhance the effect Rose embellished the ceiling with “bright and sparkling” stalactites he had brought in especially from a Kentucky cave. Rose described the grotto as, “A most attractive spot for visitors.” Apparently, the Union Army camped in or near Rose Hill for written accounts exist of soldiers bathing in and around the grotto and even removing the stalactites and taking them as souvenirs. It is not known exactly when the grotto was removed.
Above Crystal Spring, Rose built a small dam and created a lake having dimensions approximately 240x60 feet. The lake is described as having a sodded grass bank and planted with weeping willows and bald cypress. Rose planted ‘perpetual roses” near the lake and throughout the grounds. The two existing bald cypress in the Lakeside Terrace section are believed to be the two trees shown to be planted on the small islands in the historic photograph. Below the lake, two rustic bridges of rock and earth were built across the streams and a second, smaller pond was created, probably between 1854 and 1865. Remnants of the smaller pond appear to exist as a wetland area today.
General rules & guidelines for development were established at Rose Hill from its inception. The development rules required, “… no tombs, all internments in underground vaults or coffins. No lot to be cleared of forest growth, except by permission, except for ‘mere undergrowth.’”
At Rose Hill, restrictive sanctions were never adopted allowing each lot owner a great deal of latitude. However, specifications for improving the individual lots were published in this 1885 newspaper notice:
“In improving the Cemetery lots, the following conditions are to be complied with: First – All trees, bushes, logs, etc. are to be removed from the lot to such places as shall be designated, but not over 100 feet, and all stumps and large roots grubbed up and treated in a similar manner. Second – Grade the lot and borders in such a manner as shall be directed by the Superintendent in charge of the work. Third – Break the sub-soil thoroughly to the depth of three inches, and cover all parts to be sodded with one-half inch ofthoroughly rotted compost. Fourth – Cover the lot and borders as shall be directed with clear Bermuda grass sod, two inches thick, in blocks, arranging not less than one square foot, superficial area, well compacted, closely laid and neatly trimmed. The whole work to be done so as to be properly inspected as it progresses, and subject to the approval of the Superintendent before acceptance.”
In 1872, John James (Rose’s protégé) delivered his final report to the Cemetery committee and announced that a summer house (gazebo) was to be built. The summer house was built but was shortlived as the site had graves located on it by 1895.
During the winter of 1879 there was a “coal & firewood famine” in Macon, and the citizens apparently suffered greatly. The Macon & Brunswick Railroad came to the city’s rescue by bringing in car loads of firewood. However, their generosity came with a heavy price for Rose Hill. The Railroad wanted to extend their lines north to Atlanta along the west bank of the Ocmulgee River, and using moral leverage they approached the City. The City quickly agreed to the Railroad’s demands. However, this was a very controversial decision and injunctions and lawsuits followed. Ultimately the Railroad prevailed and the line was built. The Railroad agreed to build a fence separating the rail line from the cemetery and to pay a $2000 annuity to the City for allowing the line to cross Rose Hill.
Rose Hill was never the same after the rail line was constructed. First, as is readily seen from the site the rail line effectively cut off visitor access to the Ocmulgee River and eliminated one of Rose Hill’s primary attractions for visitors. Secondly, during the late nineteenth century areas surrounding rail lines were often inhabited by hobos and other vagrants and were perceived by the public as crime ridden and un-safe. Both of these elements combined to contribute to the gradual decline in the number of visitors to Rose Hill.
The Railroad did not honor its commitment to build a proper fence to separate itself from Rose Hill until 1896, when a wholly inadequate wire fence was replaced with an ornamental iron fence. Apparently the ornamental iron fence was not maintained and it eventually disappeared over time. All that remains of this fence are scattered rusted fragments.
By the early part of the 20th century most of the burial plots in Rose Hill had been sold and developed. The new century also brought with it, changing ideals and attitudes toward death and the afterlife. As health and working conditions continued to improve for the average person, societal attitudes gradually shifted from the promise of a better life in the hereafter to enjoying life’s pleasures in the present. With this shift in values coupled with the natural transition from construction to maintenance, the number of visitors to Rose Hill continued to wane.
By 1916, for unknown reasons the lake had become stagnant and putrid. Since the lake was no longer an asset to Rose Hill, it was filled in and developed as the Lakeside Terrace division. According to accounts of the time removing the lake was not considered to be a significant loss.
In 1945 the five principle roads in Rose Hill had been designated for paving by the City, however the roads were not actually paved for another ten years.
A tornado hit Macon and Rose Hill in 1954 and caused considerable damage to a number of monuments and destroyedmany of large trees throughout the grounds. Comparison between a 1938 aerial photograph and one taken in February 1999 further illustrates the level of tree loss at Rose Hill over the past half century.
The area identified as Cherry Ridge is the most recent division within Rose Hill. The earliest internment observed in this division was 1996, with most occurring after 2000. Plots in this division are a uniform 9’x4’. This division has a distinctly different look and feel from the remainder of Rose Hill. This feeling is reinforced due to the lack of physical connection to the historic sections of the Cemetery, in part due to grade changes adjacent to the Terraces division. The only access to this division, either pedestrian or vehicular, is an asphalt drive located outside of the College Street gate.
Perhaps the largest influence on Rose Hill in the20th century has been the construction of Interstates 75 and16 on the east bank of the Ocmulgee River. Views have been permanently altered (i.e., the large bridge connecting I-16 to I-75 south). Interstate 16 was constructed in the early 1970’s and has had perhaps the largest impact on Rose Hill since the construction of the railroad a century earlier. Constant noise generated by I-16 is a real and constant intrusion onto Rose Hill, permanently altering the quiet, peaceful experience that once so moved visitors. Rose Hill is currently threatened by the planned expansion of Interstate 16 and its associated interchanges and flyovers with Interstate 75.
While there were definite and specific rules enacted by the Cemetery Committee against the removal of the forest canopy originally covering Rose Hill, there was never any provision made for the replanting or management of the tree canopy. The only confirmed major tree planting recorded are the Yoshino cherry trees planted in the Magnolia Ridge and Carnation Ridge divisions. This occurred in 1973 when these trees were relocated to Rose Hill from other city parks in Macon. Rose Hill Cemetery was named to the National Register of Historic Places in 1973.