Also known as Woodland Hills, this giant cemetery is situated in a neighborhood near the University of Dayton. Since its establishment in 1843, it has grown to become the city's landmark graveyard, much like Columbus's Greenlawn, Cincinnati's Spring Grove, and Cleveland's Lake View. Its 100,000+ permanent residents are memorialized by stones, plaques, and mausoleums which represent a wide variety of artistic styles. The 200 rolling acres of cemetery land encompass the highest spot in Dayton--Lookout Point.
John Van Cleve, one of Dayton's founding fathers, was instrumental in getting a new rural cemetery established in what was then an area far outside the city proper. At that time, Dayton, a city of 20,000, had outgrown its small municipal cemetery at Third and Main. The new one was named Woodland because the chosen property was already heavily wooded. They cut down very few of the trees when turning the land into the graveyard, providing Daytonians with a beautiful public park that just happens to be full of dead people. The hills in some places are gently undulating, but in others they drop off steeply, and the roads carve their way through several high-sided chasms, honeycombed with tombs, which make navigating the cemetery a challenge if you don't know your way around.
My visit to Woodlawn with my then-girlfriend took place on Labor Day, 2003. I thought we could avoid the impending storms that day by driving south, but not five minutes after we'd gotten there, the wind kicked up hard and the rain started to pour, ruining the rest of our day's outdoor plans. Such a shame. As a result, only a few of these photos are mine. Thanks go out to contributors for the remainder, particularly my much-missed friend Kristin Carter.
A great many famous figures from the history of Dayton and western Ohio are buried in this, the city's main cemetery. To name just a few, we have...
Orville and Wilbur Wright
Dayton's most famous and endlessly celebrated native sons (even though Wilbur was born in Millville, Indiana), these brothers conceived of powered flight in a heavier-than-air craft while working in their bicycle shop. Conventional aeronautical data didn't work in practice, so they built their own wind tunnel and used it to design a kite-like craft with long, narrow wings. They took it to the beach at Kitty Hawk, North Carolina, and on December 17, 1903, Orville flew it for 12 seconds, covering 120 feet. To say that the world was changed would be a bit of an understatement.
James M. Cox
Ohio's 46th and 48th governor and candidate for the presidency in the all-Ohio contest of 1920, when your choice was either Cox or Republican Ohio Senator and newspaper publisher Warren G. Harding. Knowing what we know now, America probably should have voted Democrat that year--especially since Cox's running mate was a pre-polio Franklin Delano Roosevelt.
A pioneering black politician who fought for equal rights in state government before, during, and after the second world war. C.J. McLin sued McCrory's downtown lunch counter for refusing to serve him, just before being drafted into the U.S. Army for three years. When he returned to run his family's funeral business he found things no better for black people in Ohio, and decided to do something about it by running people of color for elected office--and winning. McLin himself represented Daytonians in the Ohio House of Representatives from 1966 through 1988. His work helped extend US 35 through Dayton, locate the correctional institute there, and fund the Dunbar House and the National Afro-American Museum. He died in office.
Humorist and author of a number of books, including The Grass is Always Greener Over the Septic Tank, When You Look Like Your Passport Photo, It's Time to Go Home, and Eat Less Cottage Cheese and More Ice Cream: Thoughts on Life from Erma Bombeck. She was a UD alumnus who died in 1996 during a kidney transplant operation. Her grave is marked by a 29,000-pound boulder--a "piece of Phoenix" her husband Bill Bombeck had shipped cross-country by flatbed truck. He wanted something in Dayton to commemorate the quarter-century they spent together in Arizona.
Loren M. Berry
This guy, believe it or not, invented the Yellow Pages around 1910.
John H. Balsley
Balsley invented the folding step-ladder. Please, reserve your applause until the end.
George P. Huffman
Founder and namesake of the Huffy Bicycle Company.
Ritty invented the cash register and sold the patent to James H. Patterson for $6,500. Patterson then made millions with it by forming the National Cash Register Co.
Frank S. Patterson
Army test pilot who died in a crash during World War One while testing guns on a propellor plane. His plane went down at what was then known as Wright Field; his name was later tacked onto it with a hyphen.
Clement L. Vallandigham
This congressman from Dayton was a leading Copperhead and opponent of Lincoln, whom he detested for infringing upon Constitutional rights during the War Between the States. General Burnside had him locked up for two years for his strident defiance of federal orders. Vallandigham was a weird one--a racialist who favored agriculture over industry and wanted to cede the southern states, but who was also a progressive on such issues as civil rights and capital punishment. He accidentally killed himself in court while defending a murder suspect, by grabbing the wrong gun during a demonstration.
If you believe the story, Stimmel was put to death in the electric chair he helped to build. He was sentenced to die for shooting and killing a store clerk during a robbery, and rode the lightning for it in 1904. The stuff about him building the chair might be apocryphal.
Paul Laurence Dunbar
The son of freed slaves, Dunbar was a classmate of Orville Wright who went on to become one of the first acclaimed black poets in America. He wrote in the heavy dialect of a southern negro of the time--a patois so dense with abbreviations and apostrophes that it's sometimes nearly impossible to decipher. The poem engraved on his tombstone, "A Death Song," begins with the lines: "Lay me down beneaf de willers in de grass,/Whah de branch 'll go a-singin' as it pass." The willow tree which grows over his stone is in reference to "de willers" in the first verse of the poem; the second verse, about a lake, is portrayed in a stained glass window in the Dunbar Room of the Woodland Mausoleum.
It has been erroneously reported that Agnes Moorehead, the actress who played Samantha's mother Endora on Bewitched, was laid to rest at Woodland Hills. This, it turns out, is not true; Moorehead's remains reside in a wall of the Abby Mausoleum at Dayton Memorial Park.
The distinctive entrance gateway pictured above--with attached chapel and office--was added to the cemetery in 1889, and is listed on the National Register of Historic Places, thanks largely to its one-of-a-kind Tiffany windows. This is where the cemetery's address is measured: number 118 at the end of Woodland Avenue, in the midst of a slightly run-down neighborhood of working-class folks and University of Dayton college students.
Another unique aspect of the way Woodland is laid out is the way the steeply inclined hills create walls along parts of the main driveway. Lots of people have their markers built into the hillside--lots of memorial staircases, benches, and of course mausoleums, plugged horizontally into the embankment.
A section of Woodland is set aside for widows--residents of the Dayton Widows' Home. It was founded in 1870 on land now used by the Miami Valley Hospital, and rebuilt in 1883 at its present location on Findlay Street. It's operated today as a nonprofit residential care facility. The solid rectangular block tombstones you see below belong to Widows' Home residents from over the years.
Pictured next are a couple of examples of the wide variety of angels and religious iconography found in grave markers at Woodlawn. Some of the angels in particular are really amazing.
Woodlawn is perennially listed as one of Dayton's most haunted spots. Its grave-lined hills are home to a number of legends and have been the scene of countless encounters with the unknown. Further information about the ghosts of Woodlawn is available by clicking below.