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A walk through the past: Oshawa’s Union Cemetery tour

Story and photos by Bradley McIlwain

Oshawa Union Cemetery’s unique headstones.

A lot can be learned from studying a person’s headstone. Just ask Lisa Terech of the Oshawa Historical Society, who will be guiding visitors on a tour of Oshawa’s Union Cemetery on Sept. 9.

“You get to learn about Oshawa’s earliest settlers, and we also look at gravestone motifs and iconography, what can be learned from Victorian times up until present day,” explains Terech, who tells me that annual tours of Union Cemetery have been offered regularly by the society in the last decade, for those fascinated by stories of the city’s past.

Examining the stones, each carries its own language through moving epitaphs and unique symbolism, which is something the tour focuses on. “We see hands a lot on graves, pointing to the direction of the soul, and lambs are prominent on children’s graves, representing Christ and innocence, as well as classic revival themes, torches and urns which were popular; there are also Masonic and Odd Fellows symbols that tell us about how people lived.”

Oshawa Union Cemetery’s unique headstones.

In 1835, Dr. Robert Thornton, a secessionist minister, purchased nineteen acres of land to establish a congregation, as well as a church, rectory and schoolhouse to be erected on the property. The church, “Thornton’s Brick Chapel,” which took two years to complete, is believed to be the first non-wooden public building built in Ontario County, and could fit up to 500 people.

The earliest burial on record was a man by the name of Alexander Armstrong in 1837, a farmer and first Justice of the Peace in the area when the Presbyterian cemetery was established near the vicinity of Thornton’s chapel (after closing in 1863, the chapel is reported to have been burnt down in a fire in the late 1800s).

The cemetery was designed with 20′ wide roadways to make gravesites accessible to horse-drawn hearses. In 1875, according to regulations put forth by the Ontario Union Cemetery Company regarding the use of automobiles, states that “drivers of carriages at funerals shall remain in their seats during the performance of funeral ceremonies,” and, “no vehicle shall pass through the cemetery at a rate exceeding four miles per-hour.”

Mausoleum of Col. R.S. McLaughlin.

While walking the grounds, you’ll immediately notice names of early pioneers that are familiar to most by looking up at Oshawa’s street signs such as Ritson, Thornton and Gibb. Colonel R.S. McLaughlin, famous founder of General Motors of Canada, is interred in one of the privately constructed mausoleum of solid marble.

Close to McLaughlin, members of the Pedlar family rest in a uniquely constructed Corinthian-style mausoleum. The Pedlar Metal Roofing Company on the corner of Bond and Simcoe St. began as a small store in the 1840s by Henry Pedlar. His son, George, took over, and purchased property at the corner of Simcoe and John Street’s. which expanded into a leading firm that was incorporated in 1911. By 1920, the plant was moved to a new location in South Oshawa, and the land on John Street was sold to the Town of Oshawa to be used for Memorial Park.

Entrance to the Pedlar Family Mausoleum.

Prominent Canadian artist Florence Helena McGillivray is buried here. Born in Whitby, Ontario, she studied art in Paris, France in 1913, and in 1914, two paintings were purchased by the National Gallery of Canada in Ottawa. She is known as an important figure in early Canadian painting.

McGillivray studied art at the Central Ontario School of Art and the Toronto Art School. She was a previous instructor at the Ontario Ladies College, Whitby, and art critic at Pickering College in Pickering Village until it burned down in 1905.

In 1875, a necessary expansion of the cemetery was in demand, and the citizens of Oshawa and Whitby formed the Ontario Union Cemetery Company to purchase the neighbouring land, which forms the current 30 acres. When the Great War ended, a deal was made between the cemetery company and the City in 1922, to provide internment for its local veterans. When the original designated area was filled, a second site on the grounds was allocated.

Honouring Oshawa’s First World War Veterans.

“We have some pretty enormous trees and vegetation that provide nice landscapes for people,” says Brandon Sheridan, who works with Union Cemetery and the parks department at the City of Oshawa.

“What’s nice about it is the age and maturity,” Sheridan continues, “it’s not your typical cemetery.  We have a lot of unique markers made from soapstone, granite, bronze, and brass.” The earliest markers, from the 1830s, are made of soapstone.

The tour will begin at 2 p.m. at the front gates on Sept. 9. There is a $2 admission fee, but Oshawa Historical Society. Members get in free. Oshawa Union Cemetery is located at 760 King St. W.

For more information, contact Lisa Terech at membership@oshawamuseum.org

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