The Soldier’s Memorial Tower in the town of Sweden, NY (outside the village of Brockport) was a local landmark of sorts that I explored as a college student there. Tucked away in a wooded lot beside the Mt. Oliviet Cemetery beside the canal, the tower was in a state of disrepair. It was always surrounded by beer cans, trash, and the remnants of college-student bonfires. I was fascinated by it, however – because it stood as a reminded (however dilapidated), of the involvement of small New York towns in the Civil War, and the soldiers they provided for the cause.
However there is good news for this forgotten monument! This past summer, the town of Sweden and sought out a space to establish a new fire hall, and came to consider the plot of land beside Mt. Oliviet cemetery which housed the Soldier’s Memorial Tower. A stabilization project is currently in the works, and I will elaborate on the details of this project after a brief examination of the tower itself.
Built in 1894, this tower was meant to commemorate the deaths of soldiers from the nearby town of Sweden, who perished in the Civil War. The land on which this tower stands was once an internment space for upwards of 20 individuals (likely more) who were removed and relocated in the early 20th century.
“Horatio M. Beach conceived of the idea to construct this fifty-two foot sandstone tower known as the “Soldier’s Monument” stands in the center of an abandoned rural cemetery. It was designed by Brooklyn architect Clarence Birdsall, who designed several monuments at Gettysburg. In 1882, the Brockport Rural Cemetery association was organized and incorporated as a burial ground primarily for veterans of the Civil War.” (source)
After Beach’s death in 1898, the enthusiasm for this commemorative site died out, and the monument fell into disrepair. The sandstone eroded and crumbled at the top (making the tower no longer 52 ft. in height). All that remains of the spiral staircase that would have once let the visitor walk to the top of the tower is a rusty metal frame.
It was Beach’s hope that this site might become a local tourist attraction, much like Arlington cemetery, for the veterans of the Civil War. Unfortunately the land wasn’t ever fully developed, and the plans for the rural cemetery at this location were never brought to fruition.It would seem that a series of misfortunes marked an end to the plans for a rural cemetery at this location. “Lightening set fire to the observation platform, the elements rusted away the iron spiral stairway, the plaque disappeared, the mortar around the battlements began to crumble. The stonework is so well built, however, that it may be another century before the old tower vanishes, sparing vandals or human wreckers. A grass fire swept through the cemetery and destroyed both the chapel and the caretaker’s cottage, before firemen from the village could save them. The cemetery vault also was destroyed.” (source
)The tower is Late Gothic-Revival in style, and as the previous quote mentioned, is constructed out of Medina Sandstone, which in itself is a historically significant architectural material.
“Discovered around the time of the digging of the Erie Canal in the 1820s and accepted as a superlative building material, it was quarried for over a century in Orleans County and shipped world-wide for architectural masterpieces. Find it in Buckingham Palace, Brooklyn Bridge, the NYS Capitol, thousands of homes, earlier in cobblestone streets. It has strength and integrity, plus unmatched beauty in many shades.” (source
The inscription on the tower’s commemorative plaque reads:
Soldier’s Memorial Tower
A. D. 1894
This tower was listed as a National Historic Site in 1994, but existed in a state of severe disrepair until August of this year. It is surrounded by brush and quite a ways off the main road – certainly not a tourist destination by any means. The occasional curious college student might trek through the woods to see this monument that they’ve heard others talk of. There is evidence on the grounds of partying, bonfires and refuse – not at all the appropriate environment for a memorial landmark. There was an effort towards restoration in the 1960’s, but this ultimately failed to reverse the deterioration of the tower. In 2012 there was talk of partial restoration by the trustees of the Brockport Rural Cemetery Association.
Now to discuss the current stabilization of the tower! As I said before, the land upon which the tower sits was owned by Brockport’s Cemetery Association, but was purchased by the fire department as the location for a new fire hall. While there was not enough money in the project for a full-scale historic restoration effort, the plan for the tower includes a basic stabilization to secure the structure from further decay.
Here is a description of some of the efforts being made to preserve the tower: “The tower stabilization project consists of rebuilding the base which includes a missing buttress. The water tables and caps on the buttress were re-cut, as the original ones were missing. At this time a fifth of the tower has collapsed over the years.”
“The stones at the base from these collapses have been collected, washed and put on pallets to be stored at the highway garage for future restoration use on the tower, and so that further cut stones from the site don’t show up on private property as flowerbed borders. After the base stabilization was completed, the jagged remaining top of the tower was leveled off at the first complete remaining course, and a copping cap of new 4” sandstone was installed to stop further water penetration and freeze/thaw damage into the remaining stonework.”
The possibility stands for further historical restoration efforts in the future, but for the time being, the town of Sweden now has access to the Soldier’s Memorial Tower once more – and the fear of total collapse and ruin for the historic monument has been averted. This is a great success for landmark preservation and a benefit for local historians and history enthusiasts. Once the new fire department complex and tower project are complete, perhaps a drive out to Brockport will be warranted to take a peek at the newly stabilized historic monument.