The Green-Wood Cemetery Designer’s Impact on NYC Development

Major David Bates Douglass, Green-Woods designer and engineer, was to some degree, a ‘renaissance man’ of the 1800s. His early career was spent in the Army, but in some unusual roles: he not only had military successes, but accompanied an exploration/journey (The 1820 Cass Expedition) to the Michigan/Minnesota area, brought along to survey land and catalog both the geology and flora of the regions. He spent a stint in academic roles at West Point (as Professor of ‘Natural Philosophy’) and at the early CUNY, and later became (short-lived) President of Kenyon in Ohio. Green-Wood was his greatest success, but his impact was felt throughout the New York region.

Green-Wood Cemetery

David Bates DouglassUntil the early part of the 1800s, all cemeteries in the western world were ordered, compact churchyard burial grounds. But a movement came about in the early 19th century — the creation of the ‘rural cemetery’. These were to be grounds for contemplation, literally: rambling, park-like, pastoral, social environments meant as much for recreation by the living as much as interment of the dead. The first rural cemetery in the U.S., inspired by Pere Lachaise in Paris, was Mount Auburn, 4 miles from Boston, built by 1830. Laurel Hill, a smaller cemetery in Philadelphia, followed in 1836.

Though conceived by Henry E. Pierrepont, Major Douglass lobbied for the funding for Brooklyn’s Green-Wood plans by declaring that a city of over 300,000 should have a lovely pastoral cemetery. They then purchased the land with Douglass laying out the grounds. It was to be Douglass’ most successful project, and certainly the only one he worked on fully, from inception to completion.

Douglass later designed other, smaller cemeteries based on the same design concept in the U.S. and Canada. And famously, Green-Wood was the inspiration for the rambling, pastoral Central Park with its famous ring road. But his impact in the New York City region extended far beyond the Cemetery, as he had participated in a large number of civic projects throughout the area before he’d started working on Green-Wood.

Douglass’ New York City Area Engineering and Surveying Projects

The Croton Aqueduct, NY
Chief Engineer, 1833-36
Major Douglass was hired as the original engineer for this massive-scale civic improvement project. Since the 1820s, proposals had been batted around to provide New York City with a reliable, clean source of drinking water (and put out frequent fires). Douglass was brought on board and planned the entire route for the project, from the Dam of the Croton River all the way down to the High Bridge crossing the Harlem River into Manhattan. Douglass also planned the original design for the masonry and iron aqueduct, but partway through the project was removed by the Aqueduct’s backers, due to the fact they thought he was moving too slowly.

He was replaced by John B. Jervis, the engineer of the Erie Canal, who designed the remaining aqueduct arches that dot the Westchester area, and supervised the construction of the actual aqueduct. Jervis had the unenviable position of taking over an already highly politically-charged project and seeing it to completion–an entire book has been written basically about the politics and history in the construction of the Croton Aqueduct.

Brooklyn Retaining Wall and Proposed Canal, NY
Surveyor/Engineer, 1830s/40s
Douglass surveyed Brooklyn’s water flows during the 1830s (image below), and proposed a canal similar to Gowanus, though longer and straighter. He also planned and engineered the Brooklyn Heights Retaining Wall, possibly in conjunction with the financial might of Henry E. Pierrepont, with whom he collaborated on Green-Wood Cemetery. The retaining wall later became the Brooklyn Promenade.
433984. New York Public Library

Brooklyn and Jamaica Railroad
Planner/Surveyor, 1832-34
Major Douglass laid out the route for the first railroad on Long Island, the B&J, which ran between (naturally) Brooklyn and Jamaica.

Morris Canal, NJ
Chief Engineer of the Inclined Planes, 1829-32
Morris Canal







The Morris Canal is considered one of the most prominent engineering marvels of the 1800s, traversing New Jersey from the Hudson to The Delaware River. Douglass’ innovation for canal architecture at the time was the creation of a number of inclined planes which made the route possible, which pulled barges up hills that would have been otherwise unnavigable. They used the power of the water flowing through mills in order to provide the power to move the barges.

The impact of the Canal? It connected New York City and the cities of the East Coast with the coal industry in Pennsylvania and the iron industry deeper into New Jersey, spurring development in the 1800s. The Morris Canal has a cumulative rise and fall of 1,674 feet, the largest vertical change of any canal built, in 23 inclined planes and 23 locks. It lost its usefulness as other methods of transport became available, and the Canal was dismantled in the 1920s.

Douglass' monument in Green-Wood cemeteryOther Biography
For all of Major Douglass’ projects, only a few are mentioned here. A good biography of Douglass his works, and other anecdotes is found in Van Nostrand’s Eclectic Engineering Magazine.
A collection of Douglass’ papers is at the U. of Michigan; the collection and a biography are outlined here.



to the right: Major Douglass’ monument in Green-Wood Cemetery