The American Sycamore, or Platanus occidentalis

Platanus occidentalis, a colored
plate by Henri-Joseph Redouté in
North American Sylva, published
in 1819
Wikimedia Commons
The American Sycamore, whose botanical name is Platanus occidentalis, has common names that include American Plane, Buttonball, Buttonwood, Eastern Sycamore, Occidental Plane, and Whitewood. It is a deciduous tree, native throughout the Eastern United States and westward into the Central Plains States, and is generally found in moist soil, particularly along streams and lowlands, where they can reach up to 130 feet in height. In planted landscapes, however, they typically reach heights of 75 to 90 feet.

It has a distinctive yellow-white trunk with exfoliating bark, and its palmate leaves measure eight to 12 inches in length and four to eight inches in width.

A colored plate of the American Sycamore’s leaf, flower, seed ball, and seed, drawn by Henri-Joseph Redouté and engraved by Gabriel, appeared in the English edition of North American Sylva, or A Description of the Forest Trees of the United States, Canada and Nova Scotia, published in 1819.

Written by French botanist François Andrew Michaux and translated by Augustus Lucas Hillhouse, it was noted that “Among trees with deciduous leaves, none in the temperate zones, either on the Old or the New Continent, equals the dimensions of the planes. The species which grows in the Western World is not less remarkable for its amplitude and for its magnificent appearance than the Plane of Asia, whose majestic form and extraordinary size were so much appreciated by the ancients.”

The American Sycamore is indeed a beautiful tree, and Riverview Cemetery has two specimens on the grounds—one in Section H and another in Section L.

Loren Holdridge, Portrait Photographer and Crayon Artist

Ephemeral items connected to persons interred here at Riverview Cemetery always draw my attention, and some months ago while browsing an online auction site I came across the portrait of an unidentified infant who was photographed by Loren Holdridge (1847-1933), a leading portrait photographer and crayon artist in the city. Needless to say, it was a “must-have” item.

Portrait of unidentified infant photographed
by Loren Holdridge, c.1890
Author’s collection

“Photography in all its branches is here carried on, and the best and finest work is produced” notes his business profile in Quarter-Century’s Progress of New Jersey’s Leading Manufacturing Centres (International Publishing Co. 1887). “Portraits are likewise made in oils, water colors, pastels, India ink, crayon, etc., in the highest style of art from locket to life size, from original pictures, or from life. The instantaneous process is used … and particular attention is given to the portraiture of little children.”

Yucca flaccida, or Weak-Leaved Adam’s Needle

Yucca flaccida, colored plate by
S.A. Drake in Edward’s Botanical
, published in 1836
While Riverview Cemetery has a significant tree inventory, the grounds also include a rather large collection of perennials and woody plants. I am always on the lookout for those that have a “history,” especially when they are found in our historic cemeteries.

Yucca flaccida, commonly known as the Weak-Leaved Adam’s Needle, is a member of the Asparagaceae family, its Latin epithet deriving from weak sword-like outer leaves that generally fold under their own weight, supporting the inner leaves. Native to Eastern North America from Ontario to Florida, they stand about 1-1/2 feet tall and two feet across, and panicles of bell-shaped creamy white flowers rise four feet above the foliage in early-summer.

A hand-colored lithograph of Y. flaccida drawn by Sarah Ann Drake in London’s Garden of the Horticultural Society in 1835 appeared in Edward’s Botanical Register that was published the following year.

Indeed, the literature is replete with descriptions of Y. flaccida, including The Horticulturist, edited by landscape designer, horticulturist and writer Andrew Jackson Downing, which in 1852 noted that the plant “blooms in our northern gardens as freely as the common white lily—throwing up its beautiful pyramidal flower stalks, two or three feet high, about the end of June, and bearing a profusion of fine milk-white flowers, all the month of July. It is one of our favorite evergreen plants, beautiful at all seasons.”

A stand of Y. flaccida is located along Elm Avenue in Section N.

Riverview Cemetery’s Receiving Vault

The Receiving Vault at Riverview Cemetery
A “receiving vault” is a structure designed to hold the bodies of the deceased during the winter months when the ground is too frozen to dig graves, but they are sometimes used to store a body that is to be transported elsewhere, or a family mausoleum is to be constructed.

With the charter of the Riverview Cemetery Corporation in 1858, the company began construction of a receiving vault into the hillside along what is today Valley Avenue. It was completed the following year. Built of stone and brick, it has four arched-ceiling vaults, two on either side, each of which originally had wooden shelves capable of storing three caskets, and above the iron door is found “Receiving Vault 1859” on the lintel.

The receiving vault found use during the blizzards of both 1888 and 1899 as noted in the Trenton Sunday Advertiser of February 19, 1899. “Whether the blizzard of last week was more severe than the one in March 1888 has been a topic of discussion. There are two classes of men, however, who are satisfied that 1899 outdid 1888. These are the undertakers and the sextons and grave-diggers at the cemeteries.”

David Lukens and the Underground Railroad

I recently came across the obituary for Sarah Lukens Woolman in the Trenton Times of December 8, 1903, which noted that “She was the widow of Samuel Woolman of Fallsington and daughter of David Lukens, whose farm near Morrisville was a station of the underground railroad in slavery days.”

The Underground Railroad, of course, was the loosely organized network of safe havens with no clearly defined routes by which fugitive slaves made their way to the free states and Canada. Secreted away in homes and barns in their journies to freedom, it became a risky endeavor for abolitionists after passage of the Fugitive Slave Act in 1850 which made it a Federal crime to aid those escaping the brutal conditions of slavery.

David Lukens was born at Horsham Township, Montgomery County, Pennsylvania, on March 10, 1793; married Eliza Woolman at the Rancocas Meeting, Burlington County, New Jersey, on November 13, 1817; and died at Morrisville, Bucks County, Pennsylvania, on February 14, 1869.

Gravemarkers for Eliza (left) and David Lukens.
His obituary in the Bucks County Intelligencer of February 23, 1869, provides the account of his passing:

“David Lukens, an old and respected citizen of Morrisville, aged about 75 years, died very suddenly on Sunday evening week. During the day, he was in his usual health, and about five o’clock he went over to Trenton in company with some friends who had been spending the day with him. On returning to Morrisville, he went to the stable and put up his horse, but not returning to the house for a considerable time the family became alarmed, and one of his daughters went to see what had become of him, and found him lying upon the barn floor unable to move. By the aid of his daughter he was got to the house, where he soon after expired on the lounge in the arms of his wife. Medical aid was promptly summoned, but to no effect. The cause of his sudden death was heart disease.”

He and his wife Eliza, their graves marked by modest stones, are interred in the Friends’ Plot.