Few sites in Waco capture the richness and complexity of the city’s history better than First Street Cemetery. The city’s oldest resting place, it holds the remains of many of Waco’s prominent early residents. However, its caretaking and development leave a checkered legacy.
Located along the south bank of the Brazos River, Waco established the “City Cemetery” to inter the remains of its citizens. Beginning in 1852, what became First Street Cemetery progressed in four stages as the city’s expanding population necessitated more burial space. The local Masonic Lodge buried its members there. In 1868, the International Order of Odd Fellows—another fraternal organization—purchased additional land in which to inter its members. Then finally, a permit from the city government in 1882 allotted space for “colored persons.” Despite these enlargements, the cemetery suffered from overcrowding. Bodies were often buried on top of one another and gravesites were poorly marked.
It is the lack of care that distinguished First Street Cemetery from other burial sites in Waco. Unlike other cemeteries in town, First Street did not possess an association charged with maintaining the space. From its inception, the graveyard suffered from perpetual neglect, vandalism, and, due to its riverside location, flooding. The City of Waco struggled to consistently address these issues.
News reports at the turn of the twentieth century expressed Wacoans’ frustrations at the dilapidated condition of the cemetery. As a result, the surviving families of some people interred at First Street elected to rebury remains at another location. The poor state of the cemetery, combined with the lack of records on the space, increasingly made it into a site considered for new development.
In 1967, the City of Waco received federal funding to turn a portion of the cemetery into Fort Fisher and the Texas Ranger Hall of Fame and Museum. To do so required the relocation of headstones and remains in the area slated for development. Some Wacoans expressed mixed feelings about the transfer, but received assurances from the city that burial sites were receiving proper care. After the relocation, construction commenced and Fort Fisher opened to the public in 1968.
However, the choices made during renovation reverberated into the twenty-first century. In 2006, the city granted permission for the expansion Fort Fisher to include a building for the Texas Ranger Company “F” Headquarters. The city hired an archeologist to study the proposed site prior to construction. After a cursory examination, he recommended that building commence.
Work on the site did not last long. The digging of initial trenches in 2007 quickly uncovered remains, demonstrating that the 1967 construction only relocated headstones, not those interred there. It also disclosed a lack of due diligence in the archeological study done for the expansion. A team of forensic anthropologists and archeologists soon arrived in Waco and began excavating and analyzing the site. Over several years, the process uncovered the remains of over two hundred people. They contained important insights about nineteenth-century burial practices, like the frequent appearance of ornamental coffins that indicated the internment of people with some means. Wacoans responded to these revelations by banding together to ensure the dead and their remains were treated with dignity and respect.
Composed of a cross-section of the Waco community, the First Street Cemetery Memorial Advisory Committee formed in 2013 to address the practical issues raised by the revelations about the development of the graveyard. Throughout their five years of operation, the committee proved instrumental in finding a reburial site for the remains at Rosemound Cemetery and placing a historical marker at the site. As a sign of care and respect, they chose to reinter the remains in cedar coffins rather than cardboard boxes. The report they filed and the public meetings they conducted helped keep the community informed and engaged with the activities at the cemetery.
Maintaining the cemetery continues to be a challenge into the present. Headstones and plots manifest different degrees of care. To date, no community organization has received permission from the city to maintain the cemetery.